I wrote this piece a few weeks ago…. I guess I’ll just keep posting it when this happens again and again and again. In the aftermath of 17 dead in Florida, the reports seem to dwell on the fact that this is the MOST deaths in a high school shooting. Higher than Columbine! Like it’s a contest to see how many corpses it will take before we the people force the issue.
On January 25, I wrote …..
On Wednesday January 24, 2018, there was a front-page story in the New York Times under the headline, “A School Attack Every Other Day.” It described three shootings that had happened within the past week: in a small town in Kentucky, in a Dallas suburb, in New Orleans.
These were just three of the eleven school shootings since January, which were only the most recent of 50 shootings since the start of the school year in September 2017. Are we shocked?
Most school shootings get no mention in the national news. A few are “just” suicides; some do not result in any deaths at all. It takes a pile up to get any notice at all.
America responds to deadly school shootings the way we react to deadly car crashes: Terrible! A terrible shame. But we’re not going to stop driving, are we?
In 1999, the Columbine High School “massacre” – as it was called—became a national obsession and the details unfolded for weeks. It was all we talked about.
Why did it happen? How could it happen? How could it have been prevented? Suburban white parents like me were forced to have “the conversation” about violence and safety and human evil, a conversation that has been a miserable fact of life for black parents since they were brought to this continent in chains.
When Columbine exploded, my daughter was thirteen. I had a weekly column in the Boston Globe Magazine and I wrote,
The massacre at Columbine High School occurred six months before my daughter started high school, and she took to heart the frightening idea that something like that could happen “anywhere.” Personalizing the cliché given voice by so many commentators and public officials, Emilia said, “Newton, Massachusetts is not so different from Littleton, Colorado.”
My daughter was frightened on behalf of friends who were already attending our high school, and she was worried about her own safety, too. She thought that the teachers ought to devise an escape plan, just in case something awful happened. She could not tolerate the idea that it was impossible to safeguard against the contingencies of madmen. She wanted a guarantee, and it was my job to tell her that there are none.
In the copycat aftermath that swept the country, there was an empty bomb threat at my daughter’s high school. There were swastikas in the bathroom, and hideous, threatening letters. It was my job to tell her that most human beings do the right thing most of the time. I said things like, “If you don’t believe in the basic decency of humanity, you might as well not get out of bed in the morning.”
But my daughter had been studying the Holocaust in Hebrew school. Why should she listen to me?
I hated those two murderous boys in Littleton, Colorado. I hated their parents and their teachers, and the principal and the probation officer. I hated the guidance counselors and the idiots who bought guns and ammunition for 17-year-old kids. I grieved for them, too, but how dare they not see what was going on in their own houses? It poisoned the air, half a continent away, in my house.
I waited for some story that would enable me to understand the cause, which would permit me to set the danger to one side. I wanted it to be the parents’ fault. Not very nice of me, but maybe that would explain things, something at least. But listening to clips from the funerals on the radio and reading the eulogies in the newspapers unsettled me even more than the lack of explanations.
“She is with God.”
“He is in a better place.”
“I’ll see you in heaven, darling.”
This kind of consolation sounds strange to me. Although some Jews believe that there is a life after death, Jewish eulogies are all about reminding us of what has been lost and can never be replaced.
When a grandparent dies, full of years and mourned by their generations, we can number the memories and smile through tears. But when a child is taken, there is no minimizing the agony: we howl at the injustice and even hold God accountable. We accept the blow, because we have no other choice, but there is no silver lining in the loss.
The obituaries for the children of Littleton, Colorado were obscenely brief. “He liked to play video games.” “She had just gotten her driver’s license.” Those lives were unredeemed promises, gone to the grave.
The Littleton funerals frightened me no less than the shootings. Why safeguard this life if the afterlife is better? Why limit gun sales if heaven awaits the victims of cruelty, senseless violence, accidents, and suicide? Why set up metal detectors?
Jews answer those questions with a commandment from the Bible: “Choose life.” This life. Here on earth.
It’s been nineteen years since I wrote about Columbine. It’s only five years since the murder of 20 first graders and six educators in a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school. The president went there and wept with the parents of those dead children. There was a brief national conversation about gun control and mental health services. And then Newtown receded in the rear-view mirror.
I want to scream, “Carrying a gun is nothing like driving a car.” You have to take a test to drive a car. You have to register and get your picture.
I also want to turn the page and read about baseball or movies or just about anything but another shooting like Columbine or Newtown or any of the thousands of unnamed schools that will never be the same.
The parents of dead 6-year-olds in Newtown do not have the luxury of turning the page so they turned their grief and rage into “The Sandy Hook Promise,” a national organization created to protect children from gun violence. https://www.sandyhookpromise.org, https://everytown.org
In an America where children are regularly sacrificed on the altar of the National Rift Association, the parents of Newtown choose life.
I honor them. I send them money. But mostly, I am ashamed to say, I turn the page.