creative commons image by AK Rockefeller

No One Left to Speak For Us

Personal
creative commons image by AK Rockefeller

creative commons image by AK Rockefeller

I stood over my laundry on December 14, 2012, dumbstruck as CNN kept saying that there had been a school shooting in my hometown of Newtown, Connecticut – surely they meant someplace else? someplace bigger? When it finally sank in that, yes, it was Newtown, I crumbled over the ironing board and wept. I cried for days, weeks, on and off. I still cry when I think about it. The news was then, and remains, too devastating to contemplate. And yet? I was hopeful. Finally, I thought, finally something will change. Congress will act. The American people will rise up and say they’ve had enough. Certainly, this can’t be swept under the rug.

And yet?

Here we are, 18 months later, (at least) 74 school shootings later, and the latest one is on my doorstep on this side of the country. An as-yet-unnamed student walked into Reynolds High School in Troutdale first thing this morning and killed a freshman boy before police said the incident was “contained.” It’s a polite euphemism hiding the fact that not one but two kids lost their lives today.

For all my weeping after Newtown, I find that today I am resigned. I am sickened, heartbroken, and angry – and after those feelings come and go I open a new brower window and go back to my work. Which makes me more sick, heartbroken, and angry.

After the school shooting earlier last week at the Seattle Pacific campus, I was reminded of that famous speech by Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who, after World War II, criticized the German elite for not doing more to stop the spread of Nazism before it was too late. His words were turned into a poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Many of us are asking now, as we asked after Newtown and so many school shootings before that, what will it take? What is it actually going to take for something to change? I confess that my own answers to that question are getting more and more outlandish and disgusting. But I no longer have any faith that we’ll do what it takes – oust members of Congress who are firmly in the pockets of the NRA so they can finally enact meaningful gun control legislation – without something disgusting and outlandish happening.

What will it take for you to act? Don’t offer your thoughts and prayers. We don’t need those. We need your action.

If you can’t be bothered to do something, to say something, then you deserve exactly the society riddled with unpredictable gun violence that we’ve got. If you can’t stand up against terrorists like the NRA, even when you haven’t lost a loved one to gun violence, then eventually there won’t be anyone left to speak for you, either.

Send a #NotOneMore postcard to your elected officials right now. It takes 10 seconds. Then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And every day until they listen. And please, please, please – remember this on election day.

“Almost” is Not Acceptable

Personal

Despite the fact that I have the date tattooed on my left forearm, the one-year anniversary of the Newtown elementary school shooting snuck up on me. I didn’t realize it was only a few days away until I decided to listen to an episode of “On the Media” during one of my morning walks. The discussion centered on the recent release of the 911 tapes from that day (Connecticut state law requires 911 tapes to be released), and the decisions by some media outlets to air the recordings while others said they would not.

I know there’s something in American culture that craves that voyeuristic thrill of listening in on someone else’s tragedy, and yet my opinion on whether the tapes should be broadcast or not wasn’t what set my teeth on edge as I listened to the debate. What did me in was one tiny word in a quote by CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. As he was making the case for CNN airing the recordings, he said:

This is a major event in American history. The Congress almost voted gun control because of this. I think that means it’s something that the public needs to know about.

If a “major event in American history” – the intentional murder of 20 6- and 7-year-olds and six of the adults tasked with educating them – merits only an “almost” on gun control legislation, then what in the name of all that is good in the world is it going to take to remove the word “almost” from that sentence?

One year later, more than 24 school shootings later, over 11,400 people killed by guns later…

“Almost” is letting cowardly legislators off the hook.

“Almost” is pretending we care enough to do something.

“Almost” is an affront to the people whose children and loved ones died at Sandy Hook Elementary.

“Almost” is not acceptable.

Newtown

Personal

jayroeder_wearenewtown

I haven’t lived in Newtown, Connecticut for more than 30 years. I went to Head O’Meadow, not Sandy Hook Elementary. I don’t know anyone who lives in Newtown anymore. It is a town so small and insignificant that the news media had to keep displaying maps of the area so we knew where the hell it was.

But on that awful Friday, the name of the tiny town in which I grew up was splashed all over the news and became a fucking Twitter hashtag in the wake of a horrific massacre.

I awoke to a news flash about a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut and did a double-take. Certainly I must have misheard, I thought. But of course I hadn’t misheard. Switching over to CNN, I immediately felt as if I’d been kicked in the stomach. Long before it was clear just how unthinkably terrible the news was, I was shaking and crying with grief and rage. I didn’t understand why it was a sort of last straw for me, but it clearly was. And then when the extent of the damage wrought inside that school was known, I could not stop the tears.

There isn’t a day that goes by since December 14, 2012 that I haven’t cried for my hometown. I feel utterly broken by this. There is a blackness in the center of my chest every time I think about it, and it’s still there even when I’m thinking about something else.

Why, I kept wondering, was this hitting me so hard? My memories of Newtown are blurry thanks to the passage of so much time. I don’t have children of my own to feel the pain all parents have felt in the wake of this tragedy. And yet I can’t quite focus. “Routine” still feels like an aspirational goal.

Newtown is a speck on the map. It is a town no one should ever have heard of, for good or bad reasons. Residents are familiar with the necessary points of reference when explaining where they live. No one just says “Newtown” without some clarifying information, including the oft-repeated “No, it’s not Newton.” But none of that will ever be true again. Even after Newtown and Sandy Hook are no longer front-page news or trending hashtags, it will be impossible to bring up those names without conjuring up the senseless murder of 20 children in their elementary school.

Newtown has lost its anonymity, its innocence, forever.

When I studied in England in 1992, people would ask where we were there from. If anyone had heard of Oregon or knew where it was, the only pieces of information they had about the place – a place I love deeply – were the biggest news stories coming out of the state that year: environmentalists fighting for the Spotted Owl in Oregon’s forests and Senator Bob Packwood‘s sex scandal. It was easy to chuckle it off – I knew how useless it was to try to bridge the gap between that level of familiarity with Oregon and my love of the state, but those stories were transitory. Today, neither is mentioned when Oregon comes up in conversation.

Newtown will not have that luxury. This story will outlive every news cycle. The town and its residents will forever bear the burden of what the names “Newtown” and “Sandy Hook” now represent, and the looks of pity or sadness those names will elicit. Most of us immediately think of a school shooting – and not a flower – when we hear the word “Columbine,” so I doubt people will ever need pronunciation lessons again to be familiar with Newtown.

No town should have to bear a burden like this; especially not one so small, so quiet, so unassuming. I fear for my hometown. Will it have the stamina to carry the weight of all this? More to the point, does it have a choice?

I’m reminded of how, every time some terrible tragedy happens, people talk about how the horror could have befallen any one of us. Never is this made so plain as when it happens in your hometown, where you lived when you were the very same ages as the children who were so brutally gunned down last Friday. I feel ashamed now that I haven’t been a more vocal proponent of stricter gun control laws and readily accessible mental health care in this country. It’s easy to express sympathy, to send donations, to light candles, to offer prayers. But when it hits, quite literally, too close to home – then it’s personal.

I recognize that I am in no way impartial about this anymore, that I don’t have the appropriate distance from the issues with which to conduct a reasonable and rational conversation about what needs to change. I’ve had it with lines like “guns don’t kill people” or “it’s not the right time to talk about gun control,” and I can’t be held responsible for anything I might scream at someone who has the misfortune of saying anything like that near me. I cannot be calm about this topic now. But I know that there are extremely smart and reasonable people out there who are capable of leading a discussion that includes both gun control and mental health treatment, along with the myriad other components that must be included in the conversation.

The President, bravely showing his humanity as he wiped away tears on that terrible day, and again at the inter-faith service in the Newtown High School auditorium two days later, said that things need to change. Yes, these are complex issues, and no, there isn’t going to be one simple solution. But, as the President put it:

“We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”

We must do better than this. We must be better than this.

To let those children die without doing anything to try to address the problems that led to their murders would be criminal. Clearly, something has to give. It’s up to us whether that “something” gives in the direction of gun owners or gun victims.

A Note About the Artwork
The graphics in this post were created by artist Jay Roeder, who lives near Newtown and has spent enough time there that he wanted to do something. His beautiful graphics are being used on the We Are Newtown Facebook page and have been turned into T-shirts that are being given to residents of Newtown. He kindly allowed me to use them in this post as well. Thanks so much, Jay, for both the lovely artwork and for being so generous about its use.

jayroeder_newtown2

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