By Todd R. Nelson
It’s happened again, but this time the response has been dynamically altered.
The phrase “Parkland School Massacre” may have entered the tired lexicon of American commentary, but the startling response of a new generation of student is fresh, and nationwide.
The shape-shifting ritual of data and rhetorical palliatives began as usual. Even the haunting text messages of kids to their parents from within the school, as the gunman roamed the halls, feel like déjà vu. Of course, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims. But is that all? Do I sound jaded? Weren’t you?
More Americans die each year from gun violence than in the 10 years of war in Vietnam. Mental health treatment is underfunded. Guns are a cinch to buy, no matter who you are. Even the rehearsal of the stats of NRA political contributions now seems part of a grim, routine rehearsal of the known. Descriptions of the exact effect of AR-15 bullets on human organs sinks into consciousness. Would it help to see the bodies, as we do of atrocities on foreign soil?
We connect the dots, old and new, and then … do nothing. We quibble. Statistics that should be stirring, urgent calls to action just feel routine. The answers, or at least tactics, seem palpable and obvious. The same voices arrive at the same microphones to pontificate, “To be seen of men…” in their admonitions and handwringing. And yet … it’s happened again. The “best lack all conviction.” Is this not a “rough beast slouching toward…” Congress to be born? The great poets outline the ironies; we must do the rest.
My European friends, whose national flags are small icons on television bar graphs of comparative societal gun violence, look aghast. Jean asked for my thoughts on the most recent “fusillade.” It sounds antiseptic, remote. What’s lost in translation? Do we care more about trade deficits than quality of life deficits? Think education, health care, family leave and civil society. Jean offered me a room in his house. “In France,” he wrote, “it’s difficult to imagine.” Does anyone else feel like becoming a refugee from this insanity?
As a high school student as the war in Vietnam ended, I recall political candidates who ran on an “anti-war” platform. It seems they needed only one issue to be viable: ending the war. Bring our troops home. John Kerry asked Congress, “How do you ask someone to be the last person to die in the Vietnam War?” And does the surge of student protest in the wake of Parkland seem reminiscent of anti-Vietnam War protests? It does to me.
Thirty-five years ago, I went into education zealous to teach the great ideas and texts of mankind. Literature, I thought, is the great repository of answers to anguish, terror, inhumanity, ignorance and indifference. Then larger societal issues complicated the teaching and administrative life, little by little. What educator goes into the profession hoping to conduct lockdown and active shooter drills? Customary fire drills seem quaint. Installing deft-shooter teachers — “hardening our schools” — seems asymmetrical to the threat, and to our implied Socratic oaths as educators. Teachers pack ideas, not guns. Ideas never miss their intended targets.
Bereft school superintendents or principals, thrust before the glaring cameras of the next media swarm, parrot the politicians’ talking points. The anguished, childless parent endures unimaginable grief, rage and reoriented purpose. What of their hearts and minds? Harden them too?
After all the plagues had escaped Pandora’s box to torment mankind, there at the bottom was hope — which feels fraught today. To have any meaning, it cannot languish in passivity. Without courage, resolve, and focus, hope starts to feel like indifference — a mere bromide.
Indifference. Now there’s a real scourge. And in how many societal cross-currents right now do we find ourselves abandoning the common good: poverty, attacks on a myriad of civil rights, equitable spending of the vast cultural, natural and manufactured wealth we enjoy as Americans? How about telling the truth?
The potential antidote seems obvious: at least control the assault weapons. The children in Parkland, Fla., and across the country — the generation raised in post-Columbine schools — ask the adults to act. Protect children, not guns. Who would like to be the political candidate running on an anti-war-on-children campaign? How do you ask someone to be the last child shot in a fusillade at their public school?
Get the children off the frontlines in this undeclared war. Or, rather — children, we’ve failed you. You’re reminding us exactly where the frontlines are, or ought to be. Your voices are fresh, new, and restorative. Send in the new anti-war candidates. Perhaps they’re already here. That’s my hope.
Todd R. Nelson is a retired teacher and school administrator in Penobscot.