In one of the classic, Bill Shatner-era Star Trek episodes, the intrepid crew of the Enterprise discover a planet which has "evolved" to the point where there's no war. All international disputes are settled by a computer which determines the number of casualties, chosen at random from the populace.
As part of their patriotic duty, the citizens earmarked for sacrifice meekly queue up to march into "disintegration booths," convinced it's better than actual, messy warfare.
Capt. Kirk, the embodiment of robust Western humanism, of course objects to this clinical, detached way of war — especially when he and his crew are informed they've been designated as casualties.
Like all the old Trek episodes, it's less sci-fi than morality tale. Strangely, I was vaguely reminded of this episode after the most recent mass shooting, at the Navy Yard in Washington DC.
Perhaps you heard about it?
The day after the massacre a Facebook friend posted that he was deeply unsettled by the conspicuous lack of discussion about the shooting in social media. He was worried it signaled acceptance of the unacceptable. There wasn't even the usual "guns good/guns bad" flame war.
I responded, weakly, that perhaps we'd all finally learned there's usually more than meets the eye with these mass shootings, and that people were waiting for all the facts before reaching a conclusion.
Mine was wishful thinking. My Facebook friend was right; nobody really cared anymore.
President Obama, who's had to give remarks after more of these heinous events than any other president by far, sensed the same thing. I'm going to quote at length here from his remarks after the shooting, not only because they're spot on, but mostly because I'm pretty sure you didn't hear them:
"By now... it should be clear that the change we need will not come from Washington, even when tragedy strikes Washington... After all the speeches and all the punditry and all the commentary, nothing happens," the president said.
"Alongside the anguish of these American families, alongside the accumulated outrage so many of us feel, sometimes I fear there's a creeping resignation, that these tragedies are just somehow the way it is."
"No other advanced nation endures this kind of violence. None. Here in America, the murder rate is three times what it is in other developed nations. The murder rate with guns is 10 times what it is in other developed nations. And there's nothing inevitable about it. It comes about because of decisions we make or fail to make."
He's right. Every word is right. And none of it will matter.
I've spilled so much ink over the years writing in earnest despair over the issue of rampant gun violence and about things we need to do to address the problem. But today I share those feelings of resignation the president wearily describes.
After 9/11, Americans were appalled by the fatalism of those in the Middle East who could obliviously go on with life amidst regular suicide bombings, seemingly resigned to them.
The day after some delusional fanatic would blow himself and dozens of others to smithereens with an explosive vest, the cameras would show villagers bustling back to the marketplace, the sand still smeared with blood and body parts, the dusty air still redolent of violent death.
Like Capt. Kirk, our sense of fair play was offended. Our Greek/Roman/European idea that we all can control our own destiny — if only we show enough determination and heart! — was shaken by these people who faced the most suddenly horrific, dismembering kind of death with merely a shrug.
"Insha'allah," is the Arabic phrase. God willing. God willing, we won't get blown up today like they got blown up yesterday.
Nothing you can do. Just accept.
Turns out we're not so far apart. Like them, and like that kitschy but prophetic Trek script from the late '60s, Americans have become so desensitized to random death that we've resigned ourselves to it.
In our case the grim reaper comes not wearing a vest lined with C-4, nor as the figment of a screenwriter's imagination, but as a stranger with a Glock, a Bushmaster, an AR-15, a shotgun, a high-capacity magazine.
As a journalist, and I guess as an American, I have to believe that fatalism isn't the answer, cannot be the answer. I believe the president is right when he says, it's about "decisions we make, or fail to make."
But the first decision is the decision to care.
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