Columnist Joe Gannon: It’s time to awaken from our ‘spiritual death’

  • In this Feb. 22, 2018, photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with state and local officials to discuss school safety in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. aPi

Published: 8/12/2019 10:40:47 AM

Once again, the slaughter of innocents — and innocence. The mind-numbing, soul-crushing ritual of mass murder: the shock of the news alert, the confused pictures and shaky-voiced reporters, anguished witnesses and survivors. The funerals, the eulogies, the river of words, regrets, promises and denials. And then? Nothing changes. We wipe and repeat.

How can this be? Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967 that any nation that spent more on military adventures than domestic programs was “approaching spiritual death.” As we have, and do, perhaps we are already the walking dead.  

I am ashamed to say my first response, while driving through New Hampshire, to the twin slaughters in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas was to snap off the radio. Not, I don’t think, to keep from knowing and mourning with the survivors and the nation. But because, in an instant, my mind’s eye saw all that would occur and once again end in wipe and repeat.

And lo and behold, when I tuned into the news, there was Donald Trump misdirecting us with the canard that it is “mental illness and hate that pull the trigger, not the gun.”  He was — in the midst of our sorrow and outrage — repeating the shameful platitude that “guns don’t kill, people do.”

With every new slaughter, we ask: What can be done? And it is time to ask: Is the answer, “nothing”? Have we become so routinized to tragedy, are we so polarized into warring camps, is our social contract so shredded, that as a nation we are incapable of saving ourselves?

Each mass murder out of the barrel of a gun further pulls that shroud of spiritual death over our faces. We know what will happen; some reforms will be proposed. This time it is red flag laws and background checks. Then all the burials will be over, and the bills will die a slow death in Congress, but maybe some small changes in state legislatures. How can this be? Gun rights absolutists see red flag laws and universal background checks — the two most popular gun control policies — as a Trojan horse meant to lead the way to seizing all guns.

Indeed, the New York Times quoted Chris Dorr, executive director of Ohio Gun Owners, saying that his group would oppose any such legislation. “They want to lay this foundation so that the next time there’s a shooting they can come back in and get the whole enchilada.” 

Soon after, Trump walked back his endorsement of such modest changes after yet another scolding from the NRA.

How is it that our minds see the same slaughter and yet come away with diametrically opposed understandings of what has happened and what must be done?  

I believe the fundamental divide in this country is between those who see America as the guarantor of individual rights, and those who see, in our founding documents, the promise of social rights for all.

And it does go all the way back to the beginning. Liberals hear the rallying cry “No taxation without representation,” and their takeaway is democratic representation for all. Conservatives recall only the “no taxation” cry and make it a founding principle. 

Consider the Declaration of Independence. For liberals and lefties, the promise was of social rights: equality for all; guarantees to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Conservatives, I believe, look to the paragraph that says governments are instituted by citizens in order to protect those rights, and if government does not, then citizens are duty-bound to overthrow it. 

A similar divide carries over to our Constitution. For liberals, the preamble says it all, outlining the desire to “form a more perfect union, establish justice, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessing of liberty” for all time. Again, it guarantees social rights for all. Conservatives tend to skip the preamble and go right to the details, having long revered the Constitution for the restrictions it places on government: the limits of federal power, the primacy of states’ rights.

This is why I believe many conservatives revere the Second Amendment above all others: It gives you, as a lone individual, the right to keep a gun to protect yourself from a government that will tax you, free the slaves, give women the vote, make you wear a seatbelt, put that cigarette out and slap a gender-neutral sign on bathrooms.

I also believe that Trump Time might be seen one day as a turning point in which the myth of the lone-wolf pioneer, musket in hand, scanning the horizon for enemies (whether government revenuers or hostile natives) is replaced with the ideology of “We the People” — when “Don’t Tread On Me” is finally cashed in for e pluribus unum

Until then, we have more funerals to attend.

Joe Gannon lives in Northampton. He can be reached at

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