Your Daily Rage vs Today In SCIENCE!: Brutality, Humanity, and Curiosity

Sunday’s news ran me through the gamut of emotions.

Barely even awake yet, I read the news that some bald 30-year-old man had barged into a Sikh gurdwara and opened fire.  That four people, later updated to seven including himself, were killed.  As investigations have unfolded, it became evident that he wasn’t bald by genetics or just for style – but that the killer was a white-supremacist skinhead.

Before I went to bed that night, I watched the live feed from NASA TV of the Curiosity landing, as a car-sized nuclear-powered mobile science laboratory – the culmination of years of hard work by dozens of humans – flawlessly performed an incredibly elaborate landing sequence on the surface of another freaking planet.

A friend of mine posted a comment on Facebook, noting the discrepancy between the general media uproar surrounding the Aurora shootings and the relative lack of focus on the gurdwara shooting, overshadowed as it was by the Curiosity landing.

I understood the point he was trying to make, and agree that the gurdwara shooting deserves significant media attention, but I winced automatically at what seemed to be a dismissal of Curiosity and its value.  Then I tried to figure out just what it was about the comparison that clashed, to me.

For one, I’d strongly agree that what happened in Wisconsin was particularly abominable, in a way unmatched by the Aurora shooting. What was already an act of murder seems – by recent reports – to have become something even more despicable:  an act of domestic terrorism, designed specifically to inflict fear and some manner of punishment on a specific group of people (or anyone who does not fall into a specific group of people,) and motivated by prejudice.

Though murder is rather obviously A Bad Thing, and the most utterly objectifying act, I think there’s a special kind of stupidity and a particularly depressing “motive” behind those motivated by prejudice.  It denies the victims their humanity in a way that other acts of murder do not.

While a random shooting depersonalizes the victims, making them into nothing but abstract targets, a bias-motivated murder both depersonalizes the victims AND projects upon them some fictitious set of beliefs or intents.  The killer not only believes he (statistically, most have been males) is displaying his power, and not only believes he’s acting rightly, but believes that the members of the group he’s targeting – in specific and in general – pose a threat to the survival or functioning of society.  By their murder, he thinks he’s doing something heroic – something to help or protect humanity from danger.

The man who killed six Sikhs in a house of worship spread some of his racist rhetoric via the music of his band – a band called End Apathy.   According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he said the following: “The inspiration was based on frustration that we have the potential to accomplish so much more as individuals and a society in whole.”  In the same interview cited by the article, he also said he was “trying to figure out what it would take to actually accomplish positive results in society and what is holding us back.”

This doesn’t sound particularly depersonalizing.  It sounds like the kind of statement with which almost anyone could agree – an affirmation in the potential of humanity and society when people become aware, become active, and cooperate.  However, this was a man with with tattoos featuring white power iconography, like the Odin’s cross superimposed with the number 14 – a reference to the number of words in popular white power saying: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

The choice to include that one single word, that one specification – white – casts a completely different light on that credo — and on his other statements, as well.  This was a man who, when he spoke of “society” and “society in whole,” was speaking only of white people.   This was a man who – from all information so far – believed that non-white, non-Christian persons were not part of society, were not part of humanity, and that their existence and future should not be secured to the same degree.  This was a man who apparently concluded that violence against them was not only acceptable, and not only necessary, but valiant – in that the act would ostensibly benefit white people.

Therefore, he killed six people whose religion calls for selfless service to all people. Sikhs have a long tradition of fighting and dying for freedom – not just their own, but for the freedom of anyone who is oppressed. (Just check out Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib Ji.)  They don’t just treat community service like it would be an awful nice and noble thing to do – rather, it’s a core of their beliefs.

Twice a day, every day, Sikh gurdwaras serve langar – a free meal for the community. Vegetarian, at that, to accommodate as many people as possible.  Regardless of religion, regardless of status, regardless of color or gender or age, everyone is welcome – and to symbolize the equality they see in all humanity, everyone sits on the floor.  No heads of the table, no honored positions.  Oh, and that kirpan they carry – the symbolic dagger – is a reminder of their commitment to protect the innocent from violence, persecution, and oppression, and as a tool to use for such defense only when all else has failed.  Again: regardless of the sufferer’s religion, status, color, gender, or age.

When Sikhs say “humanity,” they mean it.

True, given human nature, you could argue whether or not your average Sikhs really put these values to practice, or whether they pay them just as much hypocritical lip service as other members of other religions.  But ultimately, it seems like it would generate a LOT more cognitive dissonance to be a bigoted, aggressive, self-entitled Sikh than to be a bigoted, aggressive, self-entitled member of any religion or culture that believes theirs is the only true way.

So, yes: it is incredibly galling that anyone should commit murder like that, and even moreso to be motivated by bigotry, and (arguably) still moreso to kill Sikhs, of all people.   Outrage, anger, or calls for reflection would all be in order, and I can see why somebody would feel grim that this wasn’t happening to the same degree as in the aftermath of the Aurora shootings.

But what I think I found brash about my friend’s comment was the implication that the Curiosity landing was somehow keeping us from taking that collective step back to reflect on society and reaffirm to ourselves the value of all human life.  To my mind, Curiosity’s accomplishment was anything BUT a failure to acknowledge the potential of humanity. It did nothing but make me feel hope for humanity that, at the end of the day, an incredible and momentous act of human ingenuity and teamwork was seen as more meaningful, more valuable, and more true than the actions of one misguided man.

To quote myself from my reply to him:

What happened in Wisconsin was incredibly sad and upsetting on many levels, but maybe it’s for the best that people chose to comment on a significant accomplishment that required multiple people to advance their individual knowledge and skills, create new technologies, and understand the workings of physics and the nature of another planet, and for them all to work together to do something unprecedented in the history of the human race, rather than to focus on yet another semi-hairless ape doing undeserved violence to other semi-hairless apes.

To focus on Curiosity doesn’t diminish or disregard the horror and stupidity of what one misguided man decided to do. It also doesn’t help the families of the fallen; nothing could. But it does reaffirm the human capacity to imagine, to create, to work together despite any differences, to accomplish a feat genuinely worthy of awe and inspiration.

Even if they had taken place on different days, the “viral appeal” of the Aurora shooting, for want of a better term, was the “That could have been me!” phenomenon. Most Americans go to movie theatres frequently enough that they can relate to it. Sikh temples? Not as much. Less “That could have been me” pseudo-empathy tends to breed less actual empathy, as well.

At the beginning of the day on Sunday, one could be forgiven for a grim outlook on humanity, whether because of what happened or because of the seemingly disproportionately low levels of shock and outrage.  Yet another incident where some self-entitled bigot with a narrow definition of “humanity” went out and ruined a bunch of lives. For wondering, “is this as good as we get?  Is this all we are, as people, even now?”  For believing that we humans are still just nothing more than aggressive meatsacks trapped on a salty, wet hunk of rock pointlessly twirling through space, caring only about what’s good for ourselves, and doomed to stupid ourselves to extinction.

Watching the “seven minutes of terror” as a giant man-made machine elaborately made its way to Mars, I simply couldn’t believe that.  Earthbound meatsacks we may be – for now – but capable of so much more when we work together for the good of our collective understanding.  As I concluded,

But still. I think that, for those who watched the NASA TV live feeds to see all the people who had worked so hard, and so surpassingly well, for so long, on something so momentous… I think a lot of people looked at those men and women and thought “That could have been me.” And some younger people looked at it and thought “That could BE me.” They see a room full of scientists celebrating with as much genuine, unbridled joy as any champion sports team or partying rock star or reality-show winner, and know that this world and its future DOES – or at the very least CAN – still belong to the thinkers, the makers, anyone and everyone who can work together to do amazing things.

Those people who perform random or disgustingly targeted acts of violence are not us.  They do not own this world.  They are not our narrative.  By declaring some person or subset of persons as separate from humanity, they only separate themselves. They may give us fear and fascination – which may put more dollars in the tills and coffers of various entities in this world – but those entities do not write nor curate our narrative, either.  At the end of the day, of that Sunday especially, we knew ourselves for more.

We are humans.  We do not have to fear and scorn the unknown.  We do not have to celebrate greed and shallowness.  We  burn with curiosity and the desire to learn and to understand, to reach and to grow.  We are persistent. Where we err, we revise and try again.  We advance ourselves through meticulous feats of engineering and through synchronicitous accidents, through grueling work and inexplicable inspiration.   When we think, when we create, when we work, when we work together on anything no matter how small, when we speak to one another and listen, when we acknowledge the worth of all human life, even and especially in light of our ultimate insignificance on a cosmic scale, it is then that we are mighty.

I can think of no more fitting way to tie this all up than with this speech from the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator:

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