Mending America

The American people lift up a prayer of gratitude that their President has survived the aberrant attack on his life.We have no doubt that Mr. Reagan's unfailing good spirits and humor have helped sustain him through this ordeal and will continue to speed his full recovery. He can be buoyed by the nation's continuing prayers for the protection of the presidency and for the smooth working of government in these trying hours. Indeed the whole country can take comfort from the timeless biblical assurance that "the government shall be upon his shoulder."

Adversity can have its purpose. And the question is whether Americans will use this heart-rending occasion for thoughtful self-examination and action. Have they in fact become insensate to the growing violence in society? Some social critics suggest that after seven presidential assassination attempts in this century, after so many slayings of high public figures, the public is inured and almost callous to acts of butchery. Such apathy is the true and dangerous enemy. It must be fiercely resisted and overcome, for the very health and progress of society depend on a vigorous battle with the forces that would undermine it. America is notm an enfeebled giant, but moral and spiritual lassitude -- more than single outbursts of insanity -- could undo its strength.

The warning should be sounded that the expectation of repeated violence against the president and, equally appalling, the chatter now heard about "jinxes" and "astrological signs" supposedly affecting US presidents throughout history risk inviting further barbarities. Such thinking should be permitted no entrance to the nation's mental atmosphere.

An obvious human solution to the terrible events this week is the enactment, at long last, of a stiff law to control the possession and spread of handguns. The civilized world must wonder: how many Americans must fall victim to easily purchased crime before the United States comes to its senses? It must do so now. It can take example from such countries as Britain and Japan, where firearms are under stringent controls and where wild gun play like that all too graphically witnessed two days ago is a rarity.

Reversing the American penchant for guns, a habit that goes back to the violent days of frontier life, will not happen overnight. A federal gun-control law would not automatically or quickly end the dangers of murderous violence or stop a lunatic from the occasional crazed deed. But a beginning must be made to disarm America and educate its people to a different outlook. There are an estimated 55 million handguns in civilian hands and some 400,000 Americans have been killed by gunfire since 1963. It is clear from decades of polling that Americans overwhelmingly want handgun registration. Will Congress finally resist the blandishments (and money) of the firearms lobby and respond to the public will? Moral conscience and political integrity demand that it do so.

Even that is not enough, however. At the heart of the problem is the whole moral and spiritual climate of America. Some hopeful signs can be found of growing concern about the cultural and social environment -- sex and violence in films and on television, pornography, salacious books, vandalism and drugs in schools, public graft, white-collar crime, robbery in streets and homes. But isolated concern about this demoralized climate, which breeds violence and terror, has not yet grown into a nationwide intolerance of it. Progress can be made only if citizens everywhere exercise the spiritual discipline necessary to elevate their own lives and also impress on their institutions -- schools, churches, business, government -- their determination to mend the fabric of an otherwise wholesome and thriving society. Crime is perhaps the most egregious manifestation of today's miasma but even rudeness in the streets and disrespect for the law are subtly destructive.

To get to the bottom line, as they say, there needs to be a gentling of America, a nourishing of those qualities of compassion, tenderness, and love for one another that help heal and build up rather than tear down and destroy. For Americans to give in to anger or fear or helplessness in the wake of the dreadful events in Washington would serve no useful purpose. On the contrary, now is a moment to draw more earnestly than ever on those spiritual resources of wisdom and love that alone can overcome the destructiveness of hatred and envy -- and to work together in a spirit of national renewal.

The vicious attack on the US President and three others dealt a shock to the world. The question is whether America will rise to the lesson it holds -- and be the bett er for it.

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