A few weeks ago a young man shot a baby in the face in a stroller. For no reason. Just to shoot. Just to kill. I think it was sort of “Have gun, why not shoot?” A baby happened to be in his line of vision. This shooting, in addition to the many others, has troubled me all week.
I may never know why he did it. For the thrill of it? Out of boredom? Because that’s the sort of thing he liked to do? Did he equate shooting the child with swatting flies, because it annoyed him for some unknown reason? To dapping stones across the water on a lazy summer afternoon?
Whatever the reason, he did not see the child as a human being with dignity and worth, a person his mother and others loved. Perhaps he also did not see himself as a person with individual worth in the eyes of God. He reduced that young life to the equivalent of a blob that moved -- and shot it. He reduced himself to the same level at the same time.
To reduce a human being to less than a whole person usually involves contempt.
I thought of a novel I used to teach in college English: Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Novels are some of the best ways of teaching about life. The famed novelist spent eleven years in forced labor in camps in exile in the former Soviet Union for having criticized Stalin. He and countless thousands spent years in these camps with the political forces in control determined to destroy his human dignity – to reduce him to a mass of human tissue without desire to know joy, sadness, pride in work, and love of others.
The novel follows one prisoner, Ivan Denisovich, from reveille to nightfall in the cold darkness of Siberia, on starvation rations, yet forced to put in a strong man’s work-day. He survives only because of specific strategies he employs that allow him to hang onto his self-worth.
Solzhenitsyn wrote the novel not just to reveal the plight of one prisoner, or even one group of prisoners, but to show the world that the camps were “not an isolated feature” in Russian society, but a “microcosm” of society as a whole.
The Foreword states: “A day in the life of an ordinary Soviet citizen had much in common with that of his unfortunate fellow countrymen [like Denisovich] behind barbed wire. It was the same story of material and spiritual squalor, corruption, frustration, and terror.”
Degradation of a fellow human being doesn’t happen only in a prison camp. It happens in society generally.
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a graphic novel based on his military experiences in Vietnam, reveals a lot about that war – and other wars. The novel shows how important it was for soldiers to separate the enemy from anything that resemble normality – from men who taught Sunday school, walked the baby to sleep, who listened to music, or wrote goofy romantic poetry to a girlfriend. With such a mindset it was easier to blast the “gook” into eternity without discomfort.Yet that discomfort came later, and then much later.
Today I see it in the form of increasing suicides among veterans unable to bring together the incongruity of ruthless killing while in uniform and then that not being the right thing to do when out of uniform back home.
We deplore the shooting of an innocent child. We deplore the shooting of innocent children in Sandyhook school in Newton. We deplore the shooting of thousands of other shootings that will take place in our country.
Each senseless shooting means another little step taken toward a society that is moving toward “spiritual squalor and corruption” and to devaluing its citizens. As O’Brien writes, “Thus, when someone got killed .... his body was not really a body, but rather one small bit of waste in the midst of a much wider wastage.” The narrator continues, “I learned that words make a difference. It’s easier to cope with a kicked bucket than a corpse; if it isn’t human, it doesn’t matter much if it’s dead.”