Forty-nine or Fifty? Bearing Witness to Every Life Lost

June 18, 2016

In the days following the terrible mass shooting in Orlando there were vigils and protests all over the country. We were remembering the 50 people who died, as reported in the headlines of the New York Times on Sunday morning. I attended a vigil on the plaza in Santa Fe, NM on the Monday after the massacre. At one point an antigun activist speaking from the podium mentioned the 50 lives lost to gun violence. Someone from the crowd yelled back, “FORTY NINE!” And the speaker corrected herself. “Yes, 49.”

Since then I have seen the reported number of those killed corrected in the news and in coverage of vigils all over the country. It wasn’t until later in the week that I realized that it wasn’t a correction coming out of the Orlando coroner’s office that led to the recount of 49, but a decision on the part of reporters and activists not to count the perpetrator himself among the dead. Fifty people lost their lives on that horrible night, and one of them was the murderer.

I mean no disrespect at all to the families of the scores of people who were killed by Omar Mateen that night. I remember these completely unsuspecting victims of gun violence and I don’t want the pain of their loss overshadowed. Each of their names moves me deeply to demand gun law reform in this country, as well as to insist on upgraded vigilance on hate crime legislation. The names of these victims should be held up, published, spoken out loud, and used effectively and respectfully by advocates and activists to demand the change that so many of us want – to get guns out of our communities and to make America a more accepting, kinder, respectful, and nonviolent nation.

At the events I’ve been to in the past week, the names of 49 killed during that night of dancing and celebrating with friends have been recited, like painful poetry to weeping listeners. They are now included among the very long collective list of names of the 1st and 2nd graders who were gunned down while attending school in Newtown, the movie goers in Colorado, the disabled people at a service center in San Bernardino, college students in Oregon and Virginia, patients and workers at Planned Parenthood in many sites, and Black churchgoers in South Carolina. The list doesn’t end there. It is much longer than I can bear to write. They are a representative cross section of the diversity of this country. We can and should speak all of their names, side by side, using them as a form of what Buddhists call right speech. Zen Master Dogen says that right speech “has the power to turn the destiny of a nation.” These names become a litany prayer for the peaceful destiny of our nation. Please, may it be so.

And yet, there is the 50th name.

It is my practice as a Zen student to “bear witness” to every aspect of the situations I encounter. In this case, I bear witness to the victims and the perpetrators of these horrific acts, and the structures and systems that create the conditions for such violence. It is hard for me to attach the victim label to shooters, so I want to avoid using that language. It doesn’t seem helpful. But the people responsible for the long list of mass killings I mentioned above are part of something bigger – and it isn’t radical Islam. They are the product of a culture that uses hate and violence as a means to an end. They are a people who, in varying degrees, got easy and legal access to military grade assault rifles, did not get the mental health services they desperately needed, and were influenced by violent cultural memes that are exploding in popularity. People create cultures…we the people. As such, these acts of violence, allowed for by our laws and lionized by our culture, reflect something poisonous in each of us.

There are many stories in the Buddhist texts about poisons. Some scholars say that the Buddha and his earliest followers themselves might have been doctors and healers expert in finding antidotes to poisons. The ancient wisdom from those stories drives home a message: if we want a wholesome world, remove the poison from our own minds first. If we want peace, wellness, and intimacy in our world we first have to see it and cultivate it in ourselves. The remedy is straightforward: If we think violent thoughts, we will sow violence in our world. If our minds are wholesome, we will create wholesomeness.

Bearing witness is not only about understanding what drove “them” to do such terrible things. The practice is also to look deeply and with precision at the innumerable ways that they are us and we are them. It allows us to observe the intimacy that naturally exists among all things. Likewise, in looking deeply into the whole catastrophe, the dividing line between “us” and “them” gets blurred and we are able to see that each of us fully participates in creating and perpetuating a culture, usually unwittingly. This kind of unwitting ignorance is one of the poisons, and I think we can easily observe that this is so. Bearing witness practice reveals this unwitting ignorance to us, as well as the invisible intimacy we share, by looking deeply into the nature of things, beyond the headlines, and deep into all of the aspects of a situation that results in a mass shooting at a night club in Orlando.

In the course of our lives, we do many beneficial things; there is no doubt about that. But it seems that the world is moving in a direction that makes us deeply concerned and increasingly broken hearted. I am digging deeper into my own heart-mind to see more of these situations, and in an effort to prime the pump of healing, loving, compassionate and responsible action. I count myself among the many who remain blissfully unaware of the impact of our participation in systems of suffering. Our actions, especially our unconscious ones, have the power to reveal our mind states: we purchase things from a consumer system that disregards human rights and ethics, we invest money for everything from retirement to philanthropy in order to maximize financial return for ourselves without regard for the social, economic and environmental impacts of those investments on others. We are passive in the political system, relying on headline news for our information or becoming despondent or making excuses for offloading our obligation for creating a healthy society to others.

So, I have an opinion about this. As part of bearing witness to the suffering of this world I think we should count Omar Mateen among the dead. Fifty, not 49. We should say his name, and the names of all of the other mass shooters out loud. Their tragic lives and violent actions tell us something about the world we are creating. By not saying their names, the deeper causes of the sickness of these shooters and the violence it manifests, and our participation in the systems that perpetuate this violence, remain invisible.

Some say that these killers want to be memorialized, that they are motivated by the desire for notoriety and they want to be remembered for the mayhem and horror they created. It is reasonable to argue that by not mentioning them, we take away some of their power.

And yet, we practice seeing the worth and dignity of every person, even when the person has exacted unbearable suffering upon others. This is the radical stance of Buddhist practice, and it remains a challenging modern day koan. It drives us deeper into the hard question of suffering in our world and our role in relieving it. We have to continue to live the question – that is our practice. Counting him among the dead is one way. Not saying his name is another. As the famous koan asks, what is “the appropriate response?” And each of us has to stand on our own two feet to decide.

As of now, I think we have to challenge ourselves to say the killers’ names alongside those who were shot, and alongside our own names. There is so much that connects us to one another – victims, perpetrators and bystanders – we are all a part of the whole catastrophe. Putting our names together is one small step toward making these otherwise invisible connections visible, though it would be easier to not see it this way.

Counting him among the ones who are suffering also begins to shine light on the systemic violence we all participate in and are victimized by – racism, homophobia, militarism, economic inequality, and so on. If we don’t shine the light there, too, the deep-rooted causes of suffering will remain in the shadows and then come into being in the cultures and policies that we create and live by.

To count Omar Mateen among the dead is another way to bear witness to suffering, bring peacemaking into our minds, and then into our words, and then into our actions, so that saying it out loud might have “the power to turn the destiny of a nation.”

Joshin Byrnes

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