Film Festival 2011: Righting the Balance of Power

I’ve written columns through harrowing circumstances, but this is the first time I’ve had a blizzard in the middle of one. My best to alll of you Midwesterners who took the hit last night and today, and my solidarity with all of you on the East Coast who are used to two feet of snow in one dump. It’s beautiful out there right now and a big adventure to get anywhere. When Chicago does shut down, I appreciate how rare such occasions are. I also appreciate my connectiion to a viable, surprisingly caring community. Meanwhile, my book is still for sale, with info following this week’s column.

By Robert C. Koehler

“I only remember a couple of more gunshots and then everything got quiet. Just as it all started it all just stopped. It felt like an eternity before the police got to our door and tried to open it up and they couldn’t open up the door. They had to ask for help from inside because there were bodies in the way.”

So . . . this, unavoidably, is how we have to think about peace — with horrific instances of its obvious absence. It’s not the only place to start, but somehow it seems right to start here, maybe in order not to stop here.

The words are those of Colin Goddard, one of the students wounded in the Virginia Tech shootings of April 16, 2007, as recorded in the documentary “Living for 32” — one of 33 films being featured in Chicago’s third annual Peace on Earth Film Festival, to be held Feb. 25-27 at the city’s Cultural Center. The entire event, which also features a panel discussion with a number of the filmmakers, who are coming this year from Russia, Australia, Korea and the U.K., as well as the United States, along with a panel of local peacemakers (which I have moderated for the last three years), is free of charge.

“We do see a lot of films that only tell us about the problems. Overall, we struggle to find films that show resolution,” festival founder Nick Angotti told me. “Our thrust is peace — not, look at how bad things are, too bad we don’t have peace.”

The film festival sees itself as a focal point, an inspiration for moviemakers to transcend the clichés and cynicism of the industry and make movies that empower us “to step out of the ignorance of conflict, violence and divisiveness into the light of communication, compassion and understanding.”

This is not a simplistic proposition but rather an endeavor of courage and passion, as exemplified by “Living for 32.” This movie, like others I’ve looked at that are part of this year’s festival, took a huge emotional bite out of me but left me energized as well, infused me with awareness and a sense of the possible future.

“Living for 32,” directed by Kevin Breslin, tells the story of Colin Goddard, a young international studies major in 2007 who was sitting in French class that morning when Seung-Hui Cho went on his shooting rampage in Norris Hall. Ten of the 17 people in the classroom, including the teacher, were killed by the gunman — who at one point methodically walked up and down the rows, shooting students lying under their desks. Godard, one of seven survivors in that room, was shot four times, in the knee, shoulder and both his hips. He was in rehab for months.

“I did nothing different from the people lying next to me,” he said. Reflecting on the people who told him, “God was looking out for you,” he said, “I don’t know how much of that I can take in. God was looking out for them too, I’m sure.”

For some reason, this comment, so simple in its refusal to simplify life and death, so quietly compassionate toward those who died that day, was one spot where the documentary hit me with a huge emotional wallop. “God” is simply compassion — maybe that’s it . . . the love that surrounds us. We humans can be open to this love, and thus to each other, or closed off from it, isolated, and in our isolation wield power and ignorance over one another like the Virginia Tech gunman and those who came before him and after him — and like the war machines that have killed so many millions, for such petty ends, over the decades and centuries and millennia.

“Living for 32,” while it revisits the 2007 tragedy, is mostly about the life Goddard has been living since his recovery. He went back to Virginia Tech, got his degree, and for several years now has been working with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The documentary takes us, with Goddard, into gun shows, among other places, where we watch the easy cash purchases of automatic weapons, accomplished without background checks and minimal personal documentation.

The documentary also gives a fascinating demonstration of the stunning efficiency of the Glock 19, one of the two guns Cho used on his rampage, as well as the weapon used last month by Jared Loughner. Goddard, who at one point emphasized his support of legitimate gun ownership and has a familiarity with their use, looked at the Glock with a New York City police officer.

The cop demonstrated the weapon’s incredible firepower: “Two and a half, three seconds, 15 rounds and out. Boom boom boom boom boom. You just keep firing. You can keep slapping the magazines in, keep stripping rounds. That gun just goes.”

He added that this was a military weapon, with no legitimate civilian use: The only reason to possess one “is to feel power!”

And at this point the film fused with several others in the festival I had screened — about bullying, about homelessness — that also in different ways were about cruel and indifferent manifestations of human power and the desire to dominate others. Peace, I suddenly realized, is about connection, even with our “enemies.” It brings honesty and compassion to the fore in our dealings with one another and begins righting the balance.

“Koehler’s points are made with a combination of journalistic acumen and spiritual precision. He takes you by the brain and will not let you go to sleep, will not let you shut down, will not let you look away – and yet, in the same essay – will not let you lose hope, and will not let you stop believing in the spirit of goodness that lies within us.” – from the foreword, by Marianne Williamson

The price, which includes shipping and handling, is $25.

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Robert Koehler
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7 responses to “Film Festival 2011: Righting the Balance of Power

  1. “The cop demonstrated the weapon’s incredible firepower: ‘Two and a half, three seconds, 15 rounds and out. Boom boom boom boom boom. You just keep firing. You can keep slapping the magazines in, keep stripping rounds. That gun just goes.’

    “He added that this was a military weapon, with no legitimate civilian use: The only reason to possess one ‘is to feel power!’”

    I must say, then, that the cop fails to understand why we have the Second Amendment — it is to protect us from the government, first and foremost. Therefore, the glock has legitimate civilian use.

    Yes, it’s a tragedy that people go on shooting rampages. Is this a symptom of living under a military dictatorship?

    • That’s a remarkable reading of the Second Amendment, but I have little interest in getting caught up in the nuances of its meaning. It seems clear to me that it is ambiguous enough to serve many agendas. I don’t think anyone who decides to kill government officials over a grievance would get too far legally with a Second Amendment defense, even in a Republican-controlled court. If I’m wrong, God help us all. Though the quote contains the word ‘legitimate,” I used it in the column not to make a debate point about the legality of automatic weapons but rather to question the entire “power over” mentality — the urge to dominate — whether exercised by private individuals or the government itself. The other kind of power — “power with” — summons love, compassion and empathy. Both uses of power have infinite repercussions. The power of domination has primarily negative unintended consequences. The power of cooperation and connection has mostly positive — but it’s a harder power to master, so people often mock it instead.

  2. No, no — I do not mock the power of love and its need in our society. However, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose.”

    We cannot protest in the streets without being violently attacked by government thugs. Our economy is tanking with one-fifth of the population unemployed. Meanwhile, the US government continues to support business practices that destroy our natural environment, while it wages illegal wars of aggression.

    We cannot share power with evil… we must stand against it.

    The American Revolutionaries did not break the yoke of British oppression by loving them, Bob … they used guns.

    The Declaration of Independence mentions that if a government failed to protect its citizens and instead became their enemy, citizens have the right to overthrow it. So one reason citizens wanted to be armed was not just for defense against external enemies. They wanted protection from their own government.

    The problem with using love on psychopaths is that they don’t feel it. They are immune to the power of love.

    • First of all, I agree, Rady, nothing in what you said mocked the power of love. Though the concept of using love on psychopaths (and the ineffectiveness thereof) misses the idea of love as a force … or a context. To act with genuine love rather than out of a place in which the other person is dehmanized is what matters. My problem with armed solutions to problems is that the default position here is a dehumanized other. Once it’s OK to fire off 15 rounds from your Glock at someone, you have dehumanized that person. This also gets into questions of strategy and tactics. To be loving doesn’t mean to be dumb. Too often, to respond violently does mean to be dumb. To have an armed confrontation with a psychopath who is well armed (and if the psychopath is the government, the armament imbalance is obviously enormous) is not likely to be effective. Civil disobedience and other forms of disruptive action that are nonviolent in nature have traditionally been far more effective and operate from a strength the psychopath-other cannot easily counter and might even be confused by. The fact that protests draw violent reactions from repressive governments are actually the point, at least in some instances. Consider the civil rights movement. The firehoses and other police brutality that the peaceful protests generated were signs that the protesters had hit a nerve, and had in fact won the battle. Their larger, loving context endured the other side’s brutal reaction, and the watching world sided with the protesters. The social order changed. If the civil rights movement had been an armed uprising, it would have been crushed, discredited and buried for an unknown number of generations. The belief that we cannot share power with evil belies the truth that evil is within all of us. That means we have no choice but to share power with it. As one of my favorite theologians, Diarmuid O’Murchu, put it, however: “Don’t insult the darkness by calling it evil.” My belief is that armed responses always oversimplify the enormous complexity of life and are (except, perhaps, in very rare circumstances) the worst possible response to a problem.

  3. alright, this is a perspective worth chewing on for awhile… maybe I’m feeling overwhelmed by our overwhelming defeats in every sector of social justice.

    It’s true – I’ve segregated the psychopaths from the rest of humanity, and continually dehumanize them in my comments about them (calling them subhuman).

    It’s also true that evil is in all of us, as is good.

    I agree with much of what you say… I’m not giving up my tiny arsenal, but I’ll continue to think on strategies and tactics… yes, too often violence is the worst possible response to a situation.

    • Great dialoue, Rady! One of the biggest conundrums we face as a society, or at least that I worry about personally, is the gun issue and the intractable positions on both sides. While I stand firmly for a disarmed society and world, I’m not in favor of “prohibition.” The disarmament has to occur voluntarily. To that end, I am very interested in crossing the divide and learning everything I can about the pro-gun point of view. I’ll be writing more about all this soon.

      • I am so relieved to hear you oppose involuntary civilian disarmament, Bob… I am passionate about this issue.

        I have used love and respect to get out of being raped — on two occasions, so I know this works. There was no reason those guys let me go other than how I treated them. I must add that I felt no fear, and that may have enhanced my position. (some survival instinct in me shuts down the feeling of fear when my life is threatened) But in each instance, I looked the guy in the eyes with warmth and … joie de vivre. I chatted with them… and in both instances, they let me go… they walked away.

        But I must tell you that in another instance, my having a firearm prevented a home invasion which would have likely turned deadly — two thugs parked in my driveway for easier access to a drug dealer’s house they were about to break into in the middle of the night. I asked them to drive away and they did — and they did not come back. (Funny aside, a couple weeks later, the dealer’s house was raided by cops, altho the dealer had already split.)

        I wrote a position piece on gun rights in 2009 (A Progressive View on Gun Rights: 2A All the Way). The main argument that wins me over is this bit of research published by Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy in the book “In Our Defense” (1991):

        “In 1981, Morton Grove, Illinois became the first U.S. city to ban the possession of firearms. Next came Evanston, Illinois, which passed a similar ordinance without controversy. But when the measure was proposed in nearby Skokie, it was soundly defeated. Skokie, populated by Holocaust survivors, knew the merits of personal armament and the dangers of its lack.”

        Another book that bolsters that argument surveyed 7 genocides in the 20th century, noting that civilian disarmament preceded genocide: “Lethal Laws: Gun Control Is the Key to Genocide” (Jay Simkin, et al., 1994).

        But the argument that wins me emotionally is: “When seconds matter, the police are only minutes away.” Feminist Inge Anna Larish published “Why Annie Can’t Get Her Gun: A Feminist Perspective on the Second Amendment” in the University of Illinois Law Review (467, 1996). She points out that the most vulnerable members of society are most harmed by disarmament:

        “Control rhetoric generally ignores the evidence that crime against the physically weaker members of society (women, children, the elderly, or the disabled) increases where guns are less available….

        “The exclusion of women’s concerns in the gun control debate ignores that women are most in need of guns for self-defense. All else being held equal, women are physically weaker than men and will continue to be victimized by men whether or not men have guns.

        “Moreover, unlike men, women use guns primarily for defensive purposes – most often as a last resort…. Guns not only equalize the differences between men, but also eliminate the disparity in physical power between the sexes….

        “Analysts repeatedly find that guns are the surest and safest method of protection for those who are most vulnerable to ‘vicious male predators.’”

        Yes, I would love to never have to shoot someone… I know that would forever change me, and probably not in a good way. But, it’s the lesser evil. Self preservation is the highest priority.

        … so, anyway, as you write more about this … I hope you consider these ideas

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