A Crying (and unacceptable) Shame

This time there is no levity in this very non-biogeochemical post. Both levity and biogeochemistry are far from my mind. What I write below is neither new or eloquent, but ultimately, I’m not really writing for anyone else. I write in the hopes of feeling just a notch better by doing so…while simultaneously hoping that we all stay heartbroken and angry enough to this time…finally…stand up and refuse to accept the status quo. (NOTE: 12/17 update at end of post).

I am sitting in the distressingly sepulchral light of a guest bedroom, watching my beautiful and perfect three year old daughter sleep. I am crying. I am crying for the slaughter of twenty others beautiful and perfect, for the slaughter of the caregivers and educators and heroes to whom they were entrusted. I am crying for the 680-some other children who should never have faced such an unthinkable moment in time, and who will never shake its searing images.

And I am crying at the probable meaninglessness of it all.

Eleven years past, I stood in shock in a DC hotel while, on small screen high in the corner, an airplane slammed into the second tower. Two hours later, I was on the roof of that hotel, still speechless, watching fighter jets circle above and smoke rise from another iconic building just across the Potomac.

Almost overnight, our country changed. For the better? No, I don’t think so. But 9/11 showed that when our government wants to, it can rapidly transform the reality of our daily lives.

It won’t do that here.

The leaders of the country in which my daughter has spent just three largely blissful years will profess great sadness. They will, like our president did yesterday, feel true emotion. But they won’t do anything that matters. Except for those directly affected, the moment will fade into the dustbins of history, 9/11esque Never Forget stickers appearing only on the windows of Newtown residents and a handful of family members. For the rest of the country, a small New England suburb’s enduring horror will only re-emerge the next time someone slaughters our children.

And until we refuse to accept it, slaughter they will. Virginia Tech. Binghamton. Tucson. Oak Creek. Aurora. And now Newtown. Our children, our family, our leaders, our friends and our neighbors. All just since 2007. Twenty-nine mass shootings since 1999. Each time, the same script. Shock and horror, speeches of dismay and empathy…and no action.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As Jeff Sachs noted, Australia responded to the horror of mass shootings with significant attention to gun control. Since then? Sixteen years free, and a notable drop in gun-related suicides and homicides.

No citizen needs an automatic weapon. The second amendment does not guarantee the right to such tools of destruction. But gun control is not the only answer. As many have written today, mental health services in this country are woefully lacking, while cultural glorification and desensitization of unspeakable violence only grows. Media coverage of any event has never been more divisive, more sensationalist, more likely to feed into a metastatic circle of violence. As a nation, we are growing apart – financially, intellectually, spiritually, culturally.

But we could change it all. As Nicholas Kristoff wrote today, it just takes collective courage. Courage most of our elected leaders of any party are too unwilling to display.

If ever there was a reason to hold the government hostage, to threaten its closure, to resort to unprecedented rhetoric and obstructionism, this is it. Our president fought tears yesterday because he is a father and by all indications a good man. Yesterday was for comfort. Today and going forward he should affix himself to the gates of Washingtonian power, refusing to budge until Newtown and its horrific brethren are no longer tolerated.

But he probably won’t, and nor will any of his colleagues. So I sit here and cry.

12/17 UPDATE : Roughly 60 hours have passed since my Saturday pre-dawn drafting of the post above. The raw emotion and anger I felt then has faded, though only a little. And by this morning, I started to feel a little hope: the president and many members of Congress, even some with NRA endorsement, are responding differently this time. New legislation is being discussed, changes of heart on gun policy announced. I would like nothing more than to have the pessimism above be proven wrong.

But for the most part, my pessimism remains. This piece by Patrick Keefe in the New Yorker explains why. Keefe writes:

What does it take? If a congresswoman in a coma isn’t sufficient grounds to reëvaluate the role that firearms play in our national life, is a schoolhouse full of dead children? I desperately want to believe that it is, and yet I’m not sure that I do. By this time next week, most of the people who are, today, signing petitions and demanding gun control will have moved on to other things. If you want to understand why the gun debate can occasionally feel rigged, this is the answer: the issue is characterized by a conspicuous asymmetry of fervor.

In other words, if we want to see meaningful action, all of us – from national leaders to everyday citizens – must fight human nature, hold on to the raw emotion and use it to organize and stay engaged in a long and difficult policy struggle. Because as Keefe also writes, it will be a struggle indeed:

Following the Newtown shooting, Larry Pratt, the Executive Director of Gun Owners for America, suggested that these massacres might be avoided in the future, if only more teachers were armed. As Pratt’s sentiment should make clear, the United States has slipped its moorings and drifted into a realm of profound national lunacy.

That lunacy extends well beyond debates on gun control. From health care to education to science to the basic function of government — all of which are directly relevant to reducing violence — mountains of evidence show that we have indeed slipped our moorings. Will a moment in time this horrific ground us again? We’ll see.

Though if we only sit back and watch, the answer is already known. So please, if you’re heartsick and fed up, do something. Keep doing something.

This site was not created as a portal for advocacy. It originated as a silly little science site and it will probably go back there. But some issues merit discussion and action everywhere, from all of us. My voice may be small, but I intend to use it. I hope you do too. For only in the sustained collective of millions of small voices can we craft a future in which our children are less likely to face an unthinkably violent and untimely fate. We can’t keep them or us free from all harm, and we can’t eliminate violence or even mass slayings. But as our president said yesterday, we can do better. Will he – and will we?

I don’t know. Per Keefe and others, pessimism may be justified. And I feel it. But as I watch my young daughter sleep once more, I refuse to accept it.


5 thoughts on “A Crying (and unacceptable) Shame

  1. Dave Jemielity

    Thank you for that, Al. You’ve hit it all on the head (except for the part about it not being eloquent: it is… exquisitely).

  2. Tom Yulsman

    I have vacillated between pessimism and thinking that this time will be different. Today, the pessimism is winning, big time. That’s because of comments like the following that I received from an extremely intelligent man who is opposed to most gun regulations: “You realize, I hope, that there is no such thing as an assault weapon outside the invention of legislators.” “The bushmaster is not an assault rifle…It is not even a particularly powerful semiauto.” “Google ‘muzzle energy’ — the .223 is about half that of typical hunting round like the 308, or the .30-06. At 1282 ft-lbs it is a the low end of values given for rifles on this chart.” The sad thing is that this otherwise compassionate, moral and even brilliant man actually thinks he is right because of the seeming rationality of his comments. He has no idea how deluded he really is.

    With so many people who think like this, and the massive corrupting influence of money in our politics, I think you are right, Alan. There is no hope for anything even remotely effective.

    1. Alan Townsend Post author

      Tom, agreed that there is ample reason for pessimism. But I meant it when I wrote that ultimately I refuse to accept that pessimism. More of us just have to engage in a sustained push-back. Would it work? Don’t know. But not long ago in the grand scheme of things, most people thought women would never vote. That a black man would never be president. Etc. I don’t mean to sound hackneyed, but if enough of us give a damn for long enough…well, then, maybe.

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