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Friday, October 11, 2013

The Hopeless Killing the Helpless

My eighty-four year old neighbor was murdered in his home yesterday. From what I could overhear the police talking about outside my home, it seems that a fifteen year old broke into his home and killed him, then stole his car, somehow got into a traffic accident and then set the car on fire. This led the police to Bob's house where they found him murdered. Of course the specific details could be incorrect because the police spread a lot of misinformation during the early stages of an investigation, but the broad picture is probably essentially correct. Bob is dead, someone broke into his house and killed him - or knocked on the door and forced their way in - and then stole his car. Somewhere there was a fire involved because members of the police department's arson investigation team were on site yesterday.

How are we to understand all of this? At the very least, we know a tragedy has occurred. If a teenager was involved, we can say that it was most likely gang related. Trying to arrive at a "reason" for murder that makes sense is always a fruitless task. People of sound mind would never kill someone, and so whatever reasons the killer might have had won't make much sense to those of us on the outside. Certainly, from a Buddhist perspective the reason for anything has to do with causes and conditions being ripe for something to occur, but trying to sort all of that out from the outside is often difficult if not impossible. If the brakes on our car go out we can be relatively certain that a lack of preventative maintenance combined with the passage of time are the causes and conditions. When someone is murdered the causes and conditions become more complex. We can, however, point to at least a few possibilities.

Economic conditions in urban areas are abysmal, and most of our country simply doesn't care enough to change them. This leads to the development of alternative economies in poor areas, chief among them the drug trade. By and large, street gangs control drugs in our neighborhoods and so are perceived to have some power by kids in those neighborhoods. Healthy rites of passage are all but absent in our culture, and in urban areas gang membership has become a valid rite of passage that often requires some senseless act of violence, theft, daring, or some combination of those three. Bob, by virtue of being aged and a bit infirm, made an easy target for pseudo tough guys to prove their mettle.

There are deeper causes and conditions only hinted at in the above paragraph, including economic injustice and lack of opportunity. As I have written and spoken of in other places and spaces, there are very few employment opportunities in the City of Milwaukee that pay a living wage. Access to employment opportunities in neighboring communities and counties is limited by a racist public transportation system which primarily has routes running into the city in the morning and out of it in the afternoon. This means that if you want to get a job in neighboring Waukesha County, you will need a reliable car to do so. When you add to this equation the fact that in every community bordering Milwaukee County the city police wait on the border and stop vehicles with people of color in them in disproportionate numbers, the picture takes on a particularly insidious quality.

Before we get too busy screaming about racism as the only factor in a complex equation, let us not forget white folks like Bob who have stayed behind in the city and not partaken of white flight. Some stayed out of financial necessity, others stayed because they believed in integrated neighborhoods and were not scared away when people of color moved in next door. Bob's female friend of thirty years cried on the curb last night, a black woman bemoaning the loss of her friend. It's easy to believe that the lives of white people and people of color in the city are not intertwined, but it's amazingly simplistic thinking perpetuated by those outside the city who never venture into it. Then again, our gang culture has decayed to the point where people and places previously off limits are not fair game and so we see children, the elderly, schools and playgrounds with children on them are now the victims of violence on a regular basis.

It would be easy (but ineffective) to say that we need to ramp up police patrols, or to increase incarceration, or any of a number of other knee jerk reactions to tragedies such as Bob's murder. The truth is that we have tried those solutions and they have failed miserably. There are no quick fixes. The only thing that will begin to address the violence that is so rampant in our society is to address the causes and conditions of it: lack of economic opportunity and lack of valid rites of passage. To accomplish the first will require all of us to abandon the perverted notion that greed is a virtue. To accomplish the second will require us to develop spiritual and religious systems that speak to people and offer meaningful rites of passage. Neither of these will happen overnight, which means we need to get started right away.

As hard as it may be to hear, the first step toward developing meaningful spiritualities is to recognize that Bob was not the only tragedy in the events of yesterday. Somewhere in the city there is a fifteen year old child whose life has also been lost. Perhaps it can be reclaimed, but we can be certain that none of the systems currently in place will help him reclaim it. As a soon to be convicted felon, we can be fairly certain that he will be unemployable until this country changes the unjust requirement that applicants for employment reveal felony convictions to their perspective employers. As it is, this requirement means that the only way he will be able to make money will be through illegal activities. For a country supposedly founded on Judeo-Christian values, we are a singularly unforgiving lot. Who among us does not have a mistake in their past they would rather forget? Who among us would not rather forget our biggest mistake? What makes us think this young man is any different? Can we see the irony in the fact that our condemning this young man to a life where he cannot move beyond this horrific mistake creates more Bobs rather than leading to justice?

We need to wake up. Sadly, most of us don't start down the path to awakening until some tragedy strikes our lives. If we wait for the numbers game to cause tragedy to strike in enough people's lives to make a change then it will never occur because people are constantly being born and dying, leaving us a new generation to convince. I believe this is where engaged spirituality comes into play. We simply must speak out. We must lovingly yet firmly challenge the status quo and not stop until justice is achieved. Both Bob and his killer deserve our best efforts.

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