The Villain's Advantage

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I walked across Washington, DC, after the shooting in Charleston and was struck by how many good people I know. I spent the morning with a young playwright eager to bring his view of the world’s interconnectedness to an audience. I ran into a school counselor who was a great help to my family during a difficult time. And I chanced upon a former colleague who finds joy in teaching science to struggling high school students.

Gun control activists march in Washington, DC, January 2015.

Gun control activists march in Washington DC, January 2015. Credit: Creative Commons / Elvert Barnes Protest Photography

Living in Washington, I’m constantly meeting such people. My friends include advocates for education, arts funding, marriage equality, voting rights and affordable housing. The city overflows with folks eager to make a difference. This week, though, I was struck by how easy it is to bring all that potential to a sudden and tragic end.
Not usually one to categorize human beings as “good” or “bad,” I do recognize that some people have a more positive view of the world. They see the potential for goodness in others, and they work to nurture and strengthen it. And there are people who do the opposite. For a myriad of reasons, they live in anger and take an aggressive stance to the world around them.
Both groups hold enormous power. The folks able to see the good in people bring that goodness forth. The student who has been beaten down by life and chooses aggression as a defense is transformed by the teacher who recognizes that student’s unique potential and has the patience to wait for it to emerge. Similar scenarios are repeated in a million ways every day.
Those who thrive on anger and distrust spread those qualities with remarkable ease. Media moguls have learned to make vast fortunes from these folks, feeding their resentment and paranoia so that it consumes ever larger portions of the community. But ultimately it’s individuals who hold the power to disseminate this worldview. Unchecked, it can run through families, neighborhoods, schools and work places.
I believe we are all on a continuum between these two poles, slipping in and out of both groups, while tending toward one or the other. I also believe that there are folks at the extremes of the spectrum and that we should not hesitate to name them as villains and heroes – folks fighting on behalf of hatred and folks fighting on behalf of love.
The events of this week highlight the striking advantage that the villains hold. Simply put, they have access to guns and some have a willingness to use them. A single person full of hate can destroy the potential of nine loving people in moments.
Love, on the other hand, takes time. Isolated acts can have great power, whether it’s giving up a seat on the bus or digging a well in Africa, but it’s the accumulation of such moments that transforms a frightened soul into an open one. We can’t point at a person full of hate and magically halt the ripple effect of that hatred. The villain can do exactly that.
Gun laws must change, and the cult of the gun must end. They are not objects to be collected, like works of art or rare stamps. They are tools of hatred whose purpose is to bring life to an end. That’s how we should speak about them, and how future generations should perceive them. It’s time to level the playing field, to see how hatred fares without the crutch of split-second violence and destruction.
The heroes win in the end. I believe that and I see it enacted in history over and over again. We can take comfort from the words of Reverend Theodore Parker, a Unitarian abolitionist whom Martin Luther King, Jr. famously paraphrased when he proclaimed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But now, today, we must take action to keep our heroes safe, and to ensure that their full potential can be felt in the community for the length of their natural lives.

Norman Allen is a Washington-based playwright who writes frequently about spirituality and religion. He won the Charles MacArthur Award for his playIn The Garden. Tweet him@WriterNorm.