Our Country Has Forgotten the Value of a Life

FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 14:  Missouri Governor Jay Nixon speaks about the unrest in the town of Ferguson following the shooting
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 14: Missouri Governor Jay Nixon speaks about the unrest in the town of Ferguson following the shooting death of Michael Brown to residents and faith and community leaders during a forum held at Christ the King UCC Church on August 14, 2014 in Florissant, Missouri. Brown was shot an killed by a Ferguson police officer on August 9. Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, has experienced four days of violent protests since the killing. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

What is a life worth? Is a life worth your anger? Worth your bitterness, worth your hatred, worth your mental ticks and depredations? In August, as I watched Bryce Williams steal two lives in a pithy first-person videogame-like production that he later tweeted, that first question seized my mind: What is a life worth? For Williams, two lives -- young lives full of intrinsic value and extrinsic potentiality -- were worth some ego-satisfying tweets, a few days of publicity, and briefly sated-anger.

Life may have possessed even less value for Chris Harper Mercer, who killed ten in a fit of stupid anger at Umpqua Community College yesterday.

So maybe for a time before dying, a very small time, Bryce Williams's swirling anger, Chris Harper Mercer's swirling anger, stopped swirling. Perhaps, at long last, they felt sated. How relatively pitiful the causes of their anger; how incomparably grievous the consequences.

Bryce Williams and Chris Harper Mercer, like the terrorist Dylann Storm Roof, like Adam Lanza, like James Holmes, were mentally ill men. Men whose thoughts consisted of an obsessive abyss of hot hatred, the sort of men (and they are always men) who should have never had access to a life-ending tool. But our country's lax gun laws lent weapons to these swirling vortexes of psychosis, placed them in their very hands. This is madness.

Given the constricting power of the NRA, common-sense gun reform won't be coming any time soon. So to stop gun violence, for now, we must reform not our external laws but our internal laws -- our internal moralities, our individual senses of right and wrong and good and bad. We must set our priorities back in line. Our inner minds have devalued life too much. We must resuscitate the truth: That life is worth everything, because it is all that any of us have.

This is a basic truth: It says only that because nothing is as irretrievable as human life, nothing is as valuable as human life. Not racial bitterness at one's former employers; not anti-religious or anti-secular biases; not ill-informed racism that blesses a "man's" walking into a church of all places and massacring people due to their ancestry and melanin-levels; not an egotistical desire to avenge one's pride by shooting women because they didn't return your advances. The insignificance of these motivations measured up against the immense value of one human life would be incomprehensible were it not for the fact that there is nothing new here. Only recurring death.

Just look at the Umpqua Community College Shooting, its motive still unclear, which occurred ten minutes after I started writing this blog post. I'm sure that its egotistical motive, like the ones cited above, will similarly fail to equal the value of a human life.

Because life makes everything else possible.

To stem the violence that, as the Bryce Williams shooting revealed, is infecting even our social media feeds, we must do at least two things. First, we must stop legitimizing the idea that life is worth anger, hatred, or a desire for vengeance. We do this by eliminating the death penalty. For by stealing the lives of others, we further degrade our moralities, we further deny the value of each and every life. Second, we must recover our awe at the immense value of a human life. We can do this through religious means (each life possesses an indelible spark) or through secular empirical means (think only for a second about the incredible unlikeliness of your being here at this very moment ... the one out of a million million of your father's sperms that had to merge with your mother's egg, the one out of a million million of your father's father's sperms that had to merge with one specific egg, and so on). Even apart from the miracle that life even exists at all, or that humans exist in the first place, every one of us individually is living a miracle.

Every one of us is a miracle in the fullest sense of the term.

Recognizing life's intrinsic worth is a key step because our country has forgotten that value, and so it produces killers who, too, have forgotten that value. But ultimately, laws must change. Guns must become circumscribed -- because it is a truth as old as Homer that "the blade itself incites to violence." Still, we can start with the simpler truth, the truth that asks "what is a life worth?" and that responds, if not with "everything," then at least with "it is worth a few good gun laws."

America: We have work to do.