Attention Violence

On November 2nd 1965, my 6th birthday, I learned of the death by immolation, of my best friend’s father – Quaker Norman Morrison. Driving down a suburban street just outside of Baltimore in Lutherville Maryland my own father explained, as best he could, the circumstances of Norman’s death. The Morrison’s, like my family, were members of Stony Run Friends Meeting in Baltimore. Norman was a devout Christian, a convinced Friend, a passionate and sensitive man, who had doused himself with Kerosene, standing on the steps of the Pentagon under the then, Secretary of Defenses’, Robert McNamara’s office window. He handed his 1 year old daughter Emily to a bystander and ended his life in flames.

In 1965 The War in Vietnam was in full swing. The United States was raining bombs down on Vietnamese men, women and children in an immoral misguided drive to thwart the “dangerous growth” of communism – so we were told. Finally, Norman felt he had to do something dramatic. Quite quickly it was National news. Of course a debate quickly ensued. Was this a “crazy man” with mental health issues or was he the healthiest and most human of us all? A man who would, in the end, not accept the violence and death delivered by his own tax dollars and “his” Country. Was he the true Christian – willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice to aid the cessation of slaughter of human beings he had never met. Was Norman a “hero” or was he “crazy” or was the truth somewhere in between?

Stony Run Friends Meeting still sits atop a hill – a stone’s throw, quite literally, from Baltimore Friends School where I spent first and second grade. I sort of figured that a story like Norman’s would remain part of the fabric of both Stony Run and Baltimore Friends School for like, ever. Flash forward 5 decades and during a sit down lunch with 5-6 teachers from the School at a Pendle Hill Conference I was, frankly, a bit stunned to learn that not one of them knew Norman’s name. One gentleman was a teacher of 11th grade history at the School. I could not quite conceive how a walk up the hill and a discussion of Norman, Quakerism, and the Vietnam war was not a regular part of near any history class I could imagine. Was I naïve, obtuse, idealistic, all three?

I had a related reaction to circumstances in 2003 when the United States swarmed into Iraq, sparing no expense, in a misguided “response” to the bombing of the Twin Towers. In what seemed like a heartbeat “we” jumped into an undeclared war that would cost billions upon billions, spurn the growth of ISIS and do far less than nothing to soothe the moment. Turns out we were in the wrong country and in fact there were no “weapons of mass destruction”, none. Our own CIA had already said so. As a Quaker man I was deeply concerned about our sending other peoples “children” – young soldiers to perhaps die in such a misguided effort. I saw neighbors, good people, in my area and it seemed the War was no where on their minds. Life went on without much of a problem here in the United States. I wondered if they realized people’s children would be killed. I wondered about Norman.

Here we are today – 2018. On a minute by minute basis we are hit with images of violence from around the World and around the Country. The narrative of what constitutes “violence” is embedded in our brains from a barrage of quick pictures, news alerts and “entertainment news”. The term Bishop William Barber of North Carolina uses to identify this is “attention violence”. It “grabs us”. But violence is also an apathetic attitude toward suffering. As a Country and as a Society – that is where we are. Even by government definition 40 million Americans live in poverty. This is a 60% rise since 1968. When you use

real numbers and include those with jobs but who are on the edge of poverty the numbers skyrocket to 140 million – near half of the Country. This while CEO’s make more than at any time in the history of the World or in any other country in the World. Living wages, healthcare, public education, mass incarceration and attacks on immigrant rights are massive social concerns – yet without question 54 cents of every tax dollar goes to the Military industrial complex. This while we can already blow up the World many times over. Washington is now run by a culture of billionaires. When politicians vote against constituent interests – democracy has been lost.

Why is America so quiet? Where are the clergy? Why are we so accepting and so quiet about this out rage? Mind you this is not a matter of Trump’s election – though that in fact shines a light. If Clinton or even Obama was in office – these fundamental same concerns abound. I think about Norman. If Norman was crazy, it seems, we are times a thousand. What is more “crazy” that quiescence toward this immoral state of affairs? How bad will it need be? Whose children will need be killed before we are out in the streets every day?

A father and husband who loves my wife and children it is quite impossible for me to imagine doing what Norman did. However, I do understand using your body. I do understand using your life. I do understand taking real risks with real consequences. I do understand being and feeling morally compelled to act. Doing otherwise is what seems not sane to me.

— Ken Brick

3 thoughts on “Attention Violence

    • am re reading poweful testimony
      each sentence is connected to understood comprehension but raises
      questions about perception & reality.
      Knowing am not alone in my own testimonies reassures me only a little
      Am surprised i haven’t gone catatonic
      in fear or worse go out & about shouting obscenities. Instead when am about,
      I find out what I can wherever I am.
      While I’m at it make people laugh.
      My mate plays the piano; he says (since he was given last rites at Fort Dix for outbreak of meningitis prior to VN)
      none of it matters. DATA BINGO It sure do to me. Meml # NewArk Friends
      First State
      Fourth Day

  • I share a sense of sometimes disquiet/sometimes rage about America’s seeming acceptance of all these implicit and explicit forms of violence. What world power has the most punishing military force? This translates to “might makes right” in our homes and schools. Have you seen the first person shooter games marketed to children? Have you seen what passes for martial arts competition on TV? Have you noticed that a Hollywood movie has no chance of becoming a blockbuster without at least one scene of horrific violence? America’s film rating panel, the MPAA bans a show of skin, but gives the stamp of approval when projectiles are casually pumped into living flesh, rending it asunder. For decades this disregard for life has crept into our entertainments and our consciousnesses, approaching some sort of “normal”. And now people under “The Spell of the Gun” will publicly say and do anything to avoid restrictions or even research into the plague of violence caused by their precious killing devices. Not sure about Norman Morrison’s methods, but I understand the motives.

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