Sometimes there is no blame; there is only sorrow. Sometimes there are no solutions; there is only introspection and wonder.
Against the backdrop of the United States Congress engaging in a special midnight debate on the merits of creating another round of appeals on the fate of Terri Schiavo, a disturbed American Indian teenager summons the memories of Columbine, killing his grandparents, a teacher, a security guard and five students at Red Lake High School.
As we observe the juxtaposition of these tragic events, as the visual images are permanently etched in our collective consciousness, it is necessary, as a part of the healing process, to ask: Was there anything we might have done to prevent these tragedies or ease the current sorrow?
In both instances, the question is more a puzzle than a challenge. Perhaps these high-profile tragedies (how many more can we stand?) serve as a Rorschach test for individuals and organizations alike to project our fears, values and visions but mostly our fears.
In the Schiavo case, we are divided by our fear of others (whether government, judges or family members) taking our lives prematurely and against our will versus the fear of being trapped in a body that can no longer sustain the minimal standards of a life worth living. Fundamentally, these are two versions of the same nightmare, something out of the storybook of Edgar Allen Poe.
Only Terri Schiavo could have alleviated the suffering in attendance of the current controversy regarding her life or death by making her beliefs undeniably clear before she was stricken. While this would not have satisfied the extremists who are driving this media train, it would have exposed them as exploiting a family tragedy for their own political reasons. It would also likely have prevented the circus from spreading like a virulent disease from Tallahassee to Atlanta (CNN) to Washington.
What can we learn from the Schiavo case? First, the Congress has become so media-driven that it will eagerly drop the business of the nation to gather political capital from the story of the day. Second, the party of opposition has largely been reduced to the Congressional Black Caucus. Third, the independence of the judiciary is in peril. Fourth, the Christian conservative right is even more powerful than anyone imagined. Fifth, the Republican strategy of exploiting religious right issues has no bounds. Last, the libertarian ideal, once the ideological foundation of the conservative philosophy, has been banished from mainstream politics, supplanted by a pervasive pandering instinct.
The Schiavo case has no legal remedy that does not smack of political posturing and exploitation. Like all matters of conscience, it is the realm of the individual and has no place in either the White House or the halls of Congress.
The Red Lake massacre is no less troubling and equally perplexing. We are told that a teenaged neo-Nazi American Indian planned and carried out the slaughter of his grandparents and members of his tribal community. Somehow, it does not register. It makes no more sense than the Israelis’ inability to understand the plight of the Palestinians (for it was formerly their own).
In the summer of 1997, on a journey of Native American pilgrimage, I was struck by a roadside historical marker in Anadarko, Oklahoma. It proclaimed the location of a massacre, where several tribes united to wipe one tribe from existence. I was stunned. In all my studies, I had never encountered a massacre of Indians by Indians. When I inquired of a local guide, he explained that the tribe in question was cannibal. My instinct was correct. It is not in the Indian culture to kill for the sake of killing, to kill en masse with the intent of exterminating whole tribes or communities. It required a crime against humanity, a crime so fundamental it offends the essential dignity of all, for such an act to take place.
The disturbed young man from Red Lake did not get his disease from the native culture. The killing instinct, the urge to strike out blindly in all directions with murderous intent against innocent and guilty alike, came from the dominant culture. It came from a heritage that hides the dark truths of its past and will neither acknowledge nor accept responsibility for the mass exterminations carried out in the names of freedom, peace and destiny, on our own soil, in Vietnam, in Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
In the Red Lake massacre, we are all guilty, which in our culture means that none of us is accountable.
Gun control may have done something to prevent Columbine but it would not have prevented Red Lake. Counseling may be badly needed in all schools and particularly those below the poverty line but we cannot believe that once a week counseling sessions would have identified the danger and altered the path of an enigma: a neo-Nazi Indian. Clearly, this young man’s difficulties ran deeper than teasing or bullying.
Our culture must answer to this shame. If Michael Moore was right, it is a culture of fear. In a tribal society, an orphaned child would not lack for love or parenting. His tribe would be his family. In our society, the unfortunate and dispossessed are largely shoved aside and abandoned.
We cannot change the culture in a day or by an act of Congress.
In the end, there are things that can neither be explained nor fully understood. There are sorrows that cannot be alleviated. There are times when no answers will come.
In times such as these, it is best to sit for a hundred years, looking inward with quiet humility.
JACK RANDOM is the author of the Jazzman Chronicles, the War Chronicles (Crow Dog Press) and Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press). He can be reached through his website: www.jackrandom.com.