Sunday, January 16, 2011

Martin Luther King Day, 2011 by SJ Rozan

photo by Marion Ettlinger
SJ Rozan, a native New Yorker, is the author of twelve novels. Her work has won the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, Nero, and Macavity awards for Best Novel and the Edgar for Best Short Story. She's also the recipient of the Japanese Maltese Falcon Award. BRONX NOIR, a short story anthology SJ edited, was chosen NAIBA "Notable Book of the Year." SJ has served on the National Boards of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and is ex-President of the Private Eye Writers of America. She speaks, lectures and teaches, and she runs a summer writing workshop in Assisi, Italy. In January 2003 SJ was an invited speaker at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The 2005 Left Coast Crime convention in El Paso, Texas made her its Guest of Honor and she was Toastmaster at Bouchercon 2009. A former architect in a practice that focussed on police stations, firehouses, and zoos, SJ Rozan lives in lower Manhattan.

Martin Luther King Day, 2011
by SJ Rozan

When Kaye invited me to do a guest blog and asked me to choose a date, I chose Martin Luther King day specifically because I wanted to muse about the relationship between what I and my pals write -- crime, including violent crime -- and the darker aspects of American culture. Crime writing, and even bleak, dark, unredeemed crime writing, isn't unique to the U.S. -- look at all those Scandinavians -- but the idea of that bleakness, that nihilistic vision, as something to strive for, not against, was born here. It's been exported now -- those Scandinavians outdo us in their joy of it, as do the Japanese and sometimes the French -- but we were first to tire of murder-as-puzzle and start thrashing around for meaning and consequence.

I was going to talk about that, about why that was, and what it meant; but that was before the shootings in Tucson. Now I want to speak about something different, something less well thought out, but it's my way of groping toward an answer, trying to find something positive to say about who we are.

Here's what I think: as Sam Spade once said, there are such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. I blogged about this myself, about the Second Amendment problem; one of my commenters convinced me that the solution lies in the world of the founders. They didn't have or anticipate automatic weapons, so maybe it doesn't contravene the Second Amendment if we ban them. Fine with me. The easy availability of guns is a big part of the problem. It's really, really hard to assassinate someone with a knife. And two hot-heads mixing it up in the schoolyard are thousands of times more likely to both survive if neither can draw on the other, no matter how much, in the moment, they want to taste blood.

But it's not the guns, it's the brains, that are the real issue.

Not that there are actually so few. Americans on the whole are no dumber than any other humans -- though as architect William McDonough said recently, "It took our species 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage. We're not that smart." But whatever we have for brains, it's what we have. Why do Americans, more often than other people, insist on blowing each other's out?

I think it's this image we have of ourselves as, in the end, alone. The good news is, it's that sense of ourselves, each of us singly and us collectively, as the backstop, the superhero, the court of last resort, that's enabled us to do things like go charging into WWII on two fronts. And win. Deep in our hearts is embedded the idea that if anyone comes to help you it's your good luck, but don't sit and wait. If it needs to be done, you'd better be able to do it yourself because you're all you can count on. This almost desperate idea has pushed us -- singly and collectively -- to great things.

That's the good news. The bad news, we've all seen, and quite recently. If we don't find some way to rein in the idea that the ability to Just Do It confers, immediately and without the use of those brains, the right to Just Do It, we'll descend on an ever-faster spiral into millions and millions of tiny, armed camps, all of us waiting behind bunkers to blow the bad guys -- meaning, the other guys -- away.

My thoughts on Martin Luther King Day. Peace be upon you.


Margaret Maron said...

Good points, Shira. I have lots of hunting friends. None of them owns a handgun. I'm hearing that Congress is considering putting a "bubble" around itself to protect politicians from shooters. I say NO! It's bad enough that they vote themselves pay raises, that they vote themselves better health care than they want to give us, but to refuse to make it safer for the average citizens and then make us pay to protect them from their own folly? Until they limit the number of bullets in an automatic's clip, I say let them take their chances like the rest of us.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Two women after my very own heart.

Margaret, I join you in saying NO to the bubbles. Sorry. We, as citizens, have lives that are as important, as valuable as any politician's.

And don't forget, in addition to the better health care, there's that retirement thing that keeps them pretty well set also.

SJ Rozan said...

Hell, isn't Congress living in a bubble already?

Vicki Lane said...

Such a good post!

And what about background checks? This current lunatic had demonstrated on several occasions that he was quite a few bricks shy of a load -- yet he could walk in to a gun show and buy a Glock...

Bobbie said...

What wonderful true words and thoughts, SJ Rozan, and everyone else. Yes, our spirit is magnificent and heroic, there are so many examples of that. But the flip side, the very dark side, is that huge the other way, imo; and there are so many examples of that too. We all hate what's happened recently and ongoing things, too. And maybe we love good writing for that reason--yes, it's fiction, but it does give us some meaning and show consequences well. Sam Spade's remark fits so well today, as it did then. Good post, SJ. Thank you for this, and for your ongoing writing. It's appreciated. Bobbie

SJ Rozan said...

Thanks, Bobbie. Sometimes, in days like these, writing fiction seems a little futile. Always good to hear it's still wanted.

AliasMo said...

A discouraging bit of news is that gun sales have spiked nationwide since the shootings in Tucson, including a 60 percent jump in Arizona. I agree with a human rights worker who called it "a reaction, not a response" to the violence. Those guns are much more likely to be used aainst the owners or some innocent than in justifiable defense. I wonder how many of the new gun owners always wear seatbelts and bike helmets? (And I won't even get into smoking, alcohol-abuse and nutrition.) Sorry, Shira, you've got me thinking about our tendency to take dramatic action to try to control the things we can't instead of doing the boring things that might really make a difference.

A thought-provoking post for MLK day.

jenny milchman said...

I think this tact, SJ, of being able to be flexible and not fear a slippery slope (ie, toward a total ban) is key. Automatic weapons in the hands of citizens are used for wholesale destruction, and nothing else. And as you point out, we have too much of that. I promise to respect the hunter's and the citizen's right to bear arms. Just please respect the citizen's right to go to school, or a political event--even with a candidate someone else may hate--without fear.

Martin Luther King would want that.

To end on a light note, every year we watch the "I have a dream speech" on youtube. It's interesting to see our kids' reactions to it evolve. They've gone from not noticing it was on to, I must admit, stretching and complaining as all 17 minutes unspool.

I have no doubt that one day it will mean as much to them as it does to us, and also mean something that we "made" them watch it.

But for now my 7 year old's comment best encapsulates the experience.

She said, "What did I learn? I learned that video cameras used to work a lot worse than they do today."

Thanks, SJ. Thanks, Kaye. May peace come to all.

Earl Staggs said...

What a treat. One of my very favorite authors posting on my very favorite place. A brilliant essay. I agree on all points and wish I had an answer. Banning guns is not the solution. We tried that with alcohol and called it Prohibition. We know how that turned out, don't we? How sad that we know how to identify those who are potential threats to society, yet have no way to remove them from it.