The Denver City Battery with their Gatling Guns, December 1896. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 257-7892.

The Middle Distance 10.19.12: The Things We Don’t Want To Talk About

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Photo by Sean Cayton

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 “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


5 Responses to The Middle Distance, 10/19/12: The Things We Don’t Want to Talk About

  1. hannah says:

    I agree with your, Katherine, but I find that most Americans do not. Guns are so ingrained in our culture, as is the tough talk about America’s military might. Let’s all hope the next president, whoever wins, keeps our soldiers out of Iran and Syria.

  2. Joe Uveges says:

    Katherine. It is powerful and painful to talk about this issue but there is no simple solution. For every person I meet who just wants to “bring our boys home”, I know someone else who will note the terrible oppression of women in Afghanistan and much of the Middle East, exemplified by the shooting of the 14 year old girl in Pakistan last week who had the audacity to elegantly speak out about educating women. It would be nice if our place in the world were a simple one. It is not.

    Also, in regards to the man shot 24 times by the Aurora shooter. What a wonderful witness he could have been had he been responsibly armed, and courageously prepared for such a incident.
    Sure, I know the issues on not allowing weapons in movie theaters etc. But just think of how many lives would have been saved had 1 of the at least 3 heros been armed in that theatre. Hannah is right. We will never get rid of guns in our culture. The next best option is for each of us to be prepared for the worst case scenario with calm resolution and a hero’s heart.

  3. Robert Dolce says:

    The founding forefathers felt that the right to bear arms was important enough for the success of our representative democracy that it was the second amendment that they produced. Weapons are our protection from a government gone biserk. If we remove the right to bear arms the only individuals with weapons will be criminals and the government, neither of which am I willing to place my trust. If you feel personally that weapons are immoral, than do not possess one and place a sign in your front yard that reads “This is a gun-free home.” As for me, I wish to retain the right to bear arms to protect my family and me from anyone that wishes to take our lives, our possessions, or our Constitutional Rights.

    • Liz Arnold says:

      Wow Robert – you sure took away a different message than I did from this article. I don’t think Kathryn is suggesting that no one should own guns, but instead is asking for a discussion about it. It is important for the leaders of our country to address the issues of the horrible outcomes that occur when full and semi-automatic weapons can be purchased over the internet.
      Who needs that powerful of a weapon unless the goal is to kill many people at once? I can understand the desire for people to own a handgun (even though I lost my fiance and his son to one), but the types of weapons that are being purchased by the psychologically unstable killers in our society are not weapons purchased for protection.
      Your comment eluding to the “if you don’t believe in it, then don’t own it”, is an interesting one. That’s how I feel about abortion, but there are many people fighting like crazy to make it illegal. I’d be interested to know what your stand is on that.

  4. rose enyeart says:

    The right to bear arms should not be confused with the right to be protected from mad men with assault rifles. The arms that our Founding Fathers mentioned were single load, stop and fire, reload sort of things. Really do you think they would condone mass murder weapons like assault rifles?


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