BY EUGEN SCHOENFELD / AJT //
I was on a cruise, trying to enjoy the warmth offered by the Caribbean Sea, when the news of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. hit the airwaves. Again, the people of this country were faced with what seems to have become a routine event in the U.S.: the wanton destruction of precious lives and the vociferous and trite declarations by the representatives of gun-lovers and gun manufacturers:
“Guns do not kill – people do.”
In response, I must reiterate a question I posed in an article published in the Oct. 5 edition AJT: Why do so many citizens in this country – the country that I believed to be a great advocator of moral and civilized values – maintain their love and veneration for an instrument that has no other raison d’être but to kill?
Has the gun become our nation’s “Viagra,” our restorer of virility and of manhood? Or perhaps have we reached the zenith of our moral and ideological progress and now begun our downward slide?
In my childhood, the image of great human depravity was the image of an Indian or Malaysian native running amok. Today, I wonder: Are we succumbing to that uncivilized weakness? Are there among us persons overtaken by a possessor, an evil spirit wielding a weapon who seeks to kill and maim people in a highly populated area?
Personally, I believe that we are facing a great national problem of moral decline. We are regressing into a moral state that in Judaism is symbolized with Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a state of waging constant war; the mindset of bellum omnia contra omnes; and the rejection of personal, familial and national peace.
It is the elevation of the belief of the “supremacy of the I” and that which is mine as well as the downplaying of the collective interest residing in the principles of justice and righteousness.
We are becoming a nation of Johnny Roccos, so many of us emulating the gangster so beautifully depicted by E. G. Robinson in the movie “Key Largo.” We are becoming a mass of individuals who want more – just more. And the recent unreasonableness of our leaders shows that they forget Isaiah’s great advice for the achievement of a humane state:
“Come, let us reason together.”
Imagining Right Was Left
I love the prophets, the group of people whose ideals we have cherished and thus declared to be universal and eternal values. The writers of the books of wisdom of the Bible were morally progressive individuals who sought the roots of human wellbeing. They rejected the magic of rituals and instead sought not so much technological but moral improvement.
Their motto can be summarized with the words “peace,” “justice” and the “welfare of all.” Seek the right, relieve the oppressed and plead for the powerless, they said, and many of us have tried to follow.
Similarly, reason, the search for the collective well-being and the rejection of evil – namely, that which is against the public’s well-being – were also central to the ideas of Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln. They sought to make the United States into a country that values empathy, justice and righteousness.
But would we have honored Isaiah and Micah had their visions been inverted, had they declared that we should turn our plowshares into swords and pruning-hooks into spears?
And would we venerate the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation the their writers had championed oppression and violence?
There are people in this country, many of them influenced and led by the NRA, who force us to juxtapose the meaning of guns and education. They cannot seem to understand the central tenet of education, the wisdom that leads to peace and security; nor can they see that the essence of guns is generally anathema to these ideals.
Education seeks to solve problems without resorting to guns and violence. For proof, look to Rabbi Elazar, who – in quoting Rabbi Haninah – proclaimed that scholars increase peace throughout the world, that learning brings abundant harmony and that students are the builders of goodwill and the source of our strength.
Genre Past Its Prime
I have often confronted myself in trying to decide which of the two rabbis was the most meritorious for having contributed to Jewish survival: Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai or Rabbi Akibah. No doubt, both were great scholars, but they had different visions.
Rabbi ben Zakkai, in 68 C.E., violated the Zealots’ decree of fighting the Romans until death and left Jerusalem in stealth to request of Vespasian, the Roman general in charge of the siege of Jerusalem, permission to establish a school in Yavneh. It was from this school, subsequently built by ben Zakkai, that the rabbis and sages who gave us the wisdom and direction for the Diaspora hailed.
In contrast, Rabbi Akibah joined Bar Kochbah in an utterly failed attempt to gain freedom through use of guns and was thereby almost successful in destroying Judaism.
I am a Jew, a survivor of the German camps. Hence, it is quite understandable that it is my firm conviction that human advancement is directly related to learning and wisdom and inversely to power. To me, the use of power reflects one’s inability to reason or solve problems intellectually.
On the other hand, many of the gun lovers attach themselves to the mystical notion of their “G-d-given” and unalienable right to bear arms. The extremists would even have us believe that the solution to all problems – especially to gun-induced tragedies – is having and dispensing more guns among the population.
While I am not against the Second Amendment to the Constitution, the fact remains nonetheless: The love of guns leads us to regress to the days of the past – to the days when guns ruled. It seems to me that gun-lovers would like this country to return to the days of the Wild West, when justice was dispensed by those who had and used the fastest and biggest firearms.
But we are being duped by romanticism if we think we were better off as a nation all strapped with a trusty six-shooter. In that world, we would swagger down the dusty road to face the villain only to find that the villain resides in us.
Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a Holocaust survivor.