When I watched high school students Emma Gonzalez and John Hogg speak out against guns in America, truth was spoken in a manner I never heard before, not from one politician or president (except maybe Eisenhower on the military-industrial complex).
These young prophets—lucky to have survived the latest murderous rampage in Parkland, Florida—have asked the crucial question. Addressing Trump and Congress, they want to know: What do you value more? Our lives or the money and political support you gain from the N.R.A.? Our lives or a chauvinistic abstraction called the “Second Amendment?”
One wonders how the fanatic gun lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre, would react if his wife or one of his children were murdered by some maniac with an AR-15? Would he still mechanically repeat his mantra? “Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.” In short, hope resides in one place only—the hands of somebody with a gun.
But I have a question for Wayne LaPierre: Sir, how many of your intimate family circle and warmest friends are you prepared to sacrifice for the sake of your version of the Second Amendment?
As far as I can see, there would be no limit. The seventeen recent sacrifices have made no difference; LaPierre, like a block of stone, in no way is moved. Nor does he care a whit that the U.S. has more guns and kills more of its own citizens than other countries; nor the fact that the U.S. spends more on military technology than all the advanced countries combined.
All this smells very bad. Why the fascination, the obsession with technologies that specialize in producing corpses? Why the absolute best machines for razing cities, incinerating countrysides, killing and maiming human beings? The issue of America’s arms besotted culture has wide-ranging significance. What is at stake is a trend toward militarism taking the entire culture over. For details on this, read John W. Whitehead’s Battlefield America.
Getting back to the near-death experience in my title, the gun controversy is pivotal. The Trump-LaPierre axis of gun idolatry would have us acquiesce to a new and alien idea of American life in which our schools become militarized and kindergarten teachers are told to pack enough heat to ward off berserk mass shooters armed with AR-15s.
This is not what most sane Americans want. The problem is that guns are so entrenched in our culture that efforts to push back invariably fail. The system of sacrificial murder of innocents remains triumphantly intact.
And yet, this time the energy, the eloquence, the authenticity of the young anti-gun protesters have evoked responsive chords all over the world One hears of plans for rallies and mass demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere. The level of arousal is enough to suggest the possibility of a movement coming to life.
But what kind of a movement? What America needs are not just new gun laws but a new consciousness—a new respect for life. We need to think about what it means to be a human being in the first place. Is the only way we can live to be armed to the hilt at all times? Is the new civilization to be based on mutual assured paranoia and destruction?
For those who resist the sick appeal of gun power, what’s at stake is a revolution of attitude, a shift toward life- not death-affirming values. J. Whitehead concludes that one thing alone is necessary to dismantle the fascist war-machine the country is becoming. It will have to begin with how we treat each other: in ways conducive to peace or to war-mongering paranoia. Each of us is a potential center for a revolution of peace. His advice: Begin there and radiate outwardly into the environment.
We may agree on this in principle, but in real life people change in big ways only under special, often extreme, circumstances. The Parkland students illustrate this. They were part of a horrific group near-death experience in which seventeen of them lost their lives. Truly, the thought of death concentrates the mind, especially if you’ve experienced an armed maniac trying to kill you.
People who have near-death encounters or who just intensely fear imminent death often report life-transforming experiences. (On this, see my book, The Final Choice: Death or Enlightenment?) Something awakens them to a new awareness of a deeper side of themselves and to the value of life in ways never before understood. There is a grim but possibly promising idea in this.
With all the new ways that mortal danger may befall us in our increasingly deadly times, one might predict an increase of psychically transformative experiences. In other words (and here is the grim part), various forms of near or actual nuclear, climate, or civil catastrophe are clearly in the offing.
All of these will cause lots of death and lots of near death. That means that lots of people will be thrust into the near-death zone of consciousness, which could turn out to be the high point of their lives—and collectively of the life of our still primitive species. Many human beings will find themselves in a space open to various super-memes of human potential—and thus contribute to forging a more human, post-NRA society.
So, thanks to the hideous bungling of the lowest elements of gun-toting humanity, we may in the end find ourselves driven, heroically and against all odds, to recreate the conscience and the consciousness of our race. But this is a tricky game to play. For we must come very close to the edge before our better angels fully awaken. The danger of course is that getting that close we topple over into the abyss.
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