Oregon writer: America is being terrorized by itself

Story highlights

  • Diana Abu-Jaber: Oregon has deep tension between progressivism and individualism; mass shooting challenges gun attachment
  • She says Americans can't afford to ignore tyranny at our center; we're terrorized by ourselves, must address rampant gun violence

Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of several books, including the novels "Crescent" and "Birds of Paradise," and the forthcoming memoir "Life Without a Recipe." She is a professor of English and writing at Portland State University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Let me tell you about Oregon, where I am a college professor, and which today is reeling from the chilling mass shooting at Umpqua Community College.

In my state, there is a powerful tension between a deeply progressive nature and a history of individualism. In towns like Portland, the Portlandia zaniness might overshadow the worn chainsaws and old pickups, but they're there -- unemployed laborers, loggers, the sons and daughters of the pioneers, transients, the lost, forgotten, and the cast aside.
Alongside the quirkiness and cannabis, there is homelessness, mental illness, poverty, drug addiction and rivers of despair.
    Diana Abu-Jaber
    For all that, there's an enduring kind of Oregonian optimism, a belief in the possible and the good. You feel a vibrancy in the classroom that is at once subtle yet distinctive. These students work toward change, they believe progress is possible.
    Never before have I lived in a community with so many people on the street corners carrying clipboards. Today, a young man petitioning to save mountain lions approached me saying, "Hi, I'm Alex and you're entering my net of positivity."
    Sometimes all this Northwestern hope can seem naive, a bit too earnestly youthful. But perhaps it's also an antidote to the sort of battle fatigue that sets in -- the feeling that social problems are too big and unsolvable.
    In this country, we're now living in a state of desperation, in which school shootings and armed violence are a fact of daily life. Americans are so used to hearing these nightmarish reports, we're almost numb, which is when things become particularly dangerous. We throw up our hands, resign ourselves to hopelessness, inertia, cynicism. We trade our humanity for passivity.
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    Many Oregonians feel strongly that gun ownership is the answer to gun violence. This state is renowned for hunting and fishing, for its pioneer history, for its quintessentially American identity of questing and freedom.
    Even my father, a Jordanian immigrant, loved owning a gun, because he felt it made him more "American." But we cling to such idyllic notions at the cost of human life -- in particular, the lives of our most vulnerable and precious citizens, our children.
    While the right to resist tyranny and protect one's home and country are noble causes, Americans can no longer afford to ignore the tyranny at our very center.
    We are terrorized by ourselves. College shooters are not swarming here from foreign lands. There is no outside, there is no borderland to arm, and it is the very definition of insanity to imagine that in simply continuing to live as we do -- allowing under-regulated arming of the citizens, a wild escalation of arms throughout the general populace -- things will ever improve.
    It seems clear that change is critical and late in coming. There should be at least as many precautions in place to purchase a gun as there are to obtain a driver's license. There should be mental health screenings and a background check. People who are able to use guns responsibly have nothing to fear from reasonable precautions.
    We offer prayers to the bereaved and the victims of gun violence, yet it's essential to recognize that praying isn't enough. Many believe that gun ownership is necessary for self-protection, but responsible gun control is a form of self-protection. If you don't hand guns to violent, criminally insane people, you've cut the problem in half.
    When I've visited Jordan, Americans have often asked if I'm not afraid to go to the Middle East. It's been a source of great irony, then, to be frequently asked by Jordanians if, with all its gun violence and crime, I'm not afraid to live in America.
    In the past, I've always told people -- both "over here" and "over there" -- that they shouldn't believe everything they see on TV.
    But when I walked out of my writing class today and first heard the heartbreaking news about another shooting, so close to home, as a professor in this beautiful, all-American state, I couldn't help wondering if the Jordanians aren't right.