by Zach Wahls
As we were all reminded in July, some shootings are random. Those wielding the weapons have no regard for human life beyond that it is human and that they want it to end. Devastation is the purpose, and sheer scale is the means—there is no message.
While the motives behind the shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin are still being investigated, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the alleged gunman, Wade Michael Page is the former leader of a neo-Nazi music group called End Apathy.
Sunday’s shooting is a different reminder—that there is hate in the world: there is fear, there is anger and there is the potential for immeasurable amounts of human suffering as a result of that fear.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once told us that there is nothing intelligent to say in the wake of massacre, and this insight will only highlight the deficiencies of my observations, but as someone who is—like American Sikhs—also of a religious minority that has been targeted by hellbent murderers, I feel that something must be said.
We live, today, in a political climate that is more polarized than any that America has experienced since Reconstruction—since this country went to war with itself over a question of morality. This polarization is driven by fear. Fear of something that we can’t understand, something we don’t want to understand.
As the son of a lesbian couple in Middle America, I have been on the receiving end of that fear all too often. I mention this not in an attempt to paint myself or my family as “the victim,” but to highlight how important it is, that we owe it to each other—and indeed, to ourselves—to look beyond our individual ideologies and to at least try to understand how others view the human experience on the pale blue dot which we all call home.
There will, of course, always be those who refuse to extend even a moment’s worth of consideration in to the experience of those unlike themselves. I have faith, however, that there will always be more who are willing to understand the world through the lens of the “other,” of the “different,” and those whose beliefs are incongruent with their own.
Acceptance, certainly, is different from understanding, and tolerance, certainly, is different from empathy. Winston Churchill once said that, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
We all possess the power to shape the narrative that describes the human condition. Such sculpture is not necessarily for what we each believe to be “the better.” What I view as liberation may, to another, be seen as oppression. But the inscription of our values on the arc of the moral universe comes with a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly.
As fiercely as you and I may believe what we believe, we must also recognize the autonomy and dignity of those around us and those affected by our choices, decisions, views and beliefs.
Darkness cannot extirpate darkness, just as hate has no hope of ever erasing hate. Only light, love and tolerance—particularly and especially of those with whom we most disagree—have a prayer of doing that.
We will spend the next few days searching for meaning and understanding and “the why” in Sunday’s events. There can be, perhaps, no greater and no more impossible charge than understanding the obvious—the mantra of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Zach Wahls is a Unitarian Universalist. He is sixth-generation Iowan, author of My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family, Green Bay Packers fan and a commentator on LGBT and youth issues. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.