Sandy Hook Shooting: Pray or Don’t, What We Need is Commitment to Self-Sacrifice


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I’m revising this post that was intended as a place for people to give their own responses, as Inge’s story seems to satisfy that function.  The new material starts after the video and the photo.

Here’s what the President had to say about today’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  Add your own thoughts in the meantime.

Obama Remarks on Connecticut School Shooting

Within the past couple of hours, the Governor of Connecticut finally held his press conference — he is by all appearances is a decent and grieving man — and what he said was that the most important thing that people could do at the moment was to pray.

I disagree.

And I hasten to add: I don’t mean to express my disagreement as disrespect towards prayer.  I am, as I’ve said before, “unfashionably religious,” by which I mean that my hunch is that there is something more to our existence than the material world and that if there is something beyond the material world then it may well be tied into aspects of our individual and collective morality and purpose.  I have no problem with atheists and if pressed for a logical defense of my belief I’d probably have to cop to really not able to be more than agnostic, but the fact is that I do have this belief and that it would at times lead me to do things like pray.

And boy, would I have been praying today — selfishly as well as not.  If my daughter or grandchild were at that school, I would pray that she was not among the wounded or killed.  I don’t know who I’d be “talking to” when I did so, but I would be pleading with someone or something or everything, extremely avidly, to be spared that loss.  I would pray for the safety of others and for their absence of pain and for their comfort in time of grief, but the first prayer and the loudest would be for the life of my loved one.  I claim only to be a human animal, and being of a species that has conceived of the intercession of greater powers I’d be pleading for it.  I’m not proud of it, nor am I ashamed of it, nor would I ask for credit for doing it; it just is what it is — human.  It goes back to animism and ancestor worship, and seeking “healers,” well beyond monotheism — and if you can avoid all such beseeching for mercy then I tip my hat to you.

While some prayer is glorification of the deity and some is thankfulness and some is asking for strength and other gifts through which can serve others, my sense is that an unnerving amount of prayer is of the sort I just described.  So I don’t know what the Governor was asking for when he said that people should pray — but I think I know what he should have been asking, which might well fit into the category of prayer, and which I might call “civil prayer.”

Value them.  Value each dead or dying one of them.  Value each stunned or grieving one of them.  Value them like you would value your own child.  Take what action you would take as if it were your own child, your teacher, your mate.

Should we talk about gun control?  Sure — when people are saying “now is not the time” to talk about gun control, it’s usually exactly the right time to talk about it.  The problem is that when we talk about we’re unlikely to get anywhere.

Like most students of American politics, I can tell you why we don’t have gun control in this country — it’s a matter of interest group politics and single-issue voting that spans both major parties — and it’s the same reason that, barring some major change of political culture, we’re not going to have major gun control in this country (although some less enormous things like reenacting the Brady Bill might well happen and unhappen and happen again.)  Democrats won’t do it because we’ll generally, as our system stands, face electoral defeat if we do, and ten or tens of thousands of deaths per year isn’t worth the price of putting the knuckleheads back in control of the country.  Elected Republicans won’t do it because they would lose at least one or the other of those descriptors.

I accept the decision of the Supreme Court’s holding in Heller v. District of Columbia that the Second Amendment applies to individuals because (1) it settled the matter constitutionally in a way that’s unlikely to change, meaning that I don’t have much choice to do anything else and (2) it’s really not that onerous of a decision: Justice Scalia recognized an individual right to use weapons in self-defense but also left open the prospect that this right could be abrogated for various reasons.  So we can have more discussion of gun control than either side of the debate may think.

That discussion, I think will have to be centered on the notion of self-sacrifice.  That is: if we don’t want to see the likes of the shootings in Newtown, we may have to give up some of our freedoms and/or desires.  I don’t take that prospect lightly; in fact, I take it a lot less likely than statists do when they abrogate our First Amendment or Fourth Amendment rights without an apparent care in the world.  But that’s what the conversation need to be about — about accepting some voluntary reduction in our rights.

Specifically, we should discuss the extent to which we can accept a reduction in our right to act to secure our own safety: that is, the venerable and understandably important Second-Amendment grounded (via Heller) right to personal self-defense.  And, as part of that, we’re talking about accepting what I think is a a very slight increase in the likelihood that we might die at the hands of a homicidal maniac to increase the likelihood that the likes of elementary schools children at Sandy Hook Elementary won’t.  There’s no way around the trade-off, because the gun that defends your life might be the same kind of gun that takes theirs.

Now many Second Amendment proponents — and I know and respect and like many of them — will say that there really is no trade-off to be made, because by allowing open and/or concealed carry and making possession of guns including semi-automatic weapons more widely available, we can eliminate this sort of tragedy because people won’t commit such acts if they know that they’re going to die if they do so.  (This of course fails to address the problem of this killer, who seems to have been reconciled to or even to have embraced the prospect of his dying, making him pretty darn hard to deter, but let’s leave that aside for now.)

I will say this as nicely as I can: I consider the theory that an armed society is a polite society to be highly unproven.  It’s true, I expect, in certain limited areas.  I don’t think that it — and its corollary that one can somehow establish ahead of time who is and which rare exception is not worthy of being trusted with a gun — has been tested and validated broadly enough.  It certainly is an equation that must change with advances in technology.  (Aren’t you, like me, glad this this guy didn’t have a tactical nuclear weapon, for example?  Or even a flamethrower and grenade launcher and anti-aircraft missile?)

So, if you want to address this problem, don’t turn to prayer — turn to the consequence of valuing your fellow human beings.  (That this applies to Congo as well as to Connecticut is also important to note, but that’s a different argument to have.  For now I’ll stick to the domestic context.)  How much less safety are you willing to endure to give others, including elementary school students and their teachers, a better chance of coming home alive?  I’m not saying that you don’t have the right to self-defense; I’m asking, at a time like now on a day like this, how much you’re willing to see it abrogated to make others — strangers to you — safer?  How much self-sacrifice will you make for the common good?

That’s the question of the day.

Before you get all fluttery about it, let me remind you: this is the same damn question that we ask when we discuss how effectively we’ll prevent companies and individuals from dumping toxins into the air, water, and earth; how much we’re willing to pay for health care for others and to inspect their foster homes; how much we’re willing to pump up the economy so that they’re not going to die early for lack of security or opportunity.

How much are you willing to self-sacrifice?  How much do you value your fellow human beings?

It does not, I submit, have a whole lot to do with prayer.  But it has a whole lot — more, I suspect, than does prayer itself — to do with religion and ethics and morals.  Prayer is, I suggest, in part a method designed to incline us — we smart and cunning and reasoning animals — towards the self-sacrifice we commonly see in “lower beasts.”  So, you see a problem, with a crazed youth in a happy suburb.  If it were your child there, and if you had the means, you might well interpose your body between her and the bullet to save her life.  But it probably won’t — it might, but it probably won’t — be your child.  It will be someone else’s.  How much will you sacrifice to prevent her needless death?

How much do you value others?  Prayer without commitment is just words.  What is your commitment to others?  That’s the question, if I were Governor, I’d be asking today and in the days ahead.


About Greg Diamond

Worker's rights attorney now moving into "good governance" litigation. North Vice Chair of Democratic Party of Orange County and occasional candidate. Proud to be prolix. Unless otherwise specifically stated, his writings never speak for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level. He tries to either suppress or openly acknowledge his partisan, issue, ideological, and "good government" biases in most of his writing here. If you have a question about any particular writing, just ask him about it and (unless you are an pseudonymous troll) he will probably answer you at painful length. He lives in Brea but generally doesn't blog about it. A family member works as a campaign treasurer for Wendy Gabriella in AD-73; he doesn't directly profit from that relatively small compensation and it doesn't affect his coverage. He does advise some campaigns informally and without compensation, although in 2014 he may receive some compensation for campaign consulting and fundraising for the campaign of Jorge Lopez for Orange County Assessor.