It was with numbing shock and great grief that, with my nine-month-old daughter clasped in my arms, I learned of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14th. I followed the story with mute keenness and baffled interest for the next three days. The tragedy visited upon the small town of Newtown, CT, was unspeakable and the pain untold. As more information streamed in on the news, I just clutched my baby girl closer, transfixed in horror.
Fast rewind to December 5th: I was visiting with a friend and colleague in Wheeling, WV, when Father Bekeh suggested a visit to some of the kids at the school that he oversees as part of the Catholic establishment in Bentwood, WV. We visited almost all of the classes and found that the five-year-olds were the most fun. When we asked them how old they were, one piped up, “We all five!” And then one of them with an unusually deep voice for a five-year-old joined saying, “I’m almost five!” Some of them even went ahead to venture a guess at my age, coming up with the opinion that I was about sixty or sixty-one years-old, and one of them wanted to know if I was Father Bekeh’s dad! At that moment I realized that I was probably teaching the wrong age group in my current role as an Instructor at a University.
But the best part was when my colleagues and I went to the gym and found a few of the students on stage industriously preparing for a Christmas play. Since I’m a great music enthusiast, this was the most enlivening part of our impromptu tour. At one point, I was so enthused that I jumped in and learned the moves as the children danced along. Again I found myself thinking that I should probably stop teaching university kids and become an elementary teacher, and I shared this with my colleagues.
So, when news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting broke, my mind naturally turned to the loveable little people that I had met just over a week before. In our brief interaction, the light of each little child’s unique character and personality shone through. With each one, I guessed to myself what she or he might grow up to be, thinking “This little child could grow up to be a great actor or this one will be a great leader someday, and this little one might be a famous sportscaster who will give Bob Costas a run for his money,” and I thought on about their potential futures, “…a winning NFL player, …a ballerina, …an opera singer….” Who would ever even hurt, much less murder in cold blood such little angels? What was the unjustifiable and dark “reason”? Why? Questions on top of hard questions without answers filled my mind.
Some of these questions, already asked about similar recent mass shootings, were under discussion on the Piers Morgan news commentary show for two or so consecutive days before the unimaginable, tragic event in Newtown, Connecticut. I am not a US citizen and do not even dare add my voice to what seems to be an intractable historical issue that is enshrined in the constitution. However, I tried to learn more about the “gun culture” in the U.S. that comes up each time one of these terrible incidents occurs. Besides covering the worrying statistics about how many guns there are in the U.S. (including that 70% of NFL football players carry guns), Piers Morgan’s interview of Bob Costas included the primary justification given by gun owners in the U.S. for having a gun (or more than one) in the home—their guns are used for hunting and the protection of home and family.
I laud President Barack Obama’s strongly worded speech in Newtown delivered at one of the saddest moments in U.S. national history, the memorial service for the 26 innocents who lost their lives: “We will have to change. We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.” Obama promised to use whatever power available to him in the Office of the President to engage citizens, from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like Newtown, CT; Oak Creek, WI; Aurora, CO; and Tucson, AZ. Obama has lived up to this promise already by promptly setting up a task force (in less than a week) to work on proposals for the reform of firearm laws to be led by vice-president Joe Biden. This is a good start as talk, many words, and much debate about guns following mass shootings begin to be transformed into concrete and constructive legislative action.
Law reforms will go a long way to curb such gruesome events, but as the president said, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in society. That’s an infallible truth. But it is also true that Hollywood and gaming violence sells. Social militarization and regimentation of young people, even young children, is alive and well in our world today. Coincidentally, while writing this piece and listening to an assortment of oldies collected from YouTube, Gil Scott-Heron’s Work for Peace video started to play. The video illustrates my point. Some of the images that caught my eye in the last half of the video include a young Arab kid in military fatigues posing with a semi-automatic gun; two Caucasian kids with what looks like an AK-47; a girl who could be from Somalia holding a pistol above another girl’s head; an Asian kid adjusting something in a pistol; an Indian/Pakistani kid being helped by an adult to hold a revolver; Monk children admiring a pistol and so on. As children, we are taught that war is play: rat-a-tat-tat, children chase each other mocking the sounds of gunshots. War is accepted as normal human behavior as evidenced by the innocent children and adults struggling to escape a war-torn Syria.
So beyond disarming crazed and disturbed hands, we have to heal humanity’s collective psyche. This will mean a sociological and psychological revolution of sorts: a massive healing of the mind and soul. While this may be realistically and practically impossible, we can sow the seed today. If war is taught, why not teach our children about Peace and call it non-violent conflict resolution? Why not elevate mediation skills to the top of the curriculum starting early in elementary school? And why not build rewards into the study and practice of non-violence in all parts of life that are commensurate with the goal—non-violent conflict resolution in every family, every community, every country, and in the entire world. That is how we should demonstrate that we care for our children.
What Faith Can Do
We can disarm our neighborhoods with loving care and a warm sense of community and togetherness. For sorely needed words of comfort and inspiration, I suggest a song from Kutless entitled What Faith Can Do. My thoughts are with the parents who lost their children, people who lost loved ones, and Newtown, a small town that lost the intangible sense of safety in a hail of bullets from a legally purchased and registered, private citizen-owned firearm. To those whose grief is profound, to them I say you’re not alone.