"Am I my Brother's Keeper?"

by Michael Sean Winters

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There are many things we do daily: take a shower, walk the dogs, make dinner, say our prayers. Now we Americans can add another item to that list. Daily we get to wait for news about a mass shooting. The killings in San Bernardino yesterday were the 355th  mass shooting -- defined as a shooting in which there are more than three victims -- this year. It is the new normal.

I confess that last night, when the networks were scrambling to find out more details about the perpetrators of the latest horror, I prayed that the killer might be an Irish Catholic. We can take it. If an Irish Catholic had committed those murders, my neighbors would not look at me any differently this morning as I walk my dogs along the sidewalks of our neighborhood. The perpetrators were apparently a Muslim couple, and every Muslim in America knows that their neighbors will be looking at them differently this morning. Thus does sin expand and spread.

The urge to kill is as old as man. Our poor race did not make it to the third generation before Cain slaughtered Abel. Chapter 4, Verse 9 of the Book of Genesis demonstrates the relationship of murder to its deeper sources: “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” The antithesis of keeping one another, of being in solidarity with one another, of loving one another, is murder. St. Augustine teaches us that evil is an absence. We certainly experience death, even a death from natural causes, as an evil because it embodies a final absence, the absolute removal of friendship. The fear of death is, at its root, its abysmal loneliness. Wickedness is inventive, and so instead of remedying the fears we have through faith in God’s power to unite us forever with those whom we love, we tend to strengthen our fears, make them our own, and then violently spread the evil around. Death has struck me so I shall strike someone else, sometimes merely, and perversely, harming our relationships and friendships, other times wishing to be like God, to exercise control over life and death, and we kill. It is an old story.

The story is new, however, in our time in two distinct ways. First, we now know about evil almost as soon as it is perpetrated and no matter where it is perpetrated. Death is no longer an event within a community, it is now experienced worldwide via CNN and the other networks. We are introduced to the families of the victims. We learn intimate details of the perpetrators. We see the Facebook pages of both victims and perpetrators. The experience is at once humanized and de-humanized. Second, Cain did not have access to an automatic assault rifle. The killers in San Bernadino, like the killers in Colorado Springs and in Charleston and in Oregon and in Chattanooga and in Louisiana, did not use knives. It is true that there was a mass shooting in Norway in 2011 that claimed 77 victims. There will always be people who find ways to fulfill their evil fantasies. But, there have not been daily mass shootings in Norway since. It is only in America, with our insane gun culture, that mass killings are possible outside of war zones.

I had not written yet about the killings at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. In that case, as in this, there will be much discussion about the degree to which rhetoric inflamed the perpetrators. Some of that discussion is serious and some of it is not. For every pro-life activist or devout Muslim who grabs an assault rifle and starts shooting, there are millions who do not. That said, and especially in the case of minorities who are somewhat identifiable at sight, we as a culture must be very, very mindful of the inventiveness of evil, of the way fear can lead to exclusion, which can lead to de-humanization, which can lead to very evil deeds. The calls for registering Muslims or shutting mosques in the wake of the Paris attacks do not excuse what happened in San Bernardino‚Äč. Nor is it the case that someone disposed to self-radicalization needs an external prompt to commit an atrocity. But, it is emphatically the case that fear, which is what terrorists seek to create, has led America in the past to create internment camps and turn away refugees, corporate deeds, done in the name of safety, which look very evil before history. If we have any faith in our democratic processes, the last thing we need is calls for the curtailment of speech, either by government or by a culture of political correctness. But, the other last thing we need is public figures stoking fear for political advantage. What transpires in the course of an hour of Sean Hannity’s show is almost always foolish but in these cases, it is often evil.

How do we, as a Church and as a nation, respond to this new normal of mass shootings? Yes, we need better gun laws and they must be nationwide gun laws: In Maryland, we have strong gun laws, but our neighbors in Virginia do not, and no one checks the trunk of your car as you cross the bridge from one state into another. Yes, we need to reach out to our fellow Americans who are Muslim and make sure they know that we wish to ameliorate any sense of alienation they have, through interreligious dialogue especially. As my friend Antoine de Tarle wrote for NCR about the situation in France after the recent attacks, a threat that cloaks itself in religion requires a religious, not merely a secular, response. Yes, we in the pro-life community must be strict with ourselves in using language that does not incite. Most of all, as Catholic Christians in Advent, preparing for the greatest, most definitive act of solidarity, the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, we must be apostles of solidarity and disciples of solidarity, most especially this morning with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Cain was marked with a stain by God to protect him, to stop the cycle of hate and violence. We must do the same. We must be our brother's keeper.

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