Lifestyle

Commentary | Ty Burr

To honor the victims, start by saying their names

Flowers placed outside Jack Evans Police Headquarters in Dallas on Friday.
Nathan Hunsinger/The Dallas Morning News via AP
Flowers placed outside Jack Evans Police Headquarters in Dallas on Friday.

Say their names. Say all their names.

Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Officers Michael Krol, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith. Those are the names.

It seems lately as though there are two types of people in this fallen world. One group, in response to senseless violence, despairs and marches and hopes the wrongs of our society can be changed through peaceful and direct action. Other people allow anger to overcome despair, allow fear to metastasize into vengefulness, and wish they could lash out violently or in retribution against those they believe are representative of the enemies in their heads.

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A fraction of such people do lash out. The people they kill and wound are not their enemies, of course. They’re simply more victims. And the wheel rolls on.

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The truth is that there aren’t “two groups” but a spectrum of responses, and it’s more fluid than any of us might like to admit. In my own shallower, angrier moments, I’ve wished violence upon those with whom I do not agree. And then I snap back to civilized reality. Hollywood acts outthose fantasies for us, as do video games and many other aspects of our popular culture. They reflect our divisions and impatience, and they fuel our atavistic itch for a decisive response. But this is not the week to wonder whether those corporatized fantasies have landed us where we are, with two peoplejust the latest to be killed by trigger-happy men in uniform and five dead simply because they wore similar uniforms.

We tell ourselves we’re a religious country, but these are not the acts of any belief system that preaches mercy, compassion, or forgiveness. The truth, one that only white people have the luxury of overlooking every day of their lives, is that we are a nation founded not on freedom butby subjugating a land’s original inhabitants and by building a new societyupon the backs of people brought here in chains — a people who, conveniently, did not look like the people who enslaved them.

That’s what we still live with, invisibly, every day.The history of America, in both the largest and most trivial ways, is a constant evolution of that ruinous paradox, of the sins that have since been compounded, of the scar that will not heal because those with the power to heal it refuse to acknowledge it’s even there. You cannot understand the events of the past week without understanding what happened 400 years ago, and 200 years ago, and during Reconstruction and in Tulsa and Rosewood and Selma and Baltimore. And Baton Rouge. And Falcon Heights. And Dallas.

Say their names. Say all their names. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Michael Krol. Brent Thompson. Patrick Zamarripa. Lorne Ahrens. Michael Smith.

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It is time for all of us to go back to the history books, to read deeply, and to start thinking about how to radically rethink what this place iswe call America, who gets to walk through it freely, and how. Or start with Ta-Nehisi Coates and, through him, go back to James Baldwin, and, through him, to W.E.B. Du Bois. Many African-Americans already know what’s in those books, whether or not they’ve read them. They know it every time they’re pulled over for a broken tail light and wonder whether they’ll come out alive.

And here is another form of unforgivable blindness: shooting individual police officers rather than working to understand and to change the system and attitudes of armed authority in America. This is the tragic mistake of our species, the belief that an individual human being you’ve never met somehow stands in for everything you hate and fear. That if you kill that unknown human being, the world will be a better place. When, of course, it makes the world a much, much worse place, broken in so many hearts and lives. Two hundred thousand goddamned years of homo sapiens, and we still haven’t learned that.

Two days ago, after Sterling’s killing, I wrote an article about the sense of helplessness engendered by all the outrage floating across our social media. Yesterday, I had to rip that piece up and start fresh, moved by anger over the death of Philando Castile and the urge to ask readers to find ways to act in the real world.

Today, thatanger is once more despair. Despair that some will use the events of Dallas, the sniper attack on policemen at a peaceful protest, to say that this is where peaceful protest leads, where Black Lives Matter leads. They will be wrong. Despair that some will say we’re in a civil war — that irresponsible outlets like the New York Post will blazon those very words on their front pages. They will be wrong. Righteous social response too often engenders fantasies and acts of pathetic, self-righteous vengeance in individualson the fringes, from those not paying attention or listening to the voices in their heads. This is history as well. And those individuals are also wrong.

I believe that the number of people who want to fix what plagues this country isgreater by many orders of magnitude than the number of people who think it can be fixed with guns. Where do we start? By reaching out to connect in real ways. By having the conversations, online and out loud. By listening hard to people who aren’t like us and walking in their shoes, while making sure to reject those who are only moved by what they loathe or refuse to understand. By electing representatives who will enact the changes we want to have made. By knowing our history and how it continues to play out in blood and inequity. By starting to rewrite that history right now, going forward, as of today.

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And by saying their names. All of their names. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Michael Krol. Brent Thompson. Patrick Zamarripa. Lorne Ahrens. Michael Smith. And work to make them fewer.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.