The following is excerpted and adapted from Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow by Reggie Marra—forthcoming in October 2022.
On September 23, 2001 Rabbi Marc Gellman was one of the religious leaders who gathered at Yankee Stadium for a memorial service for the victims of the September 11 attacks. At the time the estimated number of deaths still hovered around 6,000, and Rabbi Gellman spoke of how stating the number of deaths—like 6,000 or six million—explains very little other than “how much death came in how short a time.” He went on to say that “the real horror of that day lies not in its bigness, but in its smallness. In the small searing death of one person 6,000 times, and that person was not a number. That person was our father or our mother or our son or our daughter…”1
America’s ongoing domestic body count requires that we honor this observation. As a nation we have become numb to the 103 gunshot deaths a day because this everyday violence only earns headline status if it qualifies as a mass shooting—with four or more victims at the same time and in the same place.2 Three doesn’t cut it. Recently, ten shooting victims in a grocery store and twenty-one in an elementary school were required to remind us of our American status quo. And even with the headlines and talking heads that such tragedies elicit, even with the photos and brief bios of the deceased, the “small searing death” of each individual carries with it agonizingly intimate memories and moments in the hearts and minds of surviving family and friends that the rest of us simply cannot imagine, try though we might.
The United States struggles and has struggled since its inception with the denial of the worse demons of its nature. Ignorance, arrogance, fear, bigotry, violence, greed, excess, bullying, and untrustworthiness cross breed and manifest in what Robert Bly called the long invisible bag we drag behind us—filled with all we deny and repress about ourselves—our collective national Shadow.
As a nation, America remains an experiment. We were conceived through an often remarkable fertilization of ideas that gave voice to some and subjugated others. We were born through a bloodbath that separated us from the British. We were raised on the enslavement of Africans and African Americans, on land theft from and the massacre and betrayal of Native Peoples, on the subjugation of women, and on peasant labor. We were reborn in an attempt to maintain the experiment through an anything-but-civil bloodbath with ourselves, from which we have yet to fully recover. And we were reborn yet again as a financial and military superpower as the result of a global bloodbath.
We regularly perpetrate and perpetuate violence against others while refusing to acknowledge and address in any effective way the everyday violence we commit against each other. Not yet 250 years old, we embody unhealthy iterations of adolescent beliefs in invincibility and immortality, despite clear evidence that we are neither. Not only have we not recovered from our bloodbaths of birth and rebirth in any whole, integrated sense, we continue to choose to bathe ourselves and others in blood, literally and metaphorically, because that is the normal we know.
Ignorance, arrogance, fear, bigotry, violence, greed, excess, bullying, and untrustworthiness: we can recognize them, own them, and integrate them, or they will continue to own us. Which do you choose?
1 Rabbi Marc Gellman, remarks at the September 23, 2001 Prayer Service at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. The video is available online: https://www.c-span.org/video/?166250-1/york-city-prayer-service.
2 2014-2019: 14,515 gun deaths/year avg. (not suicide) = 40/day avg; 23,094 suicides by gun = 63/day; 37,609 total annual gun deaths = 103/day: https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/