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The Navy Yard Shooter and America’s “Permanent” State of Violence

Monday’s mass shooting at the Washington D.C. Navy Yard hits home for American Buddhists because the gunman was one of us.  Aaron Alexis was a member of a Thai Buddhist sangha in his neighborhood, and even had plans to become a monk someday. He also was a former Navy reservist who was discharged back in 2011 after an incident that ended in Alexis shooting the floor of a neighbor’s apartment. The views on his overall character from people interviewed in news reports ranged from “gentle” to “childish.” It’s clear that he was long upset over the benefits offered to him by the Navy following his discharge, and he also apparently had an ongoing dispute with his boss (from a Hewlett-Packard subsidiary subcontracting with the Navy) over his salary. It also appears that he has a history of mental health issues, including hearing voices about a month before the shooting.

Before I explore some of the broader issues at play in this case, I want to offer my sympathies and prayers to all those who knew the 13 victims, including Alexis. Losing your loved ones in such a violent, sudden manner is awfully difficult to swallow, no matter what your beliefs about life and death are. I grieve for the 12 people who woke up Monday morning and went about their days, only to find themselves in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Every bullet that ripped through their bodies tears through all of us as well. I grieve for the gunman who so lost his way in this life, and left it in such a violent, horrific fashion. I grieve for the families, friends, and loved ones who are now in shock, in mourning, in a place they probably never expected they would be. I grieve for our nation as well, which cannot seem to break through the oppressive haze of its collective shadows, and continues to spawn nightmare after nightmare across the planet.

The awareness of how fragile our lives are should prompt more compassion, and more willingness to actively pursue the kinds of changes that might bring about a much more peaceful society. So often, though, these incidents quickly devolve into heated, ugly debates about motives or gun control. They are also rife with frenzied attempts to attach or detach numerous labels, as well as a desire to create as much separation from the perpetrators as possible. We seem prone to hurried burials. Wanting to put into the ground not only the bodies of the dead, but also every other aspect of disturbance itself. Instead of lingering with questions, we rush to fixed answers. Instead of living with open grief, and letting it disturb business as usual, we do whatever we can to push through it, or stuff it, and move on. Buddhists do this. Christians do this. Humans do this. It’s something we are wont to do.

And yet, there’s something about living in an empire nation that makes it that much more the case. Quick burials are our specialty. The business of profits and power won’t be blocked by such things. We’ll just bury the dead, offer some tidy narrative about the killers, and privately attend to the grief stricken families. It’s all very predictable.

I’ll never forget being in Ireland on the day of, and days following the 1998 Omagh terrorist bombing. The nation had finally begun to move towards peace after decades of conflict and in an instant, all of that effort was thrown into doubt. Much of Ireland went on mourning that week. Unable to keep going, and unwilling – I believe – to allow this situation to be quickly cast aside. Days after the bombing, I stepped off a bus into the town square of Galway, into a sea of Irish citizens quietly standing, quietly waiting for something. The grief was palpable, but also a certain resolve to not let this incident derail the peace process. About 20 minutes after I arrived, someone stood before the crowd, the mayor perhaps, and slowly began reading the names of the dead. A name and then silence. Another name and then silence. Tears. Private tears and public tears all the same. Another name. Heart beats. The sound of birds squabbling overhead. Bells ringing. Bells rings. Bells ringing.

All over Ireland that week, scenes like this one. People sharing their grief, aware that they were all in this together, whatever side of the conflict they were on.

One of the problems we have here in America is that there isn’t a single, clear conflict like the Irish Troubles to focus on. Instead, we’re dealing with everything from our legacy of slavery and genocide to the explosive anger of individuals that kill without clear reasons. So many disturbances. So much untapped grief, and a failure to see that we are, really, all in this together. Whether we like it or not.

Let’s consider a few broader points now.

The Buddhist/Not Buddhist Issue – The Washington Post has an article exploring the responses of Buddhists in the U.S. to learning that Aaron Alexis identified as one of us. Among them are the comments of Buddhist blogger Justin Whitaker, who rightly points out that many practitioners in countries like the U.S. hold firmly to the view that Buddhism is a peaceful religion with no history of being used for violent means. This seems to remain even in the face of Buddhist led violence in Burma. In fact, while I think this mythology is quite strong amongst American Buddhists, it’s definitely not unique to us. The generally slow and confused response of many in the Burmese monastic leadership to the violence there is also tied to this view. It’s not any better in Sri Lanka, where patterns similar to those in Burma are emerging after multiple decades of Buddhist led violence during the nation’s civil war.

It’s noteworthy how the peaceful stereotype informs both the public, media story about Alexis, as well as the debate amongst Buddhists about his affiliation with the religion. In the same Washington Post article, the following line is offered:

“The relationship, if any, between Alexis’s spiritual beliefs and his rampage remains a mystery.”

Can you imagine such a line being written in an article about a mass shooter who was Muslim? I can’t . I recall the battles on my blog and elsewhere in the Buddhist blogosphere about the instantaneous link between the Ft. Hood Shooter, Nidal Hassan, and radical Islam. Before we knew much about his background or motives. If someone is Muslim, they must be a terrorist. That’s the standard narrative. Whereas, if they’re a white Christian male, for example, then they must be “crazy” or “a rotten apple.” In other words, when situations like mass shootings occur, Buddhists are faced with positive stereotyping, Muslims are face negative stereotyping, while Christians remain in their default norm status, mostly unaffected as a group by a killer’s association with their religion.

Journalist and Buddhist blogger Joshua Eaton takes up this very issue in his current post for Religion Dispatches.

“Of course, there is nothing to indicate that Alexis’ rampage had anything to do with his Buddhist practice. But even people who do commit atrocities in Buddhism’s name—the anti-Muslim monk Ashin Wirathu in Burma, whom Time magazine called “the face of Buddhist terror,” may be the most famous example—often get the same treatment. Buddhists do not commit violence, it seems, therefore no one who commits violence can be a Buddhist.

The different ways we respond to violence perpetrated by Buddhists and by Muslims are based on seeing people as religious stereotypes rather than human beings. The effects on Muslims in the United States are obvious and profound. They face discrimination, hate crimes, intrusive government surveillance and the daily threat of violence. Mosques are burned to the ground. Hard-working immigrants are denied jobs. Women are assaulted on the street.”

Joshua goes on to point out that it’s simply human to fail to live up to the ideals of our religious and spiritual traditions. We practice and pray and study together, aspiring to embody the teachings. Aaron Alexis and others who commit awful crimes represent the worst failings, but that doesn’t make them any less human or ultimately any more different than the rest of us.

I further have to wonder about race in this particular case. Will Black Buddhists in the U.S. face heightened scrutiny following this incident? Will this stir up the violent black man narrative in our sanghas, making it even more difficult for black male American Buddhists to practice and enjoy community? I also wonder about the Thai American Buddhist community, and whether this will in some manner or another negatively impact them. This is the kind of incident that, if handled poorly, can greatly divide an already divided American sangha. I actually hesitate to even use such a label. We’re basically a bunch of fragmented groups here in the states, struggling to even understand and get along with each other, when the effort to attempt is even bothered. Some folks want to dismiss race in this case, but that’s even more foolish than trying to argue that Alexis wasn’t Buddhist.

Secondly, it’s difficult to ignore the military angle of this picture. There has been a major spike in shootings at U.S. military complexes over the past half decade. In addition, the number of suicides has also greatly increased over the past decade or so, including a record number last year. The general mental health picture of American soldiers is abysmal. And the rates of committing violent sex crimes and domestic violence by military personnel are through the roof.

The pervasiveness of the military industrial complex basically ensures that none of this will get addressed at the roots. Symptoms management in various forms is brought to forefront, and no doubt renewed debates about the lack of strong mental health resources for soldiers and veterans will occur. However, I’m not convinced that anything will really change until we collectively take aim at the nature of the military itself, and the capitalist machine the drives it. Furthermore, lurking behind all of this is the specter of patriarchy, and the failure of men, in particular, to uproot their individual and collective addictions to power over paradigms that keep us all oppressed, and maintain a permanent state of violence fueled by the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance.

Appeals to patriotism, protection, and world power must be stopped in their tracks. If we truly desire to put an end to situations like this, we have to learn to individually and collective stand in uncertainty, discomfort, and not knowing. Figuring out ways to humanely address the violent crimes people commit without perpetuating the cycle of “eye for an eye” style justice will require that. Building something like a non-violent army will require that. Truly upending sexism and racism will require that. Stamping out economic injustices and developing a more humane, eco-centric economy will require that.

I honestly don’t know if enough of us are up for this work at this time. Actually, I kind of doubt it for the short term. It’s too late for Vishnu Pandit, Mary Francis Knight, and the other victims of the shooting. It’s also too late for Aaron Alexis.

At the same time, none of us knows what the future will bring, or how the seeds that have been planted will sprout. Perhaps the fact that some of us are willing to more clearly engage in conversations like this is a positive sign. I tend to think that whether in hope or in hopelessness, going forth the best we can is all that we can do.

Let’s begin by grieving well. To embody this part of our human experience as well a we can.

May all those who have been harmed by this shooting be healed. May both the dead and the living find peace. May we wake up together, one step at a time.

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Comments (3)

  • Jeff

    Lest we feel completely overwhelmed by the shocking nature of the Navy Yard killing and its deep roots in our economy and culture, I think it’s worth looking more closely at some concrete steps we can take in response. To focus on one area of vulnerability that Nathan points out, mental health services for veterans as well as the general population are woefully inadequate and steadily getting worse: $4.35 billion was cut from state budgets for these benefits between 2009-2012.

    There is a strong and growing movement to enact universal health care (including psychiatric services and counseling) to replace the costly, ineffective, profit-driven mess of a system we have now. Providing a comprehensive, equitable package of medical benefits for all Americans may not address fundamental social causes of mental illness and murder but it will help keep us healthy while we take on those deeper problems. It will also extend care to tens of millions who are currently marginalized, prevent 45,000 annual US deaths from lack of health insurance, and end our biggest source of bankruptcies: unpaid medical bills.

    And this is just one aspect of Monday’s shooting that Nathan has broken down for us – it has ramifications that extend to workers rights, religion, mass media, racism, gun control, the military, you name it. There are progressive struggles going on right now on all of those fronts that are “taking aim at the capitalist machine” from different angles and with varied means. Let’s honor the Navy Yard victims by joining with other Americans who are working to stop the engine of violence and build a compassionate alternative.

  • Mat Witts

    I actually read every word of this because it accomplished quite a bit along the way in terms of contextualising the whole thing – but compare it to say ‘Buddhists and violence’ ( where ‘Buddhist practitioner, published author, and teacher’ Bodhipaksa has put out in a ‘thought leadership’ piece that runs to about eleven hundred words in what I have to say is becoming quite a common problem amongst the ‘navel gazing’ nobility – take a thousand words to fill a page to say something that might just about fit in a comment like this. So, let’s see. Surely Bodhipaksa’s argument that the vector for ‘Buddhism’ (a socio-cultural space / ‘habitus’ for ‘insiders’ called ‘Buddhists’) is not the same as the vector for ‘Buddha Dharma’ (a documented history which can and is accessed by both Buddhist ‘insiders’ and those that do not identify with the doctrine, ‘outsiders’) is really stating the obvious? In a similar vein, there is really no novelty in arguing that, (for example) ‘Christianity’ is not equal to ‘The Bible’, and ‘Islam’ is not equal to ‘The Quran’ and so on. The real challenge is the same faced by everyone, and because it is a problem of ‘belonging’ (or not) it is primarily a political one – and we should appreciate that the chief aspect of any political movement is (in all but exceptional cases) we should be most concerned with is not so much about trivial discrepancies in ideas, or arguing about how we might best go about achieving the individual freedom and social equity we want to see, but actually havinga go at implementing it in our day to day lives, and this I feel is where this man has let himself and his victims down in the most desperately sad and terrifying of circumstances. Peace be to all – and also what Nathan said.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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