Crooked Timber

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

America’s suicide bombers don’t use bombs and don’t seem to have a cause larger than their own angst, but they’re as lethal as any misguided political fanatic and they beg a question as urgent as any the human race has faced.

Yet it’s the same old — indeed, Paleolithic — question we’ve always faced. Are we the hunter or are we the prey? Or are we something else, some preposterous and divine mixture of the two, holy terrors, flawed creators who keep failing to get it right? As Immanuel Kant put it: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

Even the glory that is the 21st century U.S. of A. is a construction of crooked timber, psychologically and spiritually speaking, at least, and a sad kid named Robert Hawkins, a “lost puppy” (so a friend’s mother described him), gave the umpteenth demonstration of this fact at an Omaha shopping mall last week.

In case you missed the Mayhem Roundup on page 3, he murdered eight random people — Christmas shoppers and store employees — in a six-minute spree with a borrowed AK-47, the whole point of which was his own suicide. But as he had written in a note found shortly afterward, “I just want to take a few peices (sic) of s— with me.” This fragile and isolated kid, shattered by recent setbacks in his life, felt compelled to dehumanize a few strangers as he himself exited the human race, anticipating in doing so not the reward of virgins in the hereafter but media attention in the next news cycle, which might impress his friends: “Just think tho I’m gonna be f——- famous.”

As luck or fate would have it, two shooting sprees a few days later in Colorado, at a Christian missionary center in Arvada and the parking lot of a mega-church in Colorado Springs, in which five people died, seemed to push the Omaha shooting out of the news. A few days after that, terrorist bombs killed 22 people in Algiers and, just this morning, as I write, 27 are dead from car bombs in Amara, Iraq. These headlines, and dozens of others, blur together. Most of us move on. The holiday season hits high gear.

Still, a prayer lingers. An unheeded “please, dear Lord” floats in the collective consciousness, belying our timid political agenda. Can’t we do something about this?

Sure, says the gun lobby. Before the smoke cleared, the Gun Owners of America had sent me a press release that announced: “Gun Bans Are the Problem — Not the Solution.” And it asked: “When will we learn that being defenseless is a bad defense? . . . If just a single person was packing, they could have stopped Robert Hawkins dead in his tracks.”

Dear Lord, can I stop getting press releases like this if I promise to eschew simplistic solutions that emanate from the disarmament sector? Armed lingerie shoppers! And, I suppose, armed parishioners as well. I thump my chest; my heart starts beating again. This is nuts and most of us know it, but after every mass shooting the gun lobby ignores Immanuel Kant and trots out its fantasy scenario of a domestic war on terror, with decent folk packing sidearms and racking up clean kills in school hallways and department store checkout aisles and everywhere else that evil prowls these days.

In the house of crooked timber in which we actually live, bullets go astray, guns are stolen, panic trumps good judgment, the invisible threads of trust that hold things together vanish and a Hobbesian “war of all against all” becomes suddenly, eerily plausible.

Hawkins got his AK-47 out of a closet at the house of his former stepfather, who was on vacation. These semiautomatic rifles were once illegal under the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004. They’re not illegal in the Bush era because guns don’t kill people (not even semiautomatics, which have no other purpose); only people kill people. Nevertheless, the killer’s step-family now bears the horror of being unwittingly complicit in the deaths of eight people. “It’s like a bad dream,” the gun owner’s brother told the Omaha World-Herald.

I say this not to pass self-righteous blame, or even to dismiss the gun lobby’s cries of alarm about defenseless citizens. I hate that vulnerability as much as they do, but I think we need to talk ourselves down from a fever-pitch of fear before we cock more triggers. I also know how inextricably and complexly we are bound together, the law-abiding and the deranged, the prey and the predator, and suggest that any move we make should recognize rather than thumb its nose at this truth.

I remain committed to the vision of a disarming — if not disarmed — America, and grope for the deep healing without which peace is impossible. The so-called war on terror has devalued the lives of millions of Iraqis, Afghanis and perhaps Iranians, and is one obvious inspiration for armed loners like Hawkins, who imagine themselves going out like heroes. As a nation we role-model contempt on the mega-scale. Let us stop inventing enemies and dehumanizing them. Please, dear Lord . . .