A Little Imagination

By Rusty Nelson a retired former co-director of PJALS and an active member of Veterans For Peace, Spokane Chapter

Many of us remember learning about Columbine High School. The shooting was an unimaginable tragedy. Now it seems beyond imagination that, after 20 years, that senseless outburst of violence and lethal gunfire, instead of being isolated in infamy, is the cornerstone for extremists and misfits who are overcome by a self-destructive urge to lash out against society or one of its familiar elements. And, why wouldn’t it be, when so very few have figured out what’s gone wrong?

From Sandy Hook to Freeman and Roseburg to Parkland and horrors in between, questions are constantly posed about motives of the shooters and safety for the next possible targets.

               Motivation? I have a one-word answer. “Fear.”

               Solution? Since I get to elaborate, one word: “Imagination.”

Fear is a factor in almost every act of human violence. Humans who live without fear, live without hatred. Only professional assassins kill without hatred, and without fear and hatred, they would have no customers. If the U.S. had not been terrified of the Soviet Union in 1945, we would not have dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of accepting Japan’s offer of surrender (not that we hadn’t been cultivating our fear and hatred of Japan). Spokane police found Otto Zehm to be a scary individual.

Fear translates into violent acts, large and small, that cannot be explained any other way: the kind of acts that spiraled into a major social and health crisis in the past 20 years. I believe our nation’s commitment to retaliation, intimidation and overwhelming force, in foreign policy and in law enforcement, inspires every act of domestic terrorism and most acts of interpersonal violence in our country. Playground fights and barroom brawls may be influenced by fear of bullies, of loss or of inadequacies. The pervasive fear is spread among us as seeds of terrorism and oppression. What I find frightening is that this fear is pushing so many of us into the comfort zone of the Fight or Flight conundrum.

Fight or Flight is no solution. It’s an excuse for ignoring the choices of which our population remains woefully ignorant, in spite of our celebration of Martin Luther King, for example. Dr. King did choose to fight, if you use that term for the struggle many of us continue in, today. But nonviolent struggle is far from the choice someone would feel forced to make in the midst of a mass shooting. It’s far from any options that come to mind for a person who has been practicing personal protection by firing a 9mm handgun at a target representing a human being. It has no meaning to young soldiers who’ve been trained to “defend” their country in a scary place far from home or vulnerable cops haunted by vague profiles of individuals considered armed and dangerous.

I’ve recently seen and heard some profound thoughts about what students and teachers, or any of us, should do when faced with an active shooter. Unfortunately, thinkers with a public platform seem to share a sense of helplessness when it comes to making constructive suggestions about preventing, stopping, or even mitigating a mass shooting. It’s fight or flight, as if a person of integrity and courage may choose nothing better than either taking a bullet trying to disarm a shooter or hoping not to be shot in the back while fleeing as quickly as possible. And for prevention, you may choose between arming more frightened people or getting used to the idea you’ll probably be shot. It reminds me of critics of our work against the death penalty, who said, loudly and often, “So, you’re just going to turn the killers loose to kill, again?” Or people who know a little bit about the end of WWII, who claim if we hadn’t dropped the BIG ONE, we would have had to invade Japan with greater loss of life on both sides.

Must we always ignore the successful history of nonviolent action, the fact that creative nonviolence has been used to stall, stop, and defeat well-organized and overwhelming armed forces? Must we play along with the lie that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun? For that matter, why perpetuate the myth of “good guys and bad guys?”

Imagination is required to break out of the ruts of Fight or Flight. Imagine John Lennon, writing songs today, at the age of 77, it’s easy if you try. Imagine Mark David Chapman had overcome his tormenting hatred, his consuming fears, and never pulled the trigger. No heaven, no hell, living for today. Give peace a chance.

Imagine teaching children to respond to threats by using their imaginations, not to produce a magic wand or a light saber, but to reach out with surprising courage that’s filled with tenderness and concern. You may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Such radical ideas are still taught in small batches, in desperate conflict zones, in isolated and devastated ruins of urban or international violence. And it’s not just for children, but for anyone who can see that Fight or Flight has failed to make anyone safe, for anyone who cares about ending the debilitating spiral of violence.

Our lack of imagination is leading us along a dark, well-worn path. I’m a war baby, born 75 years ago, into a world at war, 25 years after the war-to-end-all-wars had gone from The Great War to just another war, but with more horrible weapons and greater profit for war profiteers. Generals, today, speak of the lessons learned from some of our most notable national acts of carnage and mayhem before leading their troops into new battles and new wars with the same old results of death and destruction. Meanwhile, responsible civilians are expected to follow the military example and send their children into the abyss, ignoring the lessons learned from successful nonviolent movements for progress in dignity and rights for previously exploited and oppressed populations. Politicians and the media wave the flag and march past the enlightened citizens pleading for reconciliation, tolerance, and consideration for peace with justice, the natural world, and the Other.

Our Spokane chapter of Veterans For Peace has imagined that we can host a national convention of veterans who have actually learned something from our varied experiences in corporate violence. I was a cynic, but Hollis Higgins and George Taylor have made believers of me and our national leadership, and I enthusiastically invite you to consider attending all or part of our convention, August 15-17, at the Doubletree Hotel. For registration and information about scholarships for post-Cold War veterans, go to www.VeteransForPeace.org. 

Imagine hope and an understanding of nonviolent action reaching a potential mass shooter. Imagine the NRA having a yard sale while health care for your family is fully funded. Imagine public schools welcoming teachers of nonviolence instead of military recruiters. Imagine video games based upon Gandhi’s strategies instead of atrocities between near-human creatures. Imagine houses of worship where love and community displace fear and materialism. Use your imagination.