Reading the latest news about the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin (NY Times article here) pushes the boundary for me of remembering the inherent worth and dignity of all people.  For that matter, so do some of the political ads that have been blasting from the tv (until I mute the volume) at every commercial break of the Olympics.  (But haven’t some of the other ads during the Olympics been great?!)  When we disagree with someone so strongly, how do we recognize their worth?

If you know me at all, you know I’m an uber-liberal.  I took one of those “where do you fall politically” quizzes once – and I fall left of Kucinich.   I think our political system is broken, but I’m not willing to throw away my vote (thus giving my vote to the other guy) by voting for the Green Party in the Presidential election, or similar.   So, I admit it, I have some problems with Republicans.  But I try to temper myself.   I realize that not all Republicans are the same.  Some are more fiscally Republican (I’m not going to say fiscally conservative here), but more moderate socially.  Some are socially very Republican (also not necessarily conservative), but fiscally moderate.   I have some friends who are Republican, and we can have great discussions filled with respect and “agree to disagree”-ness.   And there are others whose logic makes no sense to me.  At all.  BUT… through it all, I know that all of my Republican friends, acquaintances and never-mets are generally good people.  I might feel that they are misguided.  I might feel that they have different values than I do.  (I get confused when we seem to have the same values, but approach the solution from very opposite directions.)  But all-in-all, I feel like they are good people, whom I happen to disagree with.  They each have inherent worth, just because they are human.  It’s a UU value, and it’s a straight disagreement with the idea of original sin.  We are not born bad or sinful; we are born good.  At our core, each of us IS good.  What we do with that is another question….

From a Buddhist standpoint – but also from a UU, Christian, or human standpoint – my biggest value is the respect for life – our life and the lives of others – and, therefore, non-harming.   This being the case, the people for whom I have the hardest time recognizing their inherent worth are those people who disrespect and take life.  Now – I will clarify – I’m not talking about abortion, assisted suicide, or self-defence.  We can get into that at another time.  I’ll even take the death penalty off the table (though I could do a whole post on that).   To simplify, let’s just talk about your pre-meditated homicidal killers.

Which brings me to Wisconsin.

When I hear a story like this, I try to reserve judgment.  Are the actions horrifying?  Yep.  Does that necessarily mean that the killer is a monster and has no redeemable value?  For me, no it doesn’t.

The next detail I heard was that the shooter was a man with a 9/11 tattoo on his arm.  In my mind this jumped from “random act” to “hate crime” – recognizing of course that it would be a hate crime against the wrong group of people.*  What kind of man would identify with 9/11 and want to kill?  Someone whose loved one was killed, who hasn’t forgiven or gotten over it, perhaps.  So, someone who is in pain.

I can find compassion for someone in pain.  That doesn’t mean I can condone the actions, just that I can view the shooter as a person with worth, rather than as a monster.

This morning I heard that the man was ex-military and had not had a settled home for many years.   My jumping-to-conclusions brain (because that’s what our brains are designed to do) said “Oh! PTSD! Battle fatigue!  Every person is a threat, and every person that looks like the enemy from Iraq or Afghanistan, where he was stationed, is a bigger threat.   So how to ameliorate the threat – kill the people that you feel threatened by.”    Again – a person in pain, with messed up perception caused by his time in the military.

I can feel compassion for someone with PTSD, who feels the whole world is a threat.  I feel sorry that our country’s system let him down by not caring for him when he came home, or whenever the symptoms started.  I don’t condone his actions, but I can feel compassion.

This afternoon I read the most recent article, linked to at the beginning of this post.  And now I’m having more issues.  He was a white supremacist, along with being ex-military.  There is no mention of PTSD; he seemed to be high-functioning if he did have it.  The description of the attack does sound like he “snapped;” he shot an officer multiple times point-blank while the officer was tending to a victim, then shot at a patrol car (before he was killed by police).  So, for me, with my liberal love-everyone bias — can I find inherent worth in a blatant proud racist mass-murderer?

Often, when people are convicted of sexual abuse [yup, it’s a tangent, but stick with me here], it’s revealed that they were the victims of abuse as children.  It’s said so often that it is almost expected, and it is sometimes questioned as being a claim of expediency, rather than honesty.   In my mind, such a history is not an excuse or rationale – it doesn’t justify the recent behavior – but it explains how the abuser’s mind became confused enough to think that this was normal and rational behavior.  It’s a little like the kidnapped girl identifying with and becoming attached to her kidnapper.

So what warps a person into being a racist?  As I said before, I believe we are all born good, with inherent worth.   I don’t think that one is born a racist.  (In case I need to actually say it, I don’t think being a racist is good.)  If you put two babies next to each other in the NICU, I don’t think the babies will differentiate based on skin color – or religion, for that matter.  Racism is a learned behavior.   So what school teaches racism?  I suppose all our schools (US schools) did at one time – they taught that Africans or African-Americans were inferior genetically to European-Americans.  Our laws were biased, our schools were segregated.   Racism now is more subtle, but it exists in “immigration reform” and “protect our borders” discussions; it exists in our prison system; it exists in class warfare; it exists in glass ceilings.   Where does racism exist non-subtley? Where is it so rife with hatred that it would encourage someone to kill?

I don’t know.  Perhaps he was brought up with that message (subtley or blatently) from a young age.  Perhaps he learned it in the military, during a vulnerable time in his life.  Maybe the racism is his form of PTSD, the emotional and mental scarring from his time in the military.   It was clear from the article that he found support for his racist beliefs in his own and like-minded bands.  [As a musician that spreads love and goodness, it sickens me that there are music circuits for hate-spreading bands.]  So these ideas he had were not corrected, but were allowed to fester and grow.

So – yes – here is where I can find compassion for him.  At some point in his life, he was taught hate.  He was taught to hate people of other races.  And there was no one – or no one that meant enough to him – to stand up to him and tell him that this attitude was incorrect and harmful to himself and others.  He had no one to serve as a moral compass for him; and somewhere along the way he lost his own moral compass.

Does he / did he have inherent worth?  Yes, I believe he did.   He had it as a child and before he was taught to hate.  I believe he had inherent worth even as an avowed racist – because there was always the potential for him to see the error in his logic, and to change his views.    Did he have inherent worth while he was shooting up the Sikh temple?

That one, I can’t answer.  But I’m not the One that should be judging him, anyway.

* Sikh ≠ Muslim ≠ terrorist 9/11 bomber or planner  (These are all Wikipedia links, except the “Islam and terrorism” one.  Probably not the best source, but it works for the purpose.)