Am I getting soft or am I just human?

If you’re a fan of nature programs, as I am, you may have seen the one where a herd of zebras gets caught up in the midst of a lion hunt, whirring, thundering around in a herd until one animal, unlucky, a little too late, too slow, falls victim to the pounce of the predator.

If it’s not a zebra, it’s a wildebeest, a gazelle. Same plot, different prey animal. It’s really bad when it’s a baby zebra, or any baby. Hard to watch.

While the animal sprawls to the ground and the other lions converge to rip at its soft belly, the rest of the herd stands at a distance, alert, watching. Most likely they can’t be thinking, “Phew, that was lucky,” but it’s hard not to anthropomorphize.

On a human level, we pity the animals, especially those juniors that easily fall prey to the predators. Though we feel pain, on another level, we understand it is nature’s balance.

This week, as humans, we watched our own slaughter at the hands of predators, but in these cases, we killed our own.

The week began with the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook school killings, reminding us of that mind-numbing tragedy when 20 children and 6 staff went to school that morning and never came home.

Before we had time to digest the legacy of Sandy Hook, Monday dawned and a fanatical, disturbed individual, Man Haron Monis, took a café full of hostages in Martin Place in the heart of Sydney. The siege ended in the early hours with his death and the deaths of two of the hostages.

Peshawar, Pakistan experienced its own Sandy Hook to an exponential level on Wednesday. The world reeled from the unspeakable murders at the Army Public School. The massacre of 145 people included 132 schoolchildren, was committed by Taliban extremists. The children were hunted like fish in a barrel, shot to death beneath their desks, chased down like rabbits in the hallways.

Also on Tuesday, six people in Pennsylvania met their end at the hand of a troubled Bradley William Stone, an Iraq war veteran – and he was found later, dead in the woods, his body a network of lacerations. He was known by all his victims.

Not counting all the other atrocities that never made it to our main news, Friday delivered the stunner of eight children stabbed to death in Cairns, QLD between 18 months and 15 years, killed by their own mother, Mersane Warria. They were found by the 20-year-old eldest son. I cannot imagine his grief.

Before Pakistan happened, a federal senator here in Australia of the very minority Liberal-Democrat party, David Leyonhjelm suggested that the government relax its stringent gun laws and allow citizens to carry concealed weapons. He said without weapons, Australia was a merely nation of victims.

“What happened in that cafe would have been most unlikely to have occurred in Florida, Texas, or Vermont, or Alaska in America, or perhaps even Switzerland as well,” Senator Leyonhjelm said in ABC’s morning radio news program, AM.

He went on to explain that odds were, in those places one or two people would have had a concealed firearm.

He went on to explain, “That nutcase who held them all hostage wouldn’t have known they were armed and bad guys don’t like to be shot back at.”

So I’m reading this report on the ABC over breakfast on Tuesday morning, and my eyes welled with indignant tears. I was furious. I began scouring Facebook, the Senator’s web site, somewhere I could voice my anger. I’m not an Australian, but I had to let this moron know that guns in the bedside table, on the fridge, on the desk drawer, under the bed or in some unlocked closet, to be drawn out in anger, fear rage or ignorance could not happen here.

Not in this country. Not on my home ground.

Despite his commendable support of same-sex marriage, Mr Leyonhjelm is also, ironically, pro-gun, and used to be a member of the Liberal party. A former Liberal party member, he left the party when former Liberal PM John Howard enacted a raft of very tough gun laws following the Port Arthur, Tasmania massacre of 35 people by Martin Bryant in 1996.

Thankfully, all other politicals, including John Howard himself have decried or dismissed Mr Leyonhjelm’s remarks, but I began to examine my own reaction. Why did the comment that Australians should become an armed nation bring me to tears?

I’ll start by saying, I moved to Australia in 2003 when GW Bush took that fatal step and launched his war in Iraq. I was sitting as a guest in a home in Arizona when they announced the invasion had begun. I was at a horse clinic, and the table was filled with chattering, happy horse people, some Bush lovers, some apathetic.

But I and a few others, were focused on that press conference, asking why. I also wondered why so few of the people in that kitchen were drawn to the television.

That was in March 2003. And it only got worse. Bush and his intelligence and security comrades began flooding the nation with a series of alerts to warn the population there was an imminent threat of terrorism, anywhere, anytime. It upped the ante for me.

Where I grew up, you understood that violence was real. The complexities of how it evolved and continues to evolve is volumes long, but there it is.

My parents still live few blocks from the west side of Chicago where young people then and now are often sucked into a cycle of violence, threatened to join gangs or engage in the practice. They are living in a war zone and most people who are in those neighborhoods are hostages of the battle and likely live with undiagnosed PTSD. It is a validation to handle a weapon in some eyes and a reality to grieve on a regular basis.

We have failed these communities and they continue to engender violence on many levels. Including in the police force.

And of course, like cities across the world, each life lost in the crossfire is another innocent life lost. Even those who wield the weapons. There are generations of bright young minds destroyed. Keeping all that in mind, I learned to be cautious by nature.

When I lived back home with my folks, these were my thoughts when it came to traveling through the west side: did I take the el home, or catch the Metra? Did I skip taking the Eisenhower and just jet down Jackson Boulevard or Chicago Avenue to get downtown faster?

Did I follow the necklace of stoplights home on North Avenue at night to avoid the gold-packaged Mercedes and Cadillacs whipping on and off exit ramps with kids who might have just got a license playing tag at 80mph?

Or did I go further north and take Fullerton? Did I walk alone at night along Augusta, Division or Chicago depending on the cars streaming past from Austin?

It was just part of life. You made decisions. You were careful. You had to trust that the people on the train with you wanted to ride as safely as you did, that the kid angrily rapping out his frustrations up and down the el car aisle was just venting his anger, and used words to let you know instead of a gun.

I was never hurt, though my brother was in a frightening incident on an entrance ramp to the Eisenhower, and too many people had been assaulted on the el for my liking.

I understood that it can all end in a moment. So I ask myself the question, at what point did the violence begin to wrench my insides?

I’m not sure where it all changed.

Another story. A clue.

Years ago, I was at Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, and they had a tiger enclosure with a large, maybe two-inch thick glass wall that stood at one end of the exhibit where people could get that up-close and personal feeling with the animals. One large animal was lying along the cool of the glass, and I was on the other side, just marvelling at the size and beauty of this tiger, as you do.

Then a posse of little kids turned up with a parent. These kids proceeded to hammer on the glass and shout at the tiger, pounding their pre-adolescent fists to make it move. It did move; pinned its ears, rolled back lips to show massive fangs and pawed at the glass to the delight of the children, who jumped back, then were straight back in, banging on the glass. I walked away. It was horrible, but expected. I accepted it.

Years later, at the Melbourne Zoo, not long in this country, I was on the other side of a deep pit that separated me from an extended family of gibbons. They are nature’s acrobats and those of us watching enjoyed the show. Among them were a couple of mothers cradling little baby gibbons, holding them protectively against their breasts.

Another cluster of kids arrived, about the same age as those tiger tormentors with a few adults. Instead of the catcalls or screams I expected, the children began to say the oddest things in a soft tone of voice.

“Isn’t that lovely?” one girl exclaimed.

“Look, mum, isn’t that sweet?” another girl asked.

“Oh, look at that. That’s so cool!” another breathed.

“What the hell?” I thought.

I had never heard from the mouths of babes such kind, sympathetic thoughts about animals at a zoo. My experience was young people screeching for attention from these animals that had learned not to react.

Of course, not all American children are like this, and those sweet Aussie kids could have been a fluke, but the experience has been repeated too many times, repeated not about just animals, but about people around us from people of all ages.

I wonder, has this place softened me to become more human? To become less tolerant of fear from another person? To be more compassionate? To react with deep sorrow about tragedy rather than apathy?

And it made me think about my experience in Australia. Since I have been here, I have never felt that I could become a target as I did in the US. There is racism, there is killing and assault, pedophilia and domestic abuse. There are extremists and hatred.

I met a woman from Indonesia last week who moved to this town from a town an hour away because she and her husband had become targets of harassment. It does happen.

Humans are humans. Witness Man Haron Monis taking over the Sydney café this week.

The innocent can fall victim to violence, yet there is not the burden of fear. Perhaps that is why Australia has reacted so intensely to the siege. The ocean of flowers of remembrance.

But above all that, there is a kind of common sense. There is a consistent message across all demographics and dogmas that we must embrace our differences.

As a result of Monday’s siege, it was too easy to target Muslims as the enemy in the contemporary atmosphere. And yet, a Twitter movement #illridewithyou, created by Rachael Jacobs was born, letting those who might become targets on public transport, mostly those who appeared to be Muslim.

Selection of tweets generated by #illridewithyou.
Selection of tweets generated by #illridewithyou. Photo:

There was an interactive network established know that a person had their back and would ride with them to keep them safe. Those people continue to come from all colors and creeds.

When I got off that plane in Melbourne nearly 11 ½ years ago, I felt a kind of weight lifted from my shoulders. And I feel that way each time I come back to Australia.

I am no Liberal, and I say that in the Australian political sense, translating into conservative. In my own beliefs, I am a leftist, I suppose. But I am grateful that John Howard, and even this government, as much as I dislike or disagree many of their current ideologies, do not endorse a relaxation of gun laws. Because in a weapon, I see a movement from empathy toward apathy.

I believe a gun purchased for protection compromises our humanity. Instead of a population that prides itself on looking after each other, armed against the person beside us, we are only looking after ourselves. It occludes our understanding.

I go back to Senator Leyonhjelm’s remark that without a weapon, we are just sitting ducks: we are victims.  I like to think our strength lies in our intelligence, creativity, altruism and kindnesses, rather than the tools that nurture our violent tendencies.

It could be that living in Australia has softened me. But to feel empathy for my neighbor, and even for the enemy, I think that is thing that makes me part of the herd. Not the predator.

This photo of a lion and zebra at the Masai Mara was taken by Sanjay Sridhar, care of National Geographic.

1 Comment

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Nicky Gilkisonreply
December 21, 2014 at 6:54 am

There are just no easy answers. I have started a series of paintings, and I haven’t properly painted in a while, that are about me trying to hold the pain of the world and the beauty of the world amidst the history of the world together. It’s takes a balancing and holding of inner tension to create these paintings and I don’t even know if I can. But to simply bare witness to my own pain and horror, particularly my mind goes to the incident in Parkistan, listening to the news on the car radio, tears rolling down my face, hearing again and again about troubled people doing horrific things? Even so, I’m with you on the gun laws. I need to feel that the default for humanity is about nurturing relationship, creating connection, not shutting it down, muting it with a piece of (in my mind)always ill aimed lead.

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