A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Commentary: More shooting deaths remind us of our responsibility to keep the promise

By Terry Allen
Special to KyForward

There are so many things we don’t yet know about the tragic shooting deaths this week of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, now compounded by the horrific killing and wounding of 12 police officers in Dallas.

What we do know is, in so many respects, of little comfort.

We are enveloped by a numbing sensation, overwhelming confusion and sadness. So many of us feel a fatiguing familiarity to all of this senseless and incomprehensible violence.

The cities and their images of loss and mourning become a blur: Orlando and Paris. Bangladesh and Istanbul. Ferguson, Baltimore and New York.

There is the sense that so many share that we seem, as a country and a world, to be so divided, so lost.

We also know from the images flashing before us on an array of TV screens and social media platforms that those dead leave families and loved ones behind. Sons and daughters will grow up without fathers and mothers. A newlywed will wake up this morning with a husband and partner gone. Others will lose the assuring laugh and warm comfort of friends. Communities will lose valuable leaders and protectors.

They are us. And, here too, we have been before.

We know as well the litany of things to come: Investigations will occur. Calls for reforms will be made. Further protests will take place. We will hear the refrain of eloquent, well-intentioned statements of lament uttered alongside the split-screen, distorted reality of talking heads shouting past one another.

It will all dominate our thoughts and our lives for news cycles to come until our attention becomes fixated elsewhere. At least, that is the pattern we have fallen into as these events take on a depressingly familiar cadence.

But what I know – and feel – most is the searing truth inherent in the words of a student who reached out to me Thursday:

“We are hurting,” she wrote. “We are in pain. We are suffering.”

And so beyond what we know today and what we may not ever know tomorrow or in the days and weeks ahead, the question that now confronts us – whether on the streets of Ferguson or Baltimore, New York and Dallas, Istanbul and Orlando, or in the classroom of a university in Lexington – is how do we respond?

What does it mean to be a member of the UK community at this time?

How do we, as President Obama poignantly asked Thursday night, “step back, reflect and ask what we can do better …”

“We are better than this.”

As an institution of higher learning, that call for reflection, the thirst for understanding, the seeking of knowledge in the midst of the seemingly unknowable, is what makes us and our community special.

It is also the burden we must carry together. We have a distinct responsibility, in this place and at this time, to ask tough questions of ourselves, of society, and of those in power.

We have a right – and there is a responsibility we share too – to expect that all of us, regardless of our position or prominence, are held accountable for our actions, individually and collectively.

After all, as one of our own community members, Frank X Walker, reminds us: “There is no vaccination against ignorance, but there is us. There is this university. And we still have heavy doors to open, unmet obligations to the land and its people. There are still leadership opportunities to advance the Commonwealth, this nation, and our world towards fulfilling its potential, towards meeting its lofty promises.”

I believe, with fervent hope, that the potential and the promise still remain, in spite of what we have witnessed this past week, and all too often before.

We must remain guided by a sense of shared values and animated by an unquenchable passion to create a feeling of belonging for everyone who calls this place their home.

We do that, as President Obama and others have said, knowing that African Americans are 30 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over by police officers and are shot at twice the rate.

At the same time, our police officers live and work in our communities. They are our spouses, cousins, nephews and nieces. They coach our sports teams and sit beside us in churches, synagogues and mosques.

They serve our communities. They stare into the unknown darkness of a Dallas night – and in communities across our country — to protect those who engage in peaceful protest and to protect all of us in a thousand ways, large and small, most of which we are not even aware.

They, too, are us.

This is our reality in America. And this is what we must reconcile if we are to find common ground and mutual understanding.

This coming week, the university will provide space and opportunity to our campus community to come together – to ask questions, to express our grief and to hurt and to heal.

We will have more information early in the week about this opportunity. In the meantime I will, like so many of you, carry the hurt and pain of the student who reached out to me.

But I will also carry with me the tireless and still hopeful refrain of Dr. King, writing more than 50 years ago from the confines of the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama:

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly … Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Today, in so many ways, we seem as far removed from those words as possible. Yet, as tempting as resigned indifference can seem, we cannot let that feeling stand.

Elie Wiesel, for so many our moral conscience, reminded us that “silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented … the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

We cannot afford to take the anesthetic of indifference. It doesn’t eliminate pain. It only masks it for a brief moment.

We must, now, embrace King’s sentiment of hope and Wiesel’s clarion challenge. They must be our prayer and call to action as we search for meaning and a path ahead — for each other and for our country.

And as a special community – the University of Kentucky – we must find a way to play our part.


Terry Allen is the University of Kentucky’s Interim Vice President for Institutional Diversity. This article appeared in his blog and was distributed by UK Now.

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