Fear, Guns, and the (Unwinnable) War Against Death: A Letter to My Fellow Americans

Image: Ibo Palic/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I’ve been crying when I drop my six-year-old daughter off at school. It happens whenever I hear about a new school shooting. And it’s been even worse since this past Monday morning, when another American carrying a weapon of mass destruction killed five people at the Old National Bank in downtown Louisville. My daughter was in school, several blocks away from the shooting. I spent a full hour, numb with terror, refreshing the news on my phone and waiting to be reassured that the violence had been contained. 

The (unarmed) door guards at the school’s drop-off line know my daughter’s tricks; how she likes to stall and take her sweet time. And I watch her dance away into the little building where she builds her dreams and plays with her friends every day. I can hold it together until I drive away, but then it bursts in my stomach and spreads to my chest: that primal grief. It feels like it’s not even mine so much as it’s in my blood. Maybe it’s the scream of all those who’ve dropped their little ones off at school, and never saw them alive again.  

Maybe you’ve been feeling that too?

Maybe you’ve been feeling afraid. Not just of what will happen during that long day when your little ones aren’t in sight, but afraid of your fellow Americans. Maybe you find yourself looking over your shoulders when you’re walking through a crowded store. Or when you’re at a parade, or at a street fair. Maybe you have a moment of panic when a stranger gives you a look that feels glazed with a threat. 

Because you know, like I know, that it could happen anywhere: any Wal-Mart, any school. You know, like I know, that the guns and the death are absolutely everywhere, just barely concealed. 

Maybe this is why you bought that gun, if you’re one of the Americans who did buy that gun. Or all those guns. Maybe you felt like it was the only way you could protect yourself, or anyone else. Maybe you wanted to live with a little less fear. 

Or maybe it was something else. Something more complicated. Maybe you believe there’s an evil in the world that travels like a virus. Maybe you’re afraid that it’s already spread to almost everyone else here in America. And you believe that you’re still pure, or clean: you haven’t caught it. And you’ll do anything you can not to catch it, not to let your family catch it. 

Maybe you believe that those who’ve caught the evil have been marked as enemies of your god. And maybe you believe that any enemy of God is a friend of evil and death; one who is already doomed and therefore ineligible for the eternal life you hope and wait for. Maybe you believe that your gun will help you in a struggle for divine justice: God’s war against death, and those who are friends of evil and death.

But what if you’re wrong? What if you’ve received a bad transmission, and you’ve gotten the whole story wrong? What if your task isn’t to protect yourself, your family and people who look like you at all costs, and to seed more terror in the hearts of the people you’re convinced are your enemies? What if, all this time, you were supposed to be protecting those who are even more scared and terrified than you are? The poor, the innocent, the vulnerable. 

Death looks different, today. Death, for us, isn’t what it was for our ancestors. There are more guns, and bombs, and weapons of mass destruction on our planet than there’s ever been before. More than that, the nature of everyday life for most of us in America today is deadly for the world around us. The machines that facilitate our daily life exploit the fossil fuel spoils of the underworld, slowly turning the planet into a kind of living hell. 

Anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose knew that, even if many of us choose to ignore that it’s happening; phenomena like mass species extinctions are affecting us deeply. Rose argued that in the past, life and death were part of the ecological fabric of life on earth. Death was a fact. And while it’s always been painful to cope with, death also helped to produce the conditions for new life. 

Processes of decay, for instance, made it possible for us to grow the food we needed, to sustain us. Our many varied burial rituals, Rose argued, have been one key way that we as humans have worked to weave life and death back together when it seems as if death has torn everything apart. Our mourning rituals, in this way, were also life-giving.

But today, living in the midst of mass species extinctions and coping with the overproduction and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (which very much include guns), we face another kind of death entirely. We face what Rose called double death: a kind of death that can’t be metabolized, and incorporated back into life. The death just keeps proliferating until it’s more than life can handle or relate to. We’ve lost the ability to help weave them back together. 

This American life, where democracy apparently means that everyone can own their own weapon of mass destruction, is one place where it feels like double death itself is doubling. We are unequippedsocially, politically, intellectually, psychologically, spirituallyto cope with death on this scale. I believe that one of the reasons why we’re so unequipped to do this is because so many Americans are still enthralled by an ancient view of death that doesn’t make sense any more. Perhaps it’s even a view of death that does an incredible violence to life, and the living. 

For a long time the idea that death is the greatest enemy of God has been an integral part of the Christian tradition. The entire tradition, in fact, is built around the execution and resurrection of Jesus. It’s a story of a triumph over death that Christians around the world celebrate every year on Easter. This idea that God is a force of life that’s more powerful than death has become deeply compelling to many, for understandable reasons. 

It speaks powerfully to our intrinsic desire to survive. Not only has it shaped the Christian tradition, it’s shaped secular culture as well. Think about American pop culture where almost every blockbuster storyline repeats this defeat of death: The Matrix, Game of Thrones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars (the list is probably endless.)

But what if this view of life as a war against death can do nothing in the present but feed the fire of fear that’s burning so many of us? What if that old Christian belief that death is the greatest enemy of God has made people so afraid of death that it’s turned them into militants who mindlessly wage an unwinnable war against death? What if this faith that death and its friends are the enemy is just killing us all?

Death is terrifying. And we should protect one another from it. It’s one of the greatest things we can do for one another. But in the end you, and I, and all of the people we adore and despise, will die. I don’t want any of us to die. It feels to me like just one more injustice, after a lifetime of them. But if we can’t acknowledge the fact of death, then we can’t do the life-giving work of weaving life and death back together again. 

Maybe you, like me, are desperately afraid of where things might go from here. Maybe you, like me, find it so difficult to imagine things getting better. Maybe you, like me, are so angry that this is how it’s turned out; that this is what’s come of those centuries of human yearning for a life that’s more gentle, and easy. But we can’t let our fearof death, or of one anotherbecome the only collective feeling we share. 

Those little weapons of mass destruction that more and more Americans are carrying are not tools for survival. They’re agents of double death. They’re just making more and more death. We’re drowning in it. And in a primal grief that cannot be metabolized because we do not have time or space to stop and really, rightfully, mourn.

In love and fear,