The last two days have been relatively easy for me. I got up at a sensible time to either practice or do schoolwork. Yesterday I went to a museum and today I’ll go grocery shopping. A normal life in Norman Oklahoma.
The last two days have not been easy for the community of the greater Kalamazoo area. And while many people's days probably mirrored mine, safe, domestic, and for all intents and purposes, ordinary, we have a sense that something isn’t right. A suspect has now been charged with the murder of six people in a seemingly random torrent of violence. It has shaken us at our core.
Though my two years living in Kalamazoo flew by, it nonetheless left a profound impression on me. Inclusiveness defined the Kalamazoo way of life. Whether it was its many theaters or the multitude of arts organizations, its accessible secondary education options or the Kalamazoo Promise, or even its ever friendly breweries and restaurants, it is hard to feel left out or “on the outside”. For example, any night of the week you can go into Bell’s Brewery and find an extremely diverse yet completely harmonious group of people. Families, businessmen, college students, or just eclectic townies… the bar’s vibe was very eccentric but equally accepting. Artwalk, Downtown Kalamazoo, the Dalton Center, there is something for anyone and everyone.
I think this is why these acts of violence are so, for lack of a more fitting word, violent. The suspect was arrested only blocks away from Bell's. The inclusive community, the open format, the willingness to share and celebrate what we have in common has been challenged. Yet it has been challenged, not by an ideology or by raging emotions, but by something much more unsettling.
NPR reported an emotionless interaction between the driver and his rider six hours after the first shooting.
"I jokingly said to the driver, 'You aren't the shooter, are you?' and he either shook his head or said no, and I said, 'Are you sure?'
"And his response wasn't like you would expect, like a laugh. It was just very calm and quiet. It was, 'I'm just tired. No, I'm just tired.' "
Moreover, upon hearing the charges brought against him and asked if he understood the situation, he replied, “I would prefer to remain silent.” The absence of a clear motive is unnerving. And perhaps it is not that a motive is not known at the present time but that there doesn’t seem to be one at all.
I intentionally want to bypass any debate over the politics of guns in our country for an alternative reading of this situation. I offer a possible solution that, in concert with many other efforts, could be part of a comprehensive plan to create a more peaceful and just world.
If you experience art, if you are in contact with beauty, if you share experiences communicating emotions and ideas with other people, you are less likely to feel alienation from other people. Alienation, or more strongly, the divorce of yourself from a sense of humanity, is an underlying cause of senseless violence. What brings a 20-year old to kill twenty six children and teachers? What motivates a man to kill a seemingly random set of people on an ordinary Saturday night? I do not know. What I do know is that it is a lot harder to engage with the mental/emotional processes that might lead someone to do these things if you are connected to other people.
I don’t know what role guns are supposed to play in our society. I’m not sure how our social services can reach people who need help the most. But perhaps in order to fight the good fight, to put an idealistic end to violence in our society, we should do so how Kalamazoo does it. Inclusion. Besides its cultural value and personal meaning, the arts have the potential to be one of the most inclusive communities that brings our civilization together. No one is good at everything it takes to playing a musical instrument and I don’t know of anyone who is bad at everything either. At any stage of life, for any walk of life, music is a positive and bonding universal force.
You might be saying to yourself, “but Kalamazoo was already inclusive and it didn’t work.” You’re right, it didn’t. We have to try harder. We have to work every day to reach out to anyone and everyone in the hope that something like this will not happen again. And in all probability, it will. However, that is one of the best qualities of idealistic romantic starving artists. We don’t care. In fact, we like those odds. These are the conditions that we fight every day in the creative process. Perfection is only a dream but we carry on anyways.
Don’t let your spirit be broken. Reaffirm your commitment to whatever good you do, with your family, to your friends, at your job, and in your community. Take action and make great art. It might be the lifeline that someone didn’t know they needed.