According to the Department of Defense and FBI data, 2,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. During that same period of time, more than 5,000 Chicagoans were killed.
- local npr affiliate, wbez (6/15/2012)
despite the staggering number of homicides here, i basically have no connection with anyone who’s been murdered in my city. i learned about hadiya pendleton at the same time as people in london. even though there’s been 43 homicides in my neighborhood since 2007, i wouldn’t recognize a single one of the victims if i saw him/her. over the course of 10+ years in west town, sometimes i’ve heard gun shots outside. but i’ve never had to personally confront whatever happened in the aftermath of those triggers being pulled. there’s a yawning gap between the people attending all these funerals and me.
that’s not to say i’m not troubled by all the murder surrounding me. it’s actually got me all kinds of riled up. i’m just unsure and (apparently) unreluctant to do anything more about it. i’ve petitioned my representatives in government (for gun control & social programs & education & & &) because it’s easy to click a button on a website. i work for an organization trying to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty in chicago (and other cities, too) because it pays me pretty well to do so. what i suspect i really need to do is sign up for a mentoring/”big brother” type program. or some other action that would actually address this remove, this feeling that my chicago & the chicago of record homicides are two genuinely separate cities. i’d like to believe that if more chicagoans were directly connected to this murdering madness, there’d be less of it. but that connection doesn’t exist right now. i don’t feel it, anyway.
i don’t think that disconnect is limited to chicago, though. the babyboomers and the “greatest generation” before them both had an intimate understanding of the cost of war. but the pain that’s coming from iraq & afghanistan doesn’t feel as widespread as what emanated from wwii & vietnam. it seems to me that way fewer people are carrying that particular weight in this century—and i’m no exception to this barely burdened majority.
for about two years now i’ve been struggling with a short story i’m writing that centers on a soldier being killed by friendly fire in iraq. the writer’s block has been firmly in place at precisely the point of the story in which that fallen soldier’s father talks to the officer who informs him of the accident. i can’t conceive what that feels like, for either character. but at the same time, it all feels like something contemporary america desperately needs to understand.
if you doubt this, i say let’s take a poll of how many millennials know what “rationing” means. or better yet, let’s take a poll of all americans, and ask them what they’d give up to support our wars, or lessen the homicide rate, or relieve our national debt…
but it seems we already have at least a partial answer to that question. for the first time ever last decade, we took a tax cut during wartime. we won’t consider banning assault weapons after schoolchildren are killed en masse. we don’t even want to think about cutting benefits and pensions while we repeatedly flirt with insolvency (and potentially a global financial meltdown). so what actually will shock us sufficiently into action?
in 2007, david foster wallace wrote a four-paragraph piece in the atlantic, which included the following “thought experiment”:
What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?
i thought the brevity and boldness and underlying complexity of that piece was really quite extraordinary. it succinctly forces the reader to consider costs that they might not have otherwise. it essentially equates the deaths of thousands of people (not combatants—just citizens) with “the cost of doing business,” as it were (i.e., when the “business” is living in a free, open society). but how many people participated in that “thought experiment”? and of those that did, how many have altered their behavior because of it?
lately, it seems that every time i think we’ve reached a tipping point, every time i think we’re on the cusp of accepting the status quo as unsustainable, we seem to shrug & push onward. but at what point does that become less about bravery, and more about self-delusion? there are signs of our reluctance to sacrifice everywhere, to direct blame at others & to allow others to bear burdens we should collectively heft. e.g., our mortgage crisis happened because individuals took out loans they couldn’t afford & banks took on risks they either didn’t understand or didn’t care about the consequences of. it wasn’t the bankers bleeding us dry, it wasn’t the poor feeding off the public trough. it was all of us. we’ve somehow managed to put an amazing, insular distance between the comfort we know day-to-day and what that comfort actually costs.
i know i sound a bit like a crotchety old man complaining about the world going to hell in a handbasket. i know. but compare what i’m saying to the actual old man who was interviewed on wbez yesterday about gun control, and who said, “i think anybody should have whatever they want.” i don’t recall that old man being in my poli sci class during senior year of high school, but if he was, he’d have heard mr. noel give the simplest/best summary of american liberty that i think i’ve ever heard: “our freedoms extend right up to the very point at which they infringe upon another person’s rights.” i hope we can agree that the right to not be murdered is pretty much the right that trumps everything else, but maybe we can’t even agree on that much.
on more than one occasion in his work, dfw tried to explore the horrible, gnashing things which hide behind some of our seemingly quaint catchphrases:
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.
- david foster wallace, at kenyon college (2005)
i now think about that idea constantly. and it seems especially relevant every time i see a “freedom isn’t free” bumper sticker. it’s easy to make jokes about that, easy to taunt people as being simple for declaring such a trite phrase with so much bravado or earnestness or pride. what’s hard is to think about what that really means. if freedom isn’t free, then what does it cost? what does it cost us as a nation, and to you personally? if freedom isn’t free, what are you willing to pay for it? if not your life, or the life of someone—anyone—you know, then what? taxes? guns? the time it takes to volunteer? what? what? what?