mary_j_59 (mary_j_59) wrote,

The Merchants of Death (thoughts after the Horn Book Symposium)

So, we are just back from the Horn Book Awards at Simmons college. As always, it was an inspirational and energizing event, with a lot of wonderful writers there. I met Richard Peck again! And the theme, like last year’s, was very relevant. It was resistance.

The winner of the award for teens was Angela Thomas, author of The Hate U Give. This is a book you need to read carefully, without skimming and without skipping around. When I first began reading, I was doing both those things. And it seemed too polemical, too much a retelling of current events. When I read more slowly, though, I really appreciated the story, the characters, and the craft Thomas uses in bringing them into a whole. It’s pretty devastating, actually, but not without hope.

Since she is a woman of color, Angie manages to do some things here that a white author could not. The boy who dies, Khalil, is by no means a bad kid. But he makes mistakes. He gets caught up in gang activity, though he doesn’t want to and is not a member. He is surly and uncooperative when the police pull him over. Nevertheless, it’s quite clear that he and his friend Starr, the main character, are unarmed children who pose no threat to anyone. Khalil dies anyway.

That is not a spoiler, since it’s been one of the selling points of the book that the main character witnesses a police shooting. What follows might be. :

There is a scene later on when the police roll through Starr’s neighborhood in a tank. A tank! When I was a girl Starr’s age, such a scene would have been unthinkable. Today, sadly, scenes like this have actually occurred, especially in minority and immigrant communities. It’s all part and parcel of the militarization of our police force. And—

I hope every adult who discusses this book with teens will ask why? Why are our police being taught to treat civilians as the enemy? Why are they going abroad to learn crowd control techniques from occupying armies? Why are they using military riot gear? Aren’t the police our fellow citizens?

Some might be tempted to answer: because those minorities are so violent and dangerous. So the police are scared. If that’s your answer, please rethink it.

The violence police are carrying out against civilians is criminal, to my mind. Whenever there’s a crime, in classic detective novels, the detective asks a single question. Cui Bono? Who benefits?

Well, who does benefit? The minority citizens who get terrorized and killed certainly do not. I’d argue the police don’t, either. They are put in an adversarial role when they should be in the role of helpers and servants. But there is one group who benefits greatly from this nonsense. A former president warned us against these people more than fifty years ago. He said,
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

He then added, “Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.
Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.
Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his final speech to the nation, January 1961. You can find the full text of the speech here:

It seems to me that what president Eisenhower feared has come to pass. We are living in a state of perpetual war; both war abroad and war against our own citizens. The arms makers and arms dealers make millions by selling weapons to the police. It’s to their benefit to keep doing so. The more they can make civilians seem like “the enemy”, the more weapons they can sell. The more the police lose sight of their actual mission; the more they see themselves as soldiers in an undeclared war, the happier these death merchants will be.

We are walking over a cliff, and it really seems to me that most of us don’t see it. Oh, we see the effects. The tanks rolling through working-class neighborhoods, the police in riot gear, the young men shot, the guns everywhere, the fear on both sides. We see the racism and ignorance—great evils, both, for sure. But we don’t see the greed. If we could deal with that directly; if we could stop the arms merchants in their tracks, we would be far better off. Oh, the evils of ignorance and racism would still have to be fought. Always, and hard. But we would not have to mourn so many deaths. We would have a chance to look at each other and talk to each other, and maybe the fear would lessen.

So let’s, please, try to deal with this structural evil. Let’s halt the merchants of death. We must, at the same time, try to deal with other structural evils, such as racism and poverty. But let’s tackle the arms merchants first. They are in charge of our world right now. They have taken the White House and have a stooge installed there. If we can stop them, we can start to make our country, and our world, a better, safer, and more loving place for all the Starrs and all the Khalils out there. Please. Let’s do it.
Tags: books, real life, young adult
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