The chief dilemma of being an American is that, however much you might support the nation’s philosophical ideals, every virtue brings a vice. Every freedom breeds excess. As we seem to learn over and over (and over and over), our freedom to bear arms brings with it characteristic American excess.
The founding fathers, well steeped in the human rights philosophies of their age, understood subtle distinctions and found narrow bands of agreement between warring perspectives. They navigated disagreement through compromise, resourcefulness, tact. They identified what could be resolved now and what remained unresolved. Yet, in stating their values, they fell prey to the abetting American sin—they expressed themselves more dramatically than precisely. They made presumptions about how they’d be understood, and—still influenced by a British system of government relying as much on convention, tradition, and understanding as on law—they left much unsaid.
We are hardly as subtle or discerning as they were. Now our culture revels in its raw energy, its take-it-or-leave-it extremity, and its my-way-or-the-highway intransigence. Our politics, our popular culture, and our media are often as subtle as a mallet, and every zealot can find some ratification just by taking a cursory look around. We love the cursory. Our deep and abiding distrust of complexity permeates nearly every aspect of public life. More is better. The latest shock isn’t shocking enough, and every citizen should exercise his or her right to appall.
The sensible response to the resulting tragedies is to reconsider, to adjust our values, and to re-examine, revise, and reform, but the over-excitement that brought us here prevents that. Partisanship and posturing prevail, and self-examination seems the absolute last resort, the one extremity we won’t adopt.
So we throw up our hands and say there is nothing to be done when this nation arose from faith that something needed to be done, some sacrifice needed making, some personal gratification needed postponing, some subtle and precise revision needed making.
What will it take to get our attention if we grow accustomed to the death of those we love? Are we so self-absorbed, so bankrupt of empathy that we can’t see these victims could be our children bleeding? How much carnage will make us reconsider whether we might be wrong, that it might be time to put aside our stubborn rectitude, adjust our thinking, and find compromises that might make us safer?