This time

I remember in 1995 when that bastard bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  I mocked the overwrought news coverage in the subsequent days for their slow-motion intros to stories with that Lightning Crashes song playing.  (watch at your own risk)  And everything was THE CHILDREN… what about the CHIIIIILDREN.  I countered that by saying that all those lives lost mattered.  Why are we making it seem like the nineteen kids killed mattered more than the 149 adults?

Fast forward the film of my life past my cynical comments, pause on one spring day and one winter day.  Witness the birth of my two children.  (Be thankful you only have to imagine that part.)

We’re almost to today, George Bailey.  It’s this past Friday morning, December 14th, 2012.  I’m part of this fabulous group, an offshoot of the school’s PTO called the Life Skills Committee.  We are working in partnership with the school to more fully integrate values like respect and kindness into our entire community.  I love it.  It’s big systems change stuff.  We had a meeting at 7:30 Friday morning.  Crammed into the school office conference room were the principal, the school psychologist, a junior high teacher, the librarian, a few parents, two eighth graders, and a sleepy kindergartner who had to tag along with her mother.

During the meeting, our principal had to leave to do the 8:15 morning announcements.  To my surprise, my son showed up and did a reading about Advent over the PA system.  “What great timing,” I thought, “to get to be here for that.”  The principal returned to the meeting, we finished up a little after 9:00.  We all went to our next places; mine happened to be my work as a bookkeeper at an office a few minutes away from the school.

A bit before lunch, the owner of the company, a news junkie, told me that there was a shooting somewhere. Ugh, I thought. We’d just had the mall in Portland, the movie theater in Aurora, now what? I logged on to check it out online.

You know the rest of the story.  Wordy though I am, I’ve got no adjectives, nothing at all to describe the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT.  I live a good 700 miles away from that school, but as the information started rolling in, I felt violated and sick.  The children.  Yes, the children.  Babies younger than my kids.  A principal, a school psychologist.  Leaving a meeting in the office to see what the the ruckus was outside.  Teachers shielding their kids with their bodies.  All gunned down. Twenty-eight dead.  Radical change in a blink of an eye.

Now I get it.  It’s not that children’s lives are more valuable, it’s that we, as a society and as humans are responsible for keeping them safe.  As nobly as those teachers acted on Friday, they couldn’t keep them all safe.  Or alive.

Twenty children dead – all six and seven years old.  It’s Saturday, December 15th, as I begin my first draft of this essay.  I still want to vomit.  No more glib mocking from me at our nation’s hand-wringing.

In days to come, we’ll learn more about who this shooter was and maybe even what motivated him, but it won’t matter.  It won’t make sense.  In fact, I think Why Did He Do It and Why Does God Allow This are both misguided and destructive questions. Morning Edition Saturday aired an interview of Rabbi Shaul Praver by Scott Simon.  He was with the parents of the slain children and said this when asked why these things happen.

I think that it’s more important just to have compassion and humanity and hold someone’s hand and hug them and cry with them. I never liked answers, theological answers for things like that…I don’t try to solve it like some kind of a math equation or anything like that.

I’ve been unsure of how to respond to this.  What to tell the kids?  I can’t pretend it never happened.  They’ll find out.  I explained it to them, asked them to pray for the families, and to focus on gratitude for everything the adults in that school did to protect those children.  I reminded them that this is why they have those unpleasant drills at school; that practice really does matter in a time of crisis.    
And how to react to other adults?  Christmas shopping on Saturday, I was conversing with a fellow shopper about pre-teen fashion trends when she mentioned that she works with third and fourth graders at a local school.  I told her that I was sorry, that I’m sure Friday’s events really hit her hard.  She choked up and couldn’t even respond.

What do we do with that?

On the other hand, some dear friends on social media were outraged that people talked about gun control in the scant hours following this.  Others said now is the perfect time; only out of rawness will we take action.  And of course others say, “Guns don’t kill people…”

I’m so tired of hearing that, I can’t finish it.  And to those who think that our kindergartner teachers should be armed, I say I don’t want to live in that country.  We are one very well-armed nation, and no armed citizen stepped up to stop one of our numerous mass shootings.  They happen and are over in minutes.  As Nicolas Kristof wrote on Saturday in a definitive and brilliant article:

As with guns, some auto deaths are caused by people who break laws or behave irresponsibly. But we don’t shrug and say, “Cars don’t kill people, drunks do.”

Instead, we have required seat belts, air bags, child seats and crash safety standards. We have introduced limited licenses for young drivers and tried to curb the use of mobile phones while driving. All this has reduced America’s traffic fatality rate per mile driven by nearly 90 percent since the 1950s.

My son asked me if the shooter was a psychopath.  Of course, I told him.  You don’t kill your mother, twenty little kids, and five teachers unless you’re very, very sick.  When we ask ourselves how we can prevent this from happening again, two issues cannot be ignored. The shooter had mental illness AND and he had access to legally purchased weapons.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, EIGHT children in this country are killed every day by guns.  FORTY SEVEN children are injured.  Every day.  If you look at page 31 of that report, you’ll see how America’s firearm homicide rate compares to that of 34 other industrialized nations. Three per 100,000 here.  Next closest is Switzerland, an example some like to point to because they have a citizen militia instead of a standing army.  What’s often forgotten is that they also have strict ownership regulations.  Their homicide rate is 0.8 per 100,000.  Not a “we’re number one” pride kind of moment.

In our country the issue becomes framed as a one of constitutional rights.  The second amendment.

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Of course our framers didn’t live in a world with a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle. It’s a combat weapon that can fire up to six bullets per second.  The founding fathers lived in the era of muskets, where reloading involved pouring powders and packing them in with a ramrod.  To think that they could predict our culture’s technology, not to mention the utter lack of a well-regulated militia, would be funny if it didn’t have such tragic consequences.

Another thing that didn’t exist in 1776 was the NRA, the National Rifle Association; gun lobbyists with big money. They spend millions to protect their special interest – yes, certain gun owners, but also the gun industry.  From the link:

The Violence Policy Center has estimated that since 2005, gun manufacturers have contributed up to $38.9 million to the NRA. Those numbers, however, are based on publicly listed “sponsorship” levels on NRA fundraising pamphlets. The real figures could be much bigger. Like Crossroads GPS or Americans for Prosperity, or the Sierra Club for that matter, the NRA does not disclose any donor information even though it spends millions on federal elections.

People have asked me if I really believe that more strictly regulating guns would prevent all murders.  Nope, I don’t think that. We will never be able to do that, but that’s not an excuse to throw our hands up in the air.  As I mentioned before, guns are part of the problem.  We also need to think about how we view mental illness in our country.  And access to care.  And whether we are our brother’s keeper.  Is there a social contract?  How about the violent rhetoric in the public space.  And first person shooter video games.  Are we numb to violence?  What about the media?  Does the 24 hour news coverage equate to glorifying killers?  This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good start.  

As any addict can tell you, you can’t begin to address the problem until you admit there is a problem.

This is personal.  The parallels between my Friday morning and the Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School are eerie.  I emailed our principal and school psychologist this weekend to tell them I’ve been thinking of them, and how I appreciate what they do for our kids.  We are making cookies this weekend and I plan to send them in to my kids’ teachers, with a note of thanks.    

When I talked to my son about the shooting, he said, “That could have been us.” 
“Yes,” I said. “But it wasn’t.”  
Hanging in the pause after my answer was a cold, silent, “This time.”  

5 thoughts on “This time”

  1. Thank you for this. You are right, of course. Violence is part of our culture. I had to take myself off the computer, remove myself from the internet, turn off the television yesterday (and I am one very plugged-in person.)

    Last night we all watched a movie. And I was struck by how prevalent gun culture is, in so many movies. It was hard to find an adult movie that didn’t have guns in it. Something is wrong, so very wrong with the US.

    My Canadian husband is at a loss as to how to respond, so he hasn’t been. I am one of those who feels we need to act now (as you know) to change laws, for if not now, then when? But we also need to change how we deal with health care in this country. We simply cannot turf those with mental health problems out onto the streets.

    We must change both aspects of how these things are dealt with in this country. This just simply cannot happen again.

  2. We must do what we can do where we can: 1) demand change on gun control from congress and state legislatures and 2) understand our own role in a society that does not readily treat those who are separate, mentally ill and apart from maintstream society.

    There was a repeated mantra the other day of ‘how could this happen HERE,” as in my back yard, this safe place I moved to because I can. Mental illness and gun combinations can happen anywhere. Until we address both none of us can be at ease.

    We are a violent culture that celebrates violence. In games and entertainment we seem facinated by violence. It is a thriving industry in America…that is another dial we need to turn off.

    Thank you, Katie.

  3. Completely on point, Katie. Very interesting that you referenced the Oklahoma City bombing of nearly 17 years ago (unbelievable it’s been that long). Different circumstances, of course, but I believe it speaks to another issue: how the growth of media coverage has created celebrities out of the monsters behind these acts and (perhaps more subtly, over time) has contributed to a culture that has seemingly become desensitized to violence — as though Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tuscon, Portland, and other mass public shootings are simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or worse, being asked to take comfort in twisted statistics of our “higher risk profile” of being hit by a bus or car.

    No, no, and no. These horrific incidents are NOT normal rites of passage and I resent that we are now forced to think twice about going to a mall, seeing a movie and most astonishingly, whether a child will be safe in their school.

    I don’t have children myself (a combination of circumstances and choice, as many women face) but I (and others) have not been any less deeply affected by the senseless massacre in Newtown and angry for robbing us of yet another supposedly safe haven. It would have been equally tragic had all the victims been adults, but there is something particularly brutal and evil about targeting children and I don’t think you have to be a parent to feel violated by that loss of innocence. My heart has been shattered.

    If I may vent a little on the wall-to-wall coverage, I understand it to a point, but in addition to glorifying the perpetrator, I wonder if the repeated imagery also serves to desensitize us to the horrors, almost like a video game. I also resent the media’s constant reference to the upcoming holidays, as though this tragedy would be any more ‘bearable’ had it happened in the spring or fall. Is it particularly upsetting so close to the holidays? Of course. But I don’t think that nuance is lost on anyone with a soul.

    You may have seen my comments on FB and Twitter yesterday when I observed that both #Newtown and #Santacon were trending simultaneously on Twitter yesterday afternoon. Maybe it’s living within a stone’s throw of Connecticut, but I haven’t like doing much of anything since hearing the news on Friday. I curtailed non-essential errands this weekend and even passed on a couple of outings as I wasn’t feeling particularly festive. I don’t begrudge anyone who chose “normalcy” this weekend. That is probably very healthy and necessary. Putting up a tree, holiday shopping, visiting friends. These are all GOOD things and I am not judging those choices. However … seeing people passed out and/or getting sick on the street yesterday dressed in santa and elf costumes to celebrate a holiday that is beloved by children pushed me over the edge. It smacked of the messed up priorities that seem to be infiltrating our society. Could they have gone holiday shopping in their costumes and purchased gifts for underprivileged children or volunteered at a hospital instead of binge drinking on a day-long pub crawl?

    I reference this only to illustrate my earlier point: Have these mass shootings become so common that people are desensitized (or am I guilty of over thinking?) Again, I’m not suggesting that we don’t all need to go on with our lives but I found the lack of sensitivity truly offensive. To be clear, the participants were not limited to recent college grads; I’m embarrassed to say that many of my peers (late 30s and mid 40s) were amongst participants I know personally. How do we begin a dialogue on how to fix the problem with a generation that couldn’t forgo a pub crawl within 24 hours of a mass shooting out of respect?

  4. Hi Katie,

    As a mother and an educator, these words of yours really stand out for me:

    “It’s not that children’s lives are more valuable, it’s that we, as a society and as humans are responsible for keeping them safe. As nobly as those teachers acted on Friday, they couldn’t keep them all safe. Or alive.”

    It’s becoming too routine. Something has to change. Our children deserve better. We all do.

    Thanks for writing this compelling post.

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