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May this death count!

"I can't breathe": the decade's most decisive manslaughter

Photo by Charlie Haughey, a former American soldier and photographer.
Compassion beyond race

All human life is of inestimable value, but a single death can change the course of history. Photos of the Vietnam war ultimately undermined American support of it. There were photos of horror, but I chose this famous one by ex-soldier Charlie Haughey, to remind Americans that they have the compassion within them to do the right thing in response to a universally reprehensible act of willful, racially-motivated manslaughter.

The right thing to do as a nation is to acknowledge that political division has gone so far as to make too many Americans forget their humanity. Racially-motivated violence is nothing new in America, nor in most places on earth in this, our era of three billion Facebook friends. But now, an intolerable murder has been witnessed by all Americans, beyond any shadow of a doubt. The whole world is watching how Americans will react at this decisive moment, beyond all political divide, when their most elementary moral foundation is being tested. It is the moment when your race and religion become irrelevant. Democracy in American will effectively die unless the gravity of the crime is fully recognized by American institutions on all levels, starting with the Executive.

The police officers involved will no doubt be sentenced for their crime, but what next? They are both entirely responsible for their actions and at the same time are an expression of all of those American institutions and groups that explicitly or implicitly perpetuate racism. Since these exist within a proclaimed democracy, we the people are all responsible. I am not suggesting we are all guilty of a crime and need to be punished. I am suggesting that the seemingly small and harmless choices we make every day have led up to this moment in history where we must stop the game.

"I can't breathe!"

Those were George Floyd's last words that fell on cruel, deaf ears. Such a plea bears so heavily on the heart that we can hardly breathe ourselves. It is also heavily laden with symbolism in this period where thousands have suffocated to death as the result of a virus, and where millions before them have been progressively choking, unheard, on the air pollution pumped into their lungs by the great machines of progress. We have all bought into the mirage of economic growth, quietly and contentedly fostering flagrant inequalities. Closing our eyes at the destruction of our natural resources. Pretending that we can denigrate our adversaries on Facebook day after day without feeding the flames of discord. There are no insignificant choices, and a single direct cause has less effect than a hundred lesser indirect ones.

"I can't breathe!"

That's right. It's you and I that need to be saying it, both for ourselves and for others. Feel that officer's knee bearing down on your neck against the pavement, slowly and mercilessly crushing the life out of you. That heartless knee represents the entire establishment, the "system" as we most often call it. No, not "the conspiracy", but the organic manifestation of our collective choices. We have created the very beast that feeds on us. You cannot just vote it away, try as you may. You must stand up and have your say. Then you must learn to live the right way. What does that mean, without any reference to morals? It means that we must come to see ourselves as inter-related beings on a planet where all life is inter-related.

Racism is only one of the more blatant forms of seeing someone else as "something other than you". Those of us non-racist righteous ones do also act as if we were disconnected from others, in particular through our consumer choices. Buying that pair of shoes maintains the misery of those people. We have already seen those documentaries, too.

"I can't breathe!"

I am reminded of the scripture in the book of Deuteronomy:

"I call heaven and earth as witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that you may live." Sure, but we will all die, so either the author thinks the reader is stupid or the sense of this must be elsewhere. The choice here is between living blessedly and living cursedly; spreading light and love in the world or serving the shadow within us that somehow prefers collective destruction over a personal loss. The shadow part of us wants to blame our destruction on the enemy, the idiot, the Illuminati, the racists, the Republicans. It wants to spectate and commentate how horrible it all is, just like usual. It wants to ignore the smell of the burning bodies in the death camps over there. This is the part of us that makes a passive choice of death over life.

"I can't breathe!"

I am reminded of T.S. Eliot's words about the world ending in a whimper instead of a bang. I have taken the time to write this piece, not in support of any political agenda, but as a plea that we all stand up and speak from our hearts. The world need not end this way!


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