Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be, that is the question,” is bigger than just suicide; all the main characters in the play are murdered.
The greater meaning of the play is Shakespeare’s mediation on a single word: revenge, and on humanity’s misguided and lethal thirst for it. Revenge is a behavior or sentiment that is durable, evil, and extremely dangerous to humanity itself, especially in the nuclear age.
In 2011, Norway’s King Harald visited Minneapolis. At that time, Norway maintained a Consulate General office there. A local reporter interviewed Norway’s consul general, and asked, “What is the purpose of a king?” The consul general replied, “To keep the people from fighting with each other.”
Throughout history and around the world, monarchs served the same basic purpose: protecting their people from internal and external violence. And over time, as the number of monarchies diminished, they were replaced with self-governing nation-states. Those governments served the same purpose: protecting their citizens from violence.
Governments achieved that purpose by establishing and enforcing laws that prohibit violent and other anti-social behaviors. Those laws function elsewhere, because governments have a violence monopoly, and because the people are denied the right and usually the means to employ violence for any purpose, except legitimate self-defense. Governments enforce their laws by using their own forms of violence, like execution or prison, after a duly authorized court finds someone guilty of breaking those laws.
Governments authorize police to investigate crimes, and courts to render judgments relating to guilt. Together, they become a neutral and disinterested party that can fairly reconcile disputes and produce “Justice” for the violence-aggrieved parties.
In the past three or more decades the Congress and the Supreme Court, forgetting about, or not knowing much about human nature and about the primary purpose of governments, took sympathy with the NRA, gun manufacturers and certain politicians, and reinterpreted the meaning of our Constitution’s Second Amendment. The new regime weakened our gun-control laws, extinguished the government’s violence monopoly, and simultaneously granted to every adult, not the right, but the means to easily acquire and carry concealed guns and kill people. They brought the Apocalypse to America.
Americans now find themselves reliant for their well-being and for their lives on the unreliable goodwill of people who harbor fears, judgments, and motivations that are unknowable, and not always good. That resulted in the infection of America’s citizens with a plague of uncontrollable and deadly internal gun violence.
Our Constitutional right to life itself has been sacrificed to the rights of gun-profiteers, to their fearful or angry customers, and to bad luck. Our court and our government have failed us, in a most important way.
With this excessive and fear-induced gun-violence, America is an outlier; it is no longer among the civilized societies of the world. And it will not be easy to change this condition. We would have to change the court, change our Constitution, or otherwise reestablish the government’s violence monopoly, and limit the public’s easy access to guns.
Religions around the world are aware that evil is embedded in humans; and they have been trying, but unable to tame human violence and evil for thousands of years. Most religions have laws or prohibitions called, “The Ten Commandments,” or their equivalent. The last half of those Commandments deal exclusively with humanity’s problem of violence and its causes. But unenforceable laws are useless.
News outlets now report stories of gun violence daily. Some people consider a side-view image of the AR-15 rifle, an extremely effective mass killing-machine, to be a symbol of protection. I consider such images to be icons of a widespread public insecurity and of a newly-found fear; a fear that didn’t exist 30 years ago.
In many parts of America, women’s bodies and freedoms are regulated, but guns are readily accessible, and violence can occur anywhere. I remember fondly the belief that America was the “Land of the free, and the home of the brave.” Those days are gone. Now, only parts of America are free, but all of America is afraid.
Hamlet’s soliloquy is more relevant than ever. “To be, or not to be” is on the cusp of our consciousness almost every time we take in the news. The only thing Americans can do now, is pray and hope, tend to their own gardens, and vote.
Dale A. Anderson is a retired banker, a member of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion, and a course leader at the University of Minnesota’s OLLI program, where he recently presented a class on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”