First time I ever shot another human being in the heart I was about eight or nine years old. The kid I shot was a little older. Nice kid. Still remember his distinctive name. Rule Rattray. Didn’t kill him. Google tells me he didn't die until 2018. But I damn near took him out early. Not on purpose, of course, but that probably didn’t make the 16-penny nail from my zip gun hurt any less.
Perhaps I better explain.
Back when I was a little kid growing up in the wild forests and canyons of the steep mountainsides above Berkeley and Oakland, we didn’t have anything but books, a few radio programs, and our own inventions to amuse us. We invented a lot of stuff, including guns. The gun I shot Rule with was made from a metal tube about six inches long I’d strapped to a handle, like a pistol. For a bullet, we’d take a three-inch-long 16-penny nail and wrap two thick bands of adhesive tape around it—one snugged right up next to the head of the nail, and the other about two-thirds of the way down to the pointed tip. Put some Vaseline on the tape rings so the "bullet" would slide nice and smoothly into the pipe—tight, but not too tight, so when the gun went off the nail would blast out cleanly.
The blast? Easy. You just put a firecracker into the rear opening of the tube and light it. Some indeterminate seconds later, depending on the fuse, it’d go BANG! and the nail would fire out of the barrel toward…something. One time that something happened to be poor Rule, who stepped in front of me just as the firecracker cracked off my shot.
The nail hit Rule in the chest. Upper left part of his chest actually. So the nail drove right into his heart. The thick band of tape closest to the tip stopped it before the whole nail could go through his whole heart. But the sharp tip got there. We could tell because as Rule lay on the pine needles whimpering, the rest of the nail that was sticking up would twitch each time his heart beat. That twitch was good news, telling us that he was alive and his heart was beating. The bad news was that I really had shot him right in the heart with a 16-penny nail.
I remember a good bit of commotion after that. His mom and other grownups came hustling, carried him off, and careened down the mountain to a doctor. They didn’t have time to let me know how pissed they were at me. Well, not at that moment anyhow. I did hear about it later.
I’ve been thinking about Rule lately because I’ve been thinking about guns lately. Over the years I progressed from homemade zip guns to BB guns. Never could afford the BB gun of my dreams—the Daisy Red Ryder lever-action model with the cool leather thong from a ring on the side. But mine was still good enough for taking out garage windows and street lights. Later I had a pellet gun good for harassing little rodents, then a .22 rifle for beer cans and rabbits, eventually shotguns for flying critters. In boot camp at Fort Ord, I got good enough with my M-14 carbine to score 247 out of 250 on the firing range and get my Expert rating with ease.
I’m thinking about guns and shooting people these days because I can’t stand to see the slaughter of innocent Ukrainians—children, parents, grandparents—without wondering if there isn’t some way I could stop the slaughter. Like, by shooting Vladimir Putin.
I know I’m not the only one wondering if that wouldn’t be a fine idea. I read a learned essay on the subject in Politico recently. It detailed the remarkably lousy record the U.S. has had in successfully assassinating leaders it deemed unworthy of continued life. With all the cleverness at the disposal of our military and secret services, it’s still almost impossible. And then when it does work, the unintended consequences make it turn out to have been a stupid idea in the first place.
And so I know it’s not only a stupid idea but also one that I guess I’d never find possible to execute myself. Despite my boundless admiration for renown German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his efforts to assassinate Adolf Hitler, I am way too ambivalent about playing God in that way. I actually believe it would be the right thing to do—right in every conceivable way the word “right” has any positive meaning to me.
But I realize there are times when my lot is to suffer—I use the word advisedly. For decades, I lived my life in oblivious pursuit of happiness and security. When I would hear and read about suffering as a core element of life, it frankly meant nothing to me. Sure, I would give a sympathetic head nod when skimming across the images of the millions who live in abject misery about which I could seemingly do nothing. But I lived in a cocoon of apparent accomplishment and tranquility, my night’s sleep undisturbed by a quivering rage at my helplessness in the face of evil. But no longer. It assaults me every night now. And finally I was driven out of bed two hours ago, just after midnight, to grope my way toward some comprehension of this miasma that envelops us all.
And now I begin to understand the words I have spoken mindlessly countless times, as a young boy raised in the Roman Catholic church and as an adult who studied theology in a Presbyterian seminary for three years—“deliver us from evil”. This shopworn prayer and the word “evil” now stir in my heart. I realize that evil is not a concept but a palpable force--as active as gravity, as relentless as ultraviolet radiation. No wonder the ancients personified it and gave it a name: Satan. A humanized force, relentlessly attacking . In fact, the Greek root means "the evil one". How else to understand the force of evil now slaughtering human beings in Ukraine—and elsewhere—and shattering the illusion of peaceful safety among the rest of us?
And so I will no longer chirp a hope to be delivered from this sadistic force. I pray that I might transform the murderous fury I feel into battlefield energy for tikkun olam, the healing of creation.
Lest I forget this cheap and easy resolve (for surely I will), I’ll step into my workshop on my way back to bed (it’s now 2:19AM). I’ll select a 16-penny nail to carry in my pocket to remind me that Satan is ever on the loose, and I’m to stay in uniform “for the duration”.