Alison Kaplan Sommer, Aurora Colorado, Bulgaria, chosenness, contingency, cultural essentialism, Individualism, moral clarity
Allison Kaplan Sommer and I have had many of the same thoughts recently. Ms. Sommer wrote a well-written and heartfelt blog for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz about the killings in Aurora, Colorado and Bulgaria. She and I share a strong feeling of privilege that we can choose to travel or live in places where we are (at least ostensibly) safer than other people about whom we care. We both have had the disorienting experience of receiving tragic news from abroad while surrounded by the quotidian pleasures of a vacation spot. More generally, I would strongly recommend reading her posts; my recent favorite is this portrait of Peter Beinart.
I would respectfully disagree with Ms. Sommer’s thesis, however, that “senseless violence can happen; at least in Israel we know why.” As an Israeli, she argues (while anticipating my counterargument), “I found that the essential difference between our [Israeli] experience and theirs [U.S.] is that we know why it happened. We may argue over how it would be prevented, the political decision that one side or the other could make such attacks more or less frequent. But essentially, we know why.”
It is that “essentially” where we part ways. I see nothing essential in the current hostility between Iran and Israel. Most importantly (and I don’t claim that Ms. Sommer meant to imply this) I do not see it as a necessary outcropping of an existential battle between Israel and the Muslim world. I would argue the Bulgaria bombing is the direct result of specific choices on the part of less and more religious Iranian and Israeli politicians playing the nationalist card with their constituencies in order to gain more power. If both countries were more cosmopolitan and less nationalist they could have avoided this tragedy. One may or may not agree with my assessment, but that is the point. To some extent we “know why,” but the why is complex and something about which we can and will disagree.
In the U.S., violence involves different but just as unclear, debatable and dependent political and social issues. Again, Ms. Sommer correctly anticipates my counterargument. “With an event like the Colorado shooting, there is the senselessness to deal with. Americans can argue, of course, whether tougher gun laws would or would not have prevented a smart guy like James Holmes from his destructive mission. But the essential ‘why’ lies not in the public sphere but in the twisted psyche of the killer.”
Again, the word “essential” defines our difference. I see nothing essential in the killer’s unidentified and untreated mental state or his access to firearms. I would argue the Aurora shooting is the direct result of specific choices on the part of more or less individualist U.S. politicians playing the gun rights and tax cuts cards with their constituencies in order to gain more power. If the U.S. would move away from the individualist side of the spectrum and toward a sense that “we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” we could impose stricter gun control laws and support mental illness screening and care. Again, one may or may not agree with my assessment, but that is the point. Again, to some extent we “know why,” but the why is complex and something about which we can and will disagree.
Israel is not a zone of special moral clarity defined by a single existential battle, nor is the U.S. a zone lacking transcendent meaning, in which good and bad only exists inside the mental states of individuals. Both countries are complex societies in which meaning is contingent, people of varying identities can take different roles, and political and social choices can greatly increase or decrease the amount of violence they cause and suffer.
Betsey Tirk Coleman said:
As someone who was a) with you in Israel and b) who lives in Colorado and used to live in the Columbine West neighbourhood and teaches at a school very close to Columbine, I find your comments profound and moving.