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When Innocence Dies
Oh Mercy, Everything Is Broken
Author’s Note: December 14, 2014. Two years since the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Unbelievably horrid news. 26 people killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. 20 of the victims no older than 7. A delusional young man with an assortment of mental disorders had access to firearms and ammo belonging to his mother, a gun enthusiast. For a week or so, Americans were shaken and hurt over this tragedy. Eventually, though, we got back to what passes for normal, with interest in bowl games and the NFL taking precedence. And since Newtown, there have been 95 school shootings in 33 states across the country. Leading the US with 12 school shootings is Georgia, which once again gets to proclaim “We’re Number One” for all the wrong reasons. Very little, from Rabun Gap to Tybee Island, can bring the leaders of our beautiful state to their senses. This year, Georgia’s governor signed the “Guns Everywhere” bill into law. Everywhere means everywhere — schools, bars, stores, even churches, giving new meaning to the old phrase, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” The constant refrain in “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” is “When will they ever learn?” The answer is that they — and we — won’t learn. We refuse to learn.
The latest day of horror was last Friday, December 14, 2012. It’s a tough one to sort through. The news of the mass murder in Newtown, Connecticut only got worse with each new report from early afternoon on. Too much to take in. But it’s all you can think about. And you think it through over and over again and still you can’t imagine the pain of the families, especially the parents of the 20 murdered children. We’re not equipped to absorb that much pain.
Less than two weeks after the unimaginable comes Christmas Day, a celebration focused on children and the birth of a child some 2000 years ago. In many cases, the meaning of the holiday compels us to feel more kindhearted and less judgmental, but in this modern world and particularly now, with the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School, all one can feel is anger at how things have fallen apart. Despite our nation’s power and wealth, like the figure in that great song by the Clash, we’re “lost in the supermarket… can no longer shop happily.”
Still, Americans like to think of themselves as concerned and generous. Think of the last few minutes of Frank Capra’s film, It’s A Wonderful Life. When we see it each year, we like to believe we’re like that, working hand in hand with angels. Think again.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see the film, Lincoln. It was rewarding to see the portrayal by Daniel Day Lewis of the great man. Lewis’s performance brings us closer to the iconic president. Of course, thoughts on Lincoln can also lead to melancholia and that’s the direction Gena and I took on our way home. Thoughts drifted to the assassinated president of our lifetime, John F. Kennedy. In his inaugural address, JFK called on Americans to ask what they can do for their country. Less than three years later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a crowd of over 200,000 about his dream in which “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Many of those who heard Dr, King were also familiar with a recently released Bob Dylan song, “Blowin; in the Wind,” that called for weapons to be “forever banned.” We looked back at those years of promise and took in the failures of our generation. So much wealth, energy, talent and creativity squandered.
Returning to town from the cinema in the close-in suburbs, we passed the big box stores and shopping palaces, many with empty storefronts that served as evidence of greed, materialism and plundering of the land. There were times, we thought, when it seemed the baby boomers could turn things around, even as we found ourselves well into our adult years. As the ’80s ended, Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” characters, in a Sunday strip, said goodbye to wretched excess, corruption, and mindless consumption while greeting the new decade. We could only hope.
In September ’89, Bob Dylan released his Oh Mercy album, which often suggested a prayerful spirit. Rolling Stone critic Anthony Decurtis noted Dylan’s new songs with “biblical shadings” that held to “a faith that is millenarian but far more generous than the one he articulated on his more overtly Christian records.” Dylan also served as social critic on “Political World,” singing of how “Wisdom is thrown into jail” and again on “Everything Is Broken” where he laments “Broken hands on broken ploughs” and “Broken treaties, broken vows.” On “Shooting Star,” the song that closes Oh Mercy, he reflects on things that go beyond the temporal:
Listen to the engine, listen to the bell
As the last fire truck from hell
Goes rolling by
All good people are praying
It’s the last temptation, the last account
The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount
The last radio is playing
“Shooting Star” conveys the reverent mood and melodic sense that imbued Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” It takes one out of the everyday pursuits like those of the political world, which is part and parcel of the tragedy in Newtown.
“Mercy walks the plank,” Dylan wrote, no matter what, in the political world. First we have to deal with the Bulletheads who believe it bad form to speak up for stricter gun laws in this tragic time. They hurl their sweeping statements, absolving blame from policies they support. Then we have the Bulletheads’ partners in politics, the right-wing Christians, following in the grand tradition of Pat Robertson, James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell, whose concern of peoples’ pleasure-seeking allowed them to spin wildly out of control.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who worked to give the impression in his 2008 presidential run that he and Keith Richards were buds, couldn’t help himself from weighing in at the pulpit that is Fox News. “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools, Huckabee declared, then asking, “Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?” Huckabee, also a minister in the Southern Baptist denomination, has little sense of nuance; his followers probably less. They make up a modern day version of the Scribes and Pharisees. Their convoluted logic frees them to grant the NRA a pass while blaming Supreme Court decisions made in ’62 and ’63.
Millions of Americans, whatever their thoughts regarding prayer in public schools, aren’t setting God aside. They’re seeking Him out in a time when they have no answers to what happened last Friday. They want guidance and succor from those who’ve studied the scriptures and embrace a loving God, not one moving about spitefully.
The pain the parents feel will never go away. When they sent their kids off to school that morning, they thought another typical weekend was ahead. Dad would pick up pizza or Mom might drive some of them over to a friend’s house to spend the night. Maybe there’d be a Christmas program at their church to attend or perhaps they’d go to the mall and the kids could see Santa.
On “Ring Them Bells,” another of the Oh Mercy songs that implies a strong faith, Dylan’s words hit home.
Ring them bells for the times that flies
For the child that cries
When innocence dies.
Not only does the child feel sadness over the loss of innocence. Those of us who thought the innocent days disappeared with the assassination of JFK feel the pain once again. It happens whenever goodness is taken from us for no good reason.
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