Nothing to Be Done

I’ve got a weakness for connecting something new I encounter with something old I might be thinking about. In my Irish history class, we’ve been spending a good deal of time reading and talking about the Famine. One thing that is new to me is the discovery that people seemed to see Ireland’s problems with great clarity years or decades before the catastrophe struck. Foreign travelers, native politicians and priests, and even British government commissions repeatedly looked at Ireland and said, “What a mess.” To be more specific: the poverty of the place was obvious and appalling to observers; they found the extent and the depth of the privation that was the normal lot of the great mass of people striking and troubling. Not that anyone saw a famine coming–though those who paid attention saw that most people depended on potatoes and potatoes alone for survival; there was a recurring problem with hunger when crops failed or harvests were insufficient to carry people from one season to the next.

So there it was, out in the open: a huge population of destitute people living close to the edge of survival. Though the problem was commented on frequently and solutions occasionally broached, very little was done beyond the appointment of more commissions to study the problem anew. Doing something would have been very difficult. It would have meant fixing the country’s dysfunctional and inequitable system of land ownership; confronting that system would mean challenging a right considered fundamental by those who enjoyed it. The challenge would have been politically explosive. It was never attempted, and soon Ireland had its calamity and was never the same. Perhaps there was nothing to be done, though in the end the landowners who could not be challenged were swept away with the millions of poor who starved, succumbed to disease, or fled.

So, then: Northern Illinois University. We’ve all read what happened there this week. A perfectly nice young guy with a psychiatric history bursts into a lecture hall with his personal arsenal and shoots everyone he can. Also recently: five women shot and killed one Saturday morning by an apparent robber in a store just across the fields from my brother’s place in the Chicago suburbs. Here in the Bay Area, we have Oakland: 20-some murders already this year, and you can guess the tool of choice for the killings. A couple months back, a kid taking a piano lesson in a “safe” part of town was struck and paralyzed by a stray shot fired randomly during a gas-station robbery across the street.

Anyone remember Virginia Tech?

No matter where you are when you read this–as long as you’re in the United States–at least one incident in your neighborhood or city or state will readily come to mind: random shootings, drive-by shootings, accidental shootings; so many dead, so many wounded that the tallies are only numbing. We all see what’s happening, we all know or intuit that this kind of mayhem is out of control and is all too easily traceable to one source, regardless of the age, skin color, brain chemistry, or economic status of the victims and perpetrators, regardless of all the prison cells we’ve built and all the fearsome punishments we mete out.

Somehow, beyond the brief outbursts of shouting and finger-pointing that accompany the most atrocious outrages, we don’t seem to talk about this much anymore as something we can do anything about. Somewhere, in the tangle of dead and damaged bodies and amid the piles of spent shells, there’s a fundamental right we dare not challenge. Maybe there’s just nothing to be done.

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