A National Emergency

WE’RE IN A national emergency, and it’s not swine flu. While we were being mobilized by an illness whose power was more media- than pathogen-induced, the fact that more than 100,000 people have been killed by guns in the U.S. since 9/11 seems to be just business as usual. Violence is clearly a public health crisis, yet our culture is ambivalent about murder.

This ambivalence is closely connected to the stories we tell about it. The recent film The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a good example. The movie does nothing more than most other films in the hostage-taking action genre subset: It makes us feel afraid, hits us in the face with imaginary bullets, and “resolves” the superficial good versus evil conflict at the film’s core with the audience’s surrogate (in this case Denzel Washington) becoming vengeance on our behalf.

We are so used to fictional violence as a source of fun that we are unable to see the continuum between the myths we expect in storytelling and the realities we are prepared to accept in real life.

The English writer Geoff Dyer says that “You have to be a stranger to the landscape to regard it as a view.” Maybe we should change our perspective on how we tell stories rather than hide from the truth by, for instance, boycotting violent films. I felt this while watching The Cove, which for me is the best film of the year so far. It offers a new vision of what a campaign documentary can be, in which intrepid oceanographers expose the slaughter of dolphins in Japan. The Cove is as exciting as the best thrillers—full of human drama and the vicarious inspiration we take from watching other people’s courage.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2009
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