Soft target. Am I a soft target? Are you? And what exactly is a soft target, as opposed to a hard target? Does a soft target mean someone who is not carrying a gun? Does it mean someone who is not wearing body armor? Does “soft” mean expendable?

And what does “hard” mean? Does “hard” mean Important? Must be Defended?

One recent morning, after the latest somber news, I listened to the band Cowboy Nation’s mournful rendition of “Shenandoah.” I had always thought the song was about a traveler making his way west, across the wide Missouri, as he pined for the river valley he left behind in Virginia. But no: turns out he may have been pining for the daughter of Shenandoah, the great Oneida Chief. Legend has it the Shenandoah River was named in honor of Chief Shenandoah by George Washington, in gratitude for the support of Shenandoah and his hundreds of warriors who fought alongside Washington’s troops on the frontier and who sent corn to the starving Colonial soldiers during the brutal winter at Valley Forge.

“Shenandoah” was a song that went down the Missouri and the Mississippi and around the world in the 19th Century, sung by voyageurs and river boatmen and ocean-going sailors from the South Pacific to Scotland, but known to all as an American tune, a story of American-style craving and longing.

Away, we’re bound away.

We crave adventure. But we long, we pine, for home and family. And safety. It’s the American dream, right? Or more accurately, the Human Dream. And when we feel those longings threatened—well, that is when we’re at our worst, aren’t we? We recoil. We harden. We strive to become hard targets. We bury the softness that surrounds our longing. We leave it behind in our mournful songs, and we reach for our guns.

Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you.

Soft target. Do the people who come up with such a phrase—do they not have softness in their lives? Do they not know the feel of an embrace? Of a baby’s tiny fingers, wrapped around their own? Do they not have children? Are they never near children? Were they never children themselves?

Far away, you rolling river.

I do not wish to be a target, soft or otherwise. I do not think any human being should be viewed as a target, soft or otherwise. To accept a world wherein we are all targets is to accept  dystopia.

‘Tis seven years, since last I’ve seen you.

To accept the notion that to be a target is some sort of core part of being American is to accept that the need to arm oneself is some core part of being American. I do not believe this is what Washington and his fellow founders intended. They did not intend that we would feel compelled to buy the most deadly weapons available to us, in any century, in any decade, in order to defend ourselves against our neighbors. In order to defend ourselves against people who show up at our door by mistake, or in distress. In order to murder our neighbor’s children. In order to kill strangers at a shopping mall. Or a school.

As of Monday, May 8, there have been more than 203 mass shootings in the United States this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit statistical archive cited by the New York Times and other major news sources. Gun violence of all kinds, since January 1, has killed 14,843 people and injured 11,829.

Two weeks ago, Washington became the tenth state to ban assault weapons. It took years of tireless lobbying and negotiating, even in our majority blue state.

Away, we’re bound away, ‘cross the wide Missouri.

The founders understood that there are many people who wish democracy ill, not well. But when democracy starts to turn on itself—to wish itself ill—to allow itself to become a country of targets, then where and who and what are we?

Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you.

Oh Shenandoah, I love your daughter.

But no. We may softly long, we may softly love, but we are hard targets. Bound away, we’re bound away, from all softness.

And that is our fatal flaw.




photos taken in Shenandoah National Park, Spring 2018