- On-Air Playlist
- Program Schedule
- Community Calendar
- Sponsor Directory
- Featured Programs
- Arts & Life
- Support KRCC | Underwrite
The presidential debates dominated news headlines this week, abundant analyses of President Obama’s and Governor Romney’s performances under pressure. By popular demand, the candidates have largely kept their focus on jobs and the economy, things we want to talk about. On some touchier issues, the things we don’t want to talk about like war and its lingering impact on the American psyche, like gun violence in the land of the free, the candidates have demonstrated equal skill at offering soft answers with little genuine insight or commitment to policy.
Thank goodness, then, for people like Nina Gonzalez, a questioner at the second presidential debate who asked how the presumptive next president intends to limit the availability of assault weapons. This was the second time in two weeks the candidates had been publicly challenged to address gun violence in America. The first was by Stephen Barton, a moviegoer shot 25 times in the Aurora multiplex massacre this past summer. In a widely released television ad, Barton cited his luck in the face of a deranged shooter armed to the nines. “In the next four years,” Barton said, “forty-eight thousand Americans won’t be so lucky because they will be murdered with guns in the next president’s term.”
Those figures represent an average of the last five years of data from the Centers for Disease Control and include mass shootings and gang violence, but exclude suicide, the largest single category of death by firearm in America. Debate moderator Jim Lehrer chose not to raise the question, so it remained comfortably ignored, at least until Gonzalez spoke up at the second debate.
Behind the front-page headlines, in the midst of the flurry of presidential politics, there’s plenty of talk about things we don’t want to talk about in America.
Take, for example, last week’s National Book Award nominations, including two novels that explore the surreal mental and physical challenges faced by American soldiers deployed to the war in Iraq. Veteran Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown and Company) has been described as “a first novel as compact and powerful as a footlocker full of ammo.” Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain’s nominated novel, is being referred to as “the Catch 22 of the Iraq war.” Both books are startling and relentless in their depictions of the impact of that war and cluelessness at home about the unique stresses faced by soldiers who served there.
Just before the National Book Award nominations were announced, active duty national guardsman Sgt. Jonathan Raab of Rochester, New York, wrote about the things we don’t want to talk about for the New York Times’ At War blog.
Raab referred to the promises we made when we sent soldiers to Iraq, to support, remember and care about them. “I guess now’s as good a time as any to talk about some of the problems we’re ignoring,” Raab said.
Better not to talk about it, he says, “when the reality of home is that you have become invisible, and your work, your profession and your entire way of life are suddenly of little consequence to the average American. It’s better not to talk about it when home is where your family and friends who didn’t bother to write, e-mail or call for months at a time suddenly want to ask you deeply personal questions about traumatic experiences. … Home is where the two men running for president, and most of the media around them, share that same horrible silence when it comes to the war, or to the missions that support that war, or to your role and place as a soldier and a citizen …”
Raab goes on to clearly iterate the questions that desperately need to be openly discussed by the candidates and by all Americans.
Similarly, Washington Post journalist David Finkel has been talking about what we don’t want to talk about and was recently honored with a MacArthur “Genius” Award for his long-form narrative work covering the war in Iraq. Finkel’s 2009 book The Good Soldiers followed a year in the life of a U.S. battalion stationed in a rough part of Baghdad during the 2007 surge. He is currently working on volume two in that series, exploring what happens to those soldiers and their families when they return to American soil. In a recent interview, Finkel said he is encouraged that of the 23 MacArthur grant winners, “three are doing work that has to do with the last ten years of history, especially with wars and their cascading effects.”
The things we don’t want to talk about.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.