This morning a short headline appeared in my feed describing the fact that a firefighter had been killed battling forest fires in California. Perhaps you’ve seen video of that entire hillside in California pulsing with flames. Someone filmed it while sitting in traffic. The visual so closely resembled scenes from the movie This Is The End that one wondered if the apocalypse was indeed encroaching on our tender existence.
Those who work as first responders necessarily see the world from a different perspective than the rest of us. So do those who work in the military. The gap between how people who confront danger for a living versus those of us who court challenges for thrills through sports is quite dramatic.
It’s an interesting scene at the finish of an Ironman when competitors run down the last 400 meters and people are banging on the barriers cheering them home. We think of them as heroes of sorts for having completed the Ironman distance. And that’s true in a sense. Personal heroics are legitimate endeavors that challenge us to discipline ourselves. We have to first light then put out the fires within us.
It’s different for firefighters caught in a dayslong battle with smoke and fire and heat consuming massive amounts of acreage. Those battles are primally external. I once watched a forest fire eating the top of a ridge outside Glacier National Park. The smoke blew out the tip of the fire like the exhalations of a sleeping dragon. There were helicopters flying giant buckets of water and fire retardant over the woods. They looked like orange locusts flying back and forth. Those efforts slowed the fires somewhat, but did not stop them.
Down on the ground, firefighters run the risk of being overwhelmed by smoke and fire. Lives can be snuffed out in a second. There are moments when all the training in the world means nothing if the right gust of wind or a turnabout fire gives life to the conflagration.
Yet there is great irony in the way firefighters sometimes do their jobs. They literally fight fires by lighting fires in advance of the approaching flames. Their job is to head the fire off at the pass by burning away the fuel that could help it grow larger or go new places. There’s a lesson in that approach for society in general. Sometimes it pays to fight fire with fire by confronting evil thoughts and actions at their source. That source might be wrongheaded religious or political beliefs, ignorance or prejudice, even sometimes basic selfishness. Some of these harmful outlooks can only be burned off at the source. Once they gain credence, they spread like wildfire. We’re seeing that fact come alive in America every day.
I admire the people who do those jobs. Men and women, and all points in between. The idea that transgender people are not allowed to serve in the military when they’re willing to serve their country and face potential danger from enemies is absurd. It’s an arrogance, an idiocy of assumed authority to disavow them the right to serve when they are willing and able.
If someone is capable of protecting lives and the nation itself, their commitment surpasses every provision. I’m personally grateful to people who serve in fire and police departments. I’ve seen firsthand how paramedics and trained emergency personnel do their job. Watched them cart my loved ones off on a stretcher or driven by ambulance to the hospital. They do these things every day.
Thanking public servants
And while I’m out running or riding or swimming in open water I don’t take that commitment for granted. I’ve been scooped up by ambulance myself after a bike crash in the hills of Wisconsin. I trust the police who guard the streets during running and bike races.
It is so unfortunate that our police face threats from so many directions these days. My personal belief is that our gun laws are mightily flawed, and the national priorities are skewed toward selfish aims. When it comes to gun laws in America, we’re living in a Twilight Zone, defined as “a conceptual area that is undefined or intermediate.” And life in America has become a surreal experience in which one-man armies can mow down 50 people at a concert and the government doesn’t lift a finger to do anything about it.
Obviously millions of people disagree that we’re in a Twilight Zone at all. They happily support laws such as Concealed Carry as the solution to personal safety. I think that’s a fool’s game, and has proven to be so on multiple occasions. Thus I think it will be 100 years from now before anything changes. Thousands more people will die simply because people choose to ignore the first clause of the Second Amendment in favor of another that affirms their selfish beliefs. That simple yet inelegant choice is responsible for 30,000 people dying from gun violence of one kind or another every year.
And I say that’s a Twilight Zone if there ever was one.
Revenge is not so sweet and idea
It’s true that I’ve fantasized about carrying a gun myself during my bike rides. When vehicles threaten my life by buzzing me close or drivers scream angry words out the window or climb out of their vehicles wanting to start a fight over my right to ride on public roads, it feels good to imagine plugging their trunks full of bullets. I’m human. I’d like to seek revenge as much as the next person.
Yet I realize those are irrational thoughts, not the beliefs of a truly civilized person. This Concealed and Open Carry idea that we should bring back the Wild West with vigilante law enforcement by private citizens toting guns is beyond insane. Yet that’s how many Americans seem to think. They believe that it is better to take matters into their “own hands” with a gun than invest faith in those entrusted with the responsibility to maintain a safe and civil society.
Principles honest and right
I guess I have real faith in God that justice does prevail when people exhibit honest and right principles rather than walking around armed and pretending like everything’s normal about that. It’s not normal or what the Founding Fathers ever intended. We can be sure of that, because a ‘well-regulated militia’ does not operate in secret, or claim outright distrust of the government itself, much less express fears and prejudice and distrust that drives so many people to carry weapons.
Granted, some claim to only want guns for “personal protection.” Yet somehow millions of us manage to accomplish safe lives without the need for a gun on our hips.
Why is that? Why are some people so vested in the idea that violence is inevitable and an expected aspect of life? I think it’s because there is a basic misunderstanding of what constitutes real social justice. That is how criminals and enemies and those we brand “real evil” in this world actually thrive. They are empowered by the fact that fear is our first response to their presence. They see the distrust and feel justified striking out at those who most refuse to acknowledge their humanity, their religion or their raw insanity. It’s a simple fact of creating and opportunity and taking advantage of it. If disenfranchised people don’t see conventional means to achieve their aims, they will take drastic measures to gain what they want.
That’s why mass shooters are prone to suddenly “go off” with no seeming motivation for the killing. They are merely creating an opportunity for their own expression of hate or fear or disenfranchisement. It’s no more complex than that.
But it can be culturally driven as well. That’s why entire wings of a religion see fit to issue death threats toward perceived enemies, blow up abortion clinics or hide chronic abuse from the public eye.
That’s also why even those chartered to protect our lives in a police force learn to ‘protect their own’ lest they be exposed for having fears and insecurities of their own.
People who stand strong in the face of angry force and terror should be acknowledged and admired. But so should the seemingly weak and powerless whose case may not be clear to us, but whose irrational motivations or actions should not remain a mystery.
Certainly mental health issues enter this formula of acknowledgement and treatment. But so should violent strains of religion on every side. These need to be addressed not through war, but through confrontation of the very principles driving the insanity.
Martin Luther King, Jr. faced many of these cultural divisions and died by a bullet anyway. But in his ministry he spoke truths that have not been embraced to this day. Like I’ve said, I admire those entrusted to protect lives and serve in the police, military, fire and emergency worlds. But Martin Luther King, Jr. had words meaningful to the rest of us, that we should dwell upon while we’re out exercising our freedoms to run, ride and swim. Read this and give it some thought, and I’d love to hear what you believe about the real confrontations we face in the world today.
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.
Martin Luther King Jr.