On Monday, thousands of people got in their cars, boarded a bus, or walked to the metro. With their headphones on or a book in hand or distractedly reading emails they thought about their day. Another Monday. I’m late on my report. Gotta leave early to get the kids to swim practice. Individuals, lost in their isolated thoughts or so it seemed.
Suddenly, at about 8:15 a.m., that illusion of isolation was shattered when a lone gunman began firing. As word spread throughout the Navy Yard building in Washington, D.C., the instinct was not every man for himself but we’re in this together. Colleagues helped colleagues, police arrived on the scene within minutes, and the country watched praying for those still trapped inside the building.
It’s natural in the wake of a horrific tragedy like this one to focus on the evil of the killer. What made him tick? How could a person turn to such senseless violence? Or to despair for our violent society. What’s wrong with us that we’ve had on average one mass shooting a month since 2009? All of those questions are natural and important. There’s no excuse for failing to prevent avoidable tragedies. But when I really think about who we are as human beings and as a nation, actually I can’t help but feel proud.
Proud of the first responders who selflessly put themselves in harms way in service of the greater good.
Proud of Cathy Lanier. The tough as nails D.C. police chief who went from teenage mom on food stamps to heroic commander, whose steely voice steadied the city and the country and who is a heroine to little girls and boys everywhere who want to grow up to be a police officer and keep people safe.
Proud that for all our talk of individuality when push comes to shove it’s all for one and one for all. People comforting one another as they hid in their offices. An entire nation asking what we can do to ease the suffering of those who lost loved ones.
The very fact of our bewilderment at this violence is a testament to the fact that every day millions of people go to work, open the door for one another, give up their seat on the metro, and are generally good and kind citizens. Tens of millions of people obey traffic laws, donate to charity to help people they will never see, cook food with kindness and care in restaurants, keep our water supply safe, quietly empty our trash cans and protect our little ones as they cross the street.
And so we ask ourselves, what is the essential nature of human beings? It seems to me that even as we stare evil in the face the answer is so overwhelmingly abundantly clear. We are good. We are caring. We are selfless. We are kind. Our default mode is cooperation, not aggression. That’s why the entire body politic grinds to a halt at the acts of one mad person. Not because we are a violent and aggressive society. But precisely because we are not a violent society and such acts are so against our nature. And for all our illusions of individuality, deep down we sense and feel and deeply instinctively know that we are all connected. Dependent one upon another in ways big and small every single day, protected by the kindness of millions of anonymous strangers. Strangers who are also our brothers and sisters. The truth such as I can see it that it is love, not selfishness, not violence, not fear, but love that makes us who we are.