observations and opinion
Love is real, real is love
They came to America as political refugees. Harassed at home for a petty drug offense, and suffering the indignities heaped on inter-racial couples, they joined millions who crossed the ocean in the century before, seeking freedom in the United States.
And they found it. Not without some grief – the U.S. authorities were no more sympathetic politically than the government back home – but things “loosened up”, the couple made a new home, did work, lived relatively quiet lives, had a son and began to raise him as an American.
And then it ended, as it has for millions of other Americans: in a hail of bullets. The immigrant couple came home from their work and, on the doorstep of their home, a mad man massacred the husband. “I’m shot” the victim said. Torn up inside, he died within the hour. He was forty. He left a small son and a traumatized widow, many friends and the second half of his life un-lived. The widow carried on, raised the boy, ran the family business and in the decades that followed, never re-married. Next month she will be 81 years of age.
The little old widow is named Yoko Ono and her late husband’s name was John.
The universal elements of the John and Yoko story would seem few, compared to the spectacularly unique aspects of their lives and his death. John was arguably the most famous man in the world for most of his adult life. If anyone was revered and reviled, with equal intensity, it was John Lennon. Lennon could be a famous wise ass, made a series of terrible personal choices (he wandered off into a booze-soaked desert for a while in the early 70s) and aligned himself with a police line-up of dubious leftist activists and spongers. Lennon could be nasty towards people he sometimes loved (witness his treatment of McCartney and then of Yoko for a time) and seemed incapable of growing up. For a time.
But the thing about John Lennon that was most aggravating, perhaps, was his relentless innocence. As sarcastic and snide as the man might be, inside he was a bunch of daisies, searching for the sun. Having lived a childhood of emotional and material poverty, barely attached to a human soul and cut loose by those most dear (listen to “Mother” for a window into the pain of that) John Lennon nonetheless had a deep inner faith in love. He felt love towards others, he saw it in others, he yearned for it from others. And he knew something inside that other people never grasp: love is real. It is as real as the table you’re sitting at, right now.
Lennon’s faith had a dangerous cousin: courage, or perhaps more accurately, temerity. This would have been safer if he was less talented, less famous and less fragile. He stood naked on the cover of an inaccessible, experimental album called “Two Virgins.” John and Yoko staged a “bed in” at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, as he put it, using their fame and behaving crazily to popularize the idea of peace. It is something of an over-reach to compare John Lennon to Gandhi, but to the extent both were prepared to sacrifice their own personal dignity to a cause, they were kindred activists. He was braver than he was smart. That’s what love did for him.
The irony of it all is that none of this killed John Lennon. He survived the political storms, threatened deportation, marital strife, “the lost weekend” with Harry Nilsson, even the disco era. What got John Lennon in the end was a small calibre firearm in the hand of a totally inexpert shooter, on a New York street.
That is not what we think about when remembering the assassination of John Lennon. We think about the shooter, quoting “Catcher in the Rye” and smiling his insane little grin. We see the killer getting John’s autograph hours before, a famously eerie photo. We see the madman, because when America talks about murder, it always talks about the madman.
So it was thirty two years and six days later in the quiet hamlet of Newtown, Connecticut when another madman – maybe as crazy as the guy who killed Lennon, maybe crazier – slaughtered twenty children and six teachers in a public school. He used rifles, hand guns and multiple-bullet ammunition clips to do the job. He murdered his mom before going over to the school. He shot himself afterwards.
A small man with a small gun uses five or six bullets to fell the most famous person on the planet; three decades later, a boy with many guns and hundreds of bullets massacres tiny children and their teachers. In between those two events, unnumbered other perpetrators shot unnumbered other Americans, traumatizing, maiming and killing. Global warming is said to bring the rising of the seas. Perhaps, but there is no debate at all about the rising tide of blood gushing out of Americans’ bodies pierced by bullets. It is relentless.
And when I say there is no debate at all about this, I mean no debate at all: no-one questions the facts, because so few people seem to even see the facts. One website (gunpolicy.org) offers statistics which suggest that about 30,000 Americans are murdered annually due to guns; another 15 to 20,000 kill themselves; another 60 to 80,000 are injured, but don’t perish. Those numbers date from the late 1990s, after crime and violence in American had significantly declined from the rates hit in the 1970s through the early 1990s.
Adding up even conservative estimates, it seems about 100,000 Americans a year are shot. Allowing for one bullet per incident over thirty years, that’s at least three million bullets. A modest bullet being maybe two inches long, if you lined up all the bullets yanked out of Americans’ bodies, alive or dead since December 1980, they’d reach from the Dakota Apartments (where Lennon lived and was murdered) to, well you guessed it, Newtown Connecticut. Do the math yourself.
So here’s the question America: did a madman pull all those triggers? Yes? So what is that – three million maniacs? Or more realistically, recognizing that many perpetrators shoot more than one person or use more than one bullet, is it a million maniacs? Half a million? Or could it be that, leaving aside the spectacularly ghastly and notorious gun crimes like those in New York 1980 and Newtown 2012, most of the time the finger on the trigger belongs to someone as sane as you?
As noted earlier, we have been trained to look for the lunatic whenever a gun crime occurs. Yet we must know, it must be true, that the average gun-wielding maniac is in fact, not a maniac. He is a guy using the tools of his job (a criminal), or a middle class fellow out trying to feel better by slaughtering a dumb animal (called “hunters”) or a man, usually it’s a man, out to punish his girlfriend or wife for not being a doormat anymore. It’s the person next door. Figuratively, we hope.
But the face and name attached to the millions of trigger fingers (and the hundreds of millions of guns now known to live in American households) aren’t the issue, crazy or sane. John Lennon and the Newtown innocents weren’t killed by madmen. They were killed by bullets, fired out of guns.
If there were madmen involved in these crimes, they were people who don’t own guns: people who have chosen to live in an environment poisoned by lead. People who have decided either to believe that the U.S. Constitution permits everyone to own a machine gun, or who have learned to shrug about the ideology which has infected the land. People who are prepared to cry over the loss of a child, but not to look at the gaping holes in her body, torn their by bullets fired from a gun which isn’t just legal, it’s practically fucking sacred. It is the citizenry which is insane.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States slowly made slavery impregnable. Indentured servitude was undoubtedly recognized as constitutional within the States when the Union was re-formed in the late 1780s – that was a price of keeping southern States in the federation. However, only an extremist in the late 18th Century believed that slavery might expand. Slavery was an unpleasant and obviously immoral economic reality – a political problem to be corrected by the new Union.
What the Founders didn’t know in the 1780s was that mechanized textile manufacturing in England would create a rapacious demand for cotton, which the South could only meet through labour-intensive farming – work for which there were too few willing white hands. For this and other reasons slavery became hugely profitable for the southern States in the early 19th century. And so, slavery became sacred. The ideology of slavery was born out of the economic value of the practice.
Soon the idea hatched that slave owners had a right, outside of their own States, to take slavery into federally created territories and new States. Free States were compelled by the courts to enforce the owners’ rights. From the cotton dollar was born a theory, which became the poisonous root of a new “country”, the Confederate States of America. And we all know how that turned out.
One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, another industry – guns and ammo – has hatched an ideology and constitutional theory which has infected the mind of America like a parasite, devouring or at least incapacitating the thinking organ. The ideology is so well heeled and so widely held, that Americans have actually come to believe some interesting things, such as:
Imagine if the Founding Fathers had decreed that every citizen had the right to draw water from his own well. Would that mean today Americans were not entitled to public reservoirs? Perhaps Ben Franklin thought that everybody ought to be able to keep a donkey in his house. Imagine life in most American cities today if the National Donkey Association loomed over the land. And remember, friends, that the aforesaid donkey-owning well-water drawing citizen was intended, at the start, to be a white person with a penis. Nobody else had a say.
If the U.S. Constitution actually said what the gun lobby tells us – that guns are sacred – then guess what: there’s a way to change the Constitution. That mechanism, the constitutional amendment, is the reason that non-white people with vaginas can vote now. An amendment actually shouldn’t be necessary, because well-regulated militias are the only place in which an American can bear arms (bear, not own, they said back then). But okay, let them have their theory; let’s just throw the damned Second Amendment out.
The greatest American who ever lived, arguably, said that he and his fellow citizens had to “disenthrall ourselves” from the “tired dogmas of the past.” Rarely, if ever, has that been more true than in today’s United States, where seemingly everyone has fallen prey to the idea that the country was intended to be an armed camp. The guns and ammo business has infected the entire country with the idea that guns are sacred. Disenthralling is in order.
It is impossible to know all the times that someone wonderful has fallen dead or crippled on an American street, because his neighbour has the right to bear arms. A sweet English poet with a guitar and eyeglasses fell onto the old, cold stones of a New York City sidewalk one night, over thirty years ago. Twenty-six good and beautiful souls were sprayed with lead in their school – in their public school – and all we saw were funerals, teary-eyed politicians and impotent gestures. In between, since and tomorrow, countless more will be maimed and murdered. Not by madmen, but by bullets. No-one even believes that it can be stopped anymore. That is America’s real mental illness.
All we are saying, is give peace a chance. Love is real. Real is love.