A moment of killing and transformation

13 Jan

For the past two weeks a number of images have been jostling in my mind, in search of a thread that ties them together. Instead of forcing a connection, I will set the images side by side to see whether links develop. Perhaps you will see what I’ve missed

Image 1–
It’s something of a jolt when each year, just three days after Christmas, the church year brings up the images of the slaughter of the holy innocents. Thus we remember King Herod’s killing of Bethlehem’s infants and babes in a vain attempt to ensure that King Jesus could never challenge King Herod. Several prayers and hymns in the Christmas season also refer to Jesus’ journey to Golgotha’s cross. They are precursors of the Lenten season, which begins five weeks after the Feast of the Holy Innocents–the season that culminates in The Three Days–from the cross on Friday to the empty tomb on Sunday. The Christian liturgical year brings these events before us every year–they never go away.

Image 2–
Violence and killing are all around us, it seems–the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the United States. Here in Chicago, we are swamped by waves of killing–four fatal shootings over the New Year’s weekend and one hundred gunshot victims during the first ten days of 2016. Marchers in the streets protest the killing of black men at the hands of the police; others lie prostrate on the ground to portray the bodies that have been gunned down.

Image 3–
We don’t really see those who have been killed, because we protect ourselves with euphemisms and abstractions: casualties in war are referred to as “body counts”; civilian deaths are “collateral damage”; the wife of a man who is serving in Afghanistan recently objected to the term “boots on the ground”–her husband is a person, she said, not a boot. At home, the term is “victims.” Our language blocks our view.

In 1955, fourteen year-old Emmet Till was murdered in Mississippi, his body horribly disfigured. HIs mother insisted that his body be returned home to Chicago for a public funeral where the open coffin would reveal to all the condition of his body. She knew that no description in words could convey the effects of the beating and torture he had endured.

In December of 2009, photojournalist Lynsey Addario was embedded with a medevac team in Afghanistan. One night they got the call–a gravely wounded marine, his face macerated. Despite frenzied work by doctors and nurses at a field hospital, he died. Addario took photos of the soldier and the medical staff as they worked to keep him alive, and contacted his family. When he saw the photos, the father cherished them, almost tenderly. Two older sisters, in their late teens, said they did not want to see the photos, because they wanted to remember their brother in his happier times. The youngest sister declared that she definitely wanted to see the photos–“I want it to be real,” she said. “I want my brother to be real for me.” See– http://thirdcoastfestival.org/library/1827.

We know instinctively that killing is not impersonal and abstract. That is why, when the bodies of fallen soldiers are returned to the United States, loved ones are on hand to receive them at Dover Air Force Base, and why the President of the United States visits privately with them. There were widespread protests in earlier years when the government banned photographers and reporters from covering the return of bodies from the Iraq war.

The current uproar in Chicago was occasioned by the release of the videos that show the unspeakable agony of the killing of Laquan McDonald and Philip Coleman. A picture is neither abstract nor impersonal. The picture tells us something profound about the situations in which seeing–with the eyes–takes primacy over words and hearing.

Image 4–
I’ve read recently about Wes Craven, who died last August. I never paid much attention to him, and I don’t know whether this blog reaches any of his devotees. He was the premiere director and writer of horror movies in the last half century. His legacy includesThe Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm on Street, and Scream. Although horror movies have never much appealed to me–since I was scared out of my mind by The Spiral Staircase when I was 13 years old–I’m brought to the realization that, in Craven’s hands, there are profound dimensions to these films.

When he was interviewed in 1980, Craven reflected on his work. Here is an excerpt:
“In my own mind were the mass of media inputs from the Vietnam War so that we were seeing reality of violence on our television sets, going into our theaters and seeing distorted, filtered reality. I set out to say simply, let’s not cut away and let’s not do violence that is entertaining. And I didn’t, you know, I simply did not cut away. And one stab did not do it and one shot did not do it. Once the violence began, the violence was treated as absolutely real. The audiences were, in a sense, tricked. They went in to a movie expecting to be entertained in the pure action or horror sense, where the blood is ketchup and the violence is simple and cartoonish. And instead we said, now that we’ve got you here, by the way, this is what violence is really like.”

Image 5–
Jamie Kalven, a freelance Chicago journalist, successfully pressed for release of the Laquan McDonald video. It was this video that resulted in the dismissal of our superintendent of police and calls for the state’s attorney and the mayor to resign. Kalven spoke here at Montgomery Place last Friday. He urged us to remember the current killings, not to forget as we move on to the next news cycle. “If we keep them before us, this moment of crisis can be a moment of transformation for the culture that allowed these deaths.”

I believe there is a linkage between these images–a truth to be acknowledged and a moral mandate to be acted upon. I’ll appreciate your comments.

(c) Phil Hefner 12 January 2016

7 Responses to “A moment of killing and transformation”

  1. Richard Busse January 13, 2016 at 12:00 pm #

    Hi Phil: thanks for the reflections. I currently have three excessive force cases against police in different cities Northwest Indiana, one involving a death. I can’t really talk about them since they are active cases. But until the Supreme court changes the standard for when the use of lethal force by police is justified, we will continue to see civilian deaths. Further, police are trained to shoot to kill, not shoot to stop or maim. It sounds like Chicago is beginning to rethink this training.
    In Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), the Court suggested that there are three circumstances when an officer can use deadly force: first, when the officer is threatened with a deadly weapon; second, when the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm or death to the officer or to another; or third, when the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect has committed a crime involving threatened or actual serious physical harm or death to another person. The second and third are subjective standards based on what the officer believes. That’s why Officer Wilson in the Ferguson case was not indicted. The current Chicago cases may turn out differently. I’ll let you know what happens in my cases.

    • coachrevmark2u January 13, 2016 at 6:29 pm #

      Not sure where to leave a reply to the original, so I’m leaving it here though this might not be the right place. I also don’t have a single thread.

      It strikes me that 2 of the images are artful fictions (Matthew’s Herod and Wes Craven’s movies) while the other 3 are about real people. Wes Craven seems to have wanted people to look at torture, terror, and violent death straight on, and didn’t mind circumventing all the circumventing by tricking them into thinking they were just going to see a predictable horror film.

      The Herod-kills-infants story seems a smaller parable fitted into (or created for) the extended parable of “Matthew’s” gospel. It seems not to get people to look at torture and terror so much as to forge a link from Jesus to various parts of the Torah (the Exodus story, some of the prophets) – Jesus as the new Moses, a new deliverer from the “mizrayim” (the throttling “narrows,” the ever-present “Egypt”). In the background – not foreground but background – is the whole mix of tales told in the Torah (Tanakh), which have more than their share of terror.

      About the Middle East, the phrase which keeps coming to mind is, “Hurt people hurt people.” And I am mindful of the epigenetic studies that now show PTSD is inheritable. I have firsthand experience of this because I am married to a Jew who is just two generations away from the Shoah, and the effects of the terror and torture from the time of the Shoah (and before and after) in her extended family are definite and tragic. And there is a kind of “contagion” to it all, and a spiraling down, leading me to wonder how will it ever bottom out and start an upward trend, especially as I read the dailies about the Middle East.

      About Emmet Till there is again the ongoing terror and torture inflicted upon Africans and African Americans, mixing their blood into the mortar of the foundations of our country. This could lead to another epigenetic inheritance (and maybe in some ways it does), but in fact a different narrative springs out of it, leading to Dr. King’s “I have a Dream.” But the image presented is actually apart from that; it is the image of the disfigured face of the murdered individual (a real life, “Here! Look at this horror!”), recalling Wes Craven’s similar, “Here! Look at this!” movies. So also the image of the face of the murdered soldier. Here! Look at this! This is real, not just some numbing-out news entertainment! Confront it.

      The video-cams of legal police illegally murdering innocents is another “Here! Look at this! We’ve been telling you about this in recent decades, but here’s the proof. Live cam! Look at it so you can’t deny it anymore.” The background of this is complex on both the side of the police and the communities in which they are murdering people (in which SOME of them are murdering innocent people) with apparent immunity so far. Again there is the background story of the terrors of living in communities without hope for the immediate victims. And some of them are innocent on one level, not so innocent on another level (if only guilty of petty crimes), and yet innocent again on yet another level (the level of structural racism and classism which creates a new “Egypt,” a new “mizrayim” (constricted and constricting place).

      And again, there is some evidence that the police murderers also are victims, stepping into this “cops and robbers” game (see Eric Berne); that they have suffered their own family terror and sometimes torture – hurt people hurting people. There is the reality in so many cases that the police are outside forces (and perhaps here the “Roman Empire imposed Herod kills infants” story comes to mind), no longer “of the people, by the people, for the people;” no longer walking beats and coming to know and respect the community. It’s part of the structural terror of outside forces, and of implicit bias.

      Then I look back at the Middle East and notice/remember something I overlooked before: the divisions of the Middle East also are not of, for, and by the people of the Middle East; they were imposed by outside colonial powers and long-time enforced by outside colonial powers (including the USA invasion of Iraq); their leaders often have been kept in power by those same outside colonial powers.

      In all this, perhaps there is no single thread. Perhaps it is a braid of two or three threads. Or if there is a single thread, perhaps it is the news thread of, “If it bleeds it leads.” And perhaps that is related to the neuropsychological reality that even our most sophisticated brains still have a limbic core, looking for anything that is not right, that is threatening.

      I’m afraid that’s the best I have at the moment.

      • Liftthescreen January 14, 2016 at 3:21 am #

        Very interesting analysis, Mark. Quite different in some points from what was in my mind, and that stretches my thinking. It is good to be in contact–I remember you well. I recollect that I met a daughter (or niece?) 2-3 years ago at the seminary. She had recently won some important awards. Does that ring a bell?

    • Liftthescreen January 14, 2016 at 3:32 am #

      Thanks, Rick–I was not aware of the legal details pertaining to use of lethal force. It sounds to me, as you say, that the subjective factor is significant. Do keep me informed as things unfold. I will be emailing you before long to see if you talk about some of these issues in our Friday Evening Speakers series here at Montgomery Place. I know our residents would be very interested.

  2. Liftthescreen January 14, 2016 at 5:19 am #

    Rick & Mark–the placement of my responses is mixed up, but I think you can straighten it out. Btw, you two may have overlapped at LSTC.

  3. Esther Shir January 15, 2016 at 5:49 pm #

    Thanks, Phil. To be truthful, I rarely watch the news or go to the movies anymore–too much killing …..too graphic. But, I was so heartened by Pres Obama’s State of the Union speech–a call to civility among other things which hopefully will make an impact on the violent speech and images that are all to prevalent…

    • Liftthescreen January 15, 2016 at 8:57 pm #

      Let’s hope so, Esther–I find myself preferring classic TV shows to news, much of the time.

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