Last week I absorbed, with horror, news story after news story of a gunman opening fire at a bar near where I used to live. Where so many of my close friends still live. Where we celebrated Dave’s 30th birthday with friends. Where one member of the Pepperdine community—Alaina Housley—and eleven others were senselessly murdered.
Although I consider myself a pacifist, I also recognize that I sit in a position that privileges me to hold those beliefs. I’ve never been forced to sign up for a draft or told I had to physically harm someone. I’ve never had to physically defend myself or those that I love. I’ve never been in a situation where violence seemed like the only option.
I have a hard time understanding how wars, violence, and killing are ever the best option, but I also don’t operate in the military world so my opinions are weakly informed. I acknowledge that it’s one thing to hold philosophical commitments, and entirely another thing to stand firm in those commitments when they are put to the test IRL.
I’ve been wondering what I would have done if I had been there and there was a gun in my hand. If I had the opportunity, before or during the shooting, would I have pulled the trigger to kill the gunman and prevent others from dying?
Because those twelve people did not need to die. They shouldn’t have died. If I could have saved those twelve people by killing one, would I have done it? What if eleven were already dead and I could save one by killing one – would I have done it? These questions are keeping me up at night.
This thought experiment hurts my head and my heart. I truly don’t know what I would have done. Because just as Alaina Housley is someone’s daughter, the shooter is someone’s son. And as wrong as it is for him to take her life, isn’t it just as wrong for me to take his?
I’m not talking legality, I’m talking ethics. When the ethics get murky, my brain goes into overdrive desperately trying to push things into categories of black and white. It never works, but I try every time.
People might quote “an eye for an eye” here or refer to our criminal justice system, but those won’t deliver clarity or an answer. The “eye for an eye” clause was a protection against retaliation that was worse than the original offense. It was to protect the offender from suffering a fate worse than he/she had inflicted. It was a limit, not an allowance or requirement.
And don’t get me started on our criminal justice system which is based on retribution rather than reconciliation. Our system is not cross-shaped.
I haven’t ever been in a “kill or be killed” situation. I pray that I never will be.
I have been in a number of situations where I could have chosen the way of self-sacrifice but didn’t. So I’m wondering if that’s a good place to start. Having eyes that are adjusted to opportunities to let others go first, have the best, or be the one. Having ears that are attuned to the needs and desires of others. Having a heart that is willing to lay down what I want for the sake of others.
Perhaps I’m asking the wrong question. Instead of asking whether I could take a life to save another, I should be asking whether I could lay down my own life for another.
Although I’m not any clearer on whether my pacifist beliefs can withstand our current world, this much is certain: gun violence is a horrifying problem in our country that we should absolutely be taking action to stop.
Guns were used to kill thirteen people last week in my hometown. And yes, one gun in the “right” hand at the “right” time might have killed one to save twelve. But is there another way? Are there lots of other ways?
Are there ways we can be unraveling the glorification of violence? More things we can be doing to promote mental health and strong communities? New ways we can offer safe outlets for pain and model healthy conflict engagement? Creative adjustments to practices around gun ownership?
Can we do better? I believe we can.