Posted: January 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

The old test for the breath-ability of a mine’s air was to post a canary in a cage deep inside the shaft. Because the canary was highly susceptible to changes it acted as an advance warning system for the human miners. When the canary dropped they knew all was not well and needed to get to the surface quickly.

Some people in our society unwittingly serve as the canaries for everyone else. They respond first to the stresses, threats and dysfunction that later afflict the whole lot of us. Like the species that goes extinct just before a thousand others do, the cultural canary short-circuits first.

No balanced, right-thinking, adjusted person carries political conviction to the extremes of mass-murder shooting sprees such as recently done  in Arizona.  When the right social screens and restraints are in place emotion is checked by other internal controls. But there are those persons – mentally ill, radically broken, sociopathic or even holding paranoid tendencies – who are our canaries. They are the ones who break first, sometimes so far in advance of the the crowd that they seem a dramatic exception. News journalists seem to go here first; trying to prove that this one was clearly an exception, disturbed for a long time, clearly unlike the rest of us. We must be safe.

The point about the canary – weaker than others, more easily broken, falling first – is that it is not disconnected from those who are warned. The canary may be the first to go, but most certainly will not be the last.  And that’s why miners who want to survive take the canary seriously. Canary today, us tomorrow.

We can write off the tragic actions of the young killer in Arizona as simply a product of his own malfunctioning brain. Certainly that’s a part of it. But the canary has imploded, after all, which should give us pause. What conditions in the mine shaft took him first, early, before us? Does not our present supercharged social  polarization, the dramatic absence of civil discourse, an extremist political saturation from all directions, destabilize our entire social system? Does it not seep into every aspect of how we view and treat one another? Are there any limits to how much we may hurt one another?

It’s time to muzzle the barking dogs. Demonizing the opposition and attacking personages rather than ideas is always the prelude to much worse. Every action begins with an intent, emotion and motivator that precedes it. The source of murder, said Jesus in the sermon on the mount, is hatred. An internal disposition leads to certain actions. And when we countenance and sometimes contribute to destructive talk we are the ones who are responsible for planting those seeds, fanning those embers, and in the end pulling the trigger.

We could dismiss all this as simply the actions of a lone deranged individual. But that is only part of the story. The more difficult but more complete answer is that the canary is simply more sensitive than the rest of us. Just look in the cage. Something terrible is afoot.

  1. Neal Miller says:

    I appreciate your ability to context the shooting in Tuscon and still focus on the factors that killed the canary. Thank you.


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