by David D. Horowitz.
So begins Shakespeare’s classic play Hamlet. And this simple question resonates throughout any serious ethical inquiry. Who am I—really? And who are you—or “them”? Not merely a body and some friendly conversational conventions—but also jealousy, resentment, lust, insecurity, embarrassment, and obsession that many fear acknowledging to themselves. And which might yield violence.
Who was Stephen Paddock? A mystery? An everyman? Could anyone unload manic gunfire into a Las Vegas concert crowd, killing fifty-eight and wounding almost five hundred others? Could Paddock be anyone fed up with human corruption, deceit, greed, and vanity? Could he be you?
Ten years ago, one of John’s and Jill’s wedding pictures showed John with his left hand over his newlywed’s right hand, as she cut pieces from a white three-tier cake at their wedding reception. Yesterday, after stalking his estranged wife for three months, John violated a court order, broke into his wife’s home, and, using the wedding reception cake knife, stabbed his wife to death. Then he shot their three children, killing them, and he finally, fatally turned his gun on his own heart. Could any initially happy marriage end that way? Are we all potential murderers?
The soldier-guard at Dachau indifferent to the starvation and death in his midst, the torturer for the Inquisition who equates suffering’s screams with religious victory, the Red Guard teen-aged boy barking Maoist slogans at a musician soon to be hung for privately listening to a Mozart piano concerto: could that soldier-guard, torturer, or Maoist youth be anyone?
And what are you looking at—a courteous neighbor who lent you his cordless grass clippers or the despairing father of a heroin-addicted son who thieves to feed his addiction? Or is he both the courteous neighbor and despairing father and five hundred other people besides?
“Who’s there? Who and what am I looking at?”
Imagine you are the other person. You start to learn you share some habits, concerns, and mores. On this common ground you begin to meaningfully exchange, not indifferently banter. And on this common ground you might persuade anger to cool off, to unload its pistol. And neither you nor the other person might even know about the pistol. You might just ask about yesterday’s Mariners game against the Angels, and this is enough to make him feel socially connected, to get his mind off retaliating against a co-worker for her comment about his recent weight gain.
“Go, bid the soldiers shoot.” So ends Hamlet—with Fortinbras ordering ceremonial shooting after discovering much recent killing at the Danish court. Horatio survives—perhaps a bit more aware there is more in heaven and earth than he could have dreamed. And over four hundred years later, we still wonder “Who’s there?” when confronting the latest news about Stephen Paddock, Harvey Weinstein, or a neighbor’s son who commits murder or suicide. But the soldiers are bidden to shoot, and the cycle begins again.
Yet, by recognizing and acknowledging one’s own capacity for brutality, one can make cautionary tales of others’ cruelty. One might think: I could wind up brutal, unless I work to minimize the violence in my own heart. And then one gets to work: through philosophical conversation, open-minded travel, personalized rites and communal ceremony, and prayerful daily reminders of others’ humanity and one’s own faults. And then one might ask not only “Who’s there?” but “Who could be there?”