Another day, another news story about bullets tearing bodies.
Another news story about shocking violence, another moment of stunned silence.
Another moment of stunned silence, another round of heated debate.
The violence in Sandy Hook last week is too terrible to comprehend. In the early hours of the news of the tragedy I was plagued by a near-hallucination in which I could hear the parents of the murdered children screaming. I won’t imagine what they felt, both because I cannot bear it and because their grief is a uniquely unimaginable thing, yet I can’t help imagining. My own youngest son’s cheek has never felt as warm and soft under my kiss as it did on Friday afternoon.
The children of Sandy Hook were just a few of the children who died last week from guns. In the US, one child dies every three hours from a gun.
Every three hours, every single day, every week, every month. Eight children per day. Twice as many preschoolers die each year from guns as law enforcement officers die in the line of duty.
Twenty children died in Sandy Hook. Twenty times one hundred forty die every year in the US.
This problem we have in the US—the violence perpetrated in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our malls, and hospitals—is bred and nurtured in the soil of ordinary violence.
The ordinary violence of poverty, loneliness, and invisibility, of a judgmental comment or a critical glance. Ordinary violence is victim-blaming, racism, ableism, sexism, and fear-fueled anger toward all who seem other. Them, they, those. Ordinary violence is in our language, in our unwillingness to listen and hear the experiences of people we don’t yet recognize as our friends. Ordinary violence is the mommy wars, underfunded schools, families struggling without support, and an inadequate mental healthcare system.
My husband said to me on Friday evening, “You go out and try to see a psychiatrist and I’ll go try to get a gun. We’ll see who’s successful first.” And yes. A thousand times yes, I believe that: we need more help and less firepower. There are deep systemic issues and the stark difference between the ease with which almost anyone can get a gun and the difficulties all who need it face when seeking mental health care are a potent illustration.
But there is more: there is the heat and fury with which we live our lives, the reckless way we handle each other. We live in fortresses of shame and fear. We close and lock our doors and don’t let one another come in. We don’t see each other, not really, and from that narrow, sheltered perspective, we write laws, cast votes, build communities, and create a culture that meets the needs of only a few of us. We warp our religions to justify hate. We require our people to serve our laws instead of making laws that serve people. We track violence into our homes like something stuck to our shoes, and we carry that violence with us back out into the world, where we step over those who have no homes and avoid meeting the gazes of those who have no hope.
Mass shootings make heroes of teachers in classrooms; of boyfriends in movie theaters; of store clerks at malls. We all have the potential for such heroism, and we needn’t wait for a person in body armor and bearing automatic rifles to burst into our lives for an opportunity to express it. There is no person, no group, no leader who can fix this alone. There is only us, creating the world in which we live.
What will we build?
How will we lead?
We need to do two things: first, work for systemic, institutional change around guns, mental health care, and education. Contact your representatives every way you can: call, email, snail-mail, and fax them. Insist that guns be taken seriously as the public health risk that they are and that our lawmakers make mental health parity a reality. Donate money to The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, and The Children’s Defense Fund, or volunteer with those or other organizations working for change. Fund, organize, or volunteer to help with a gun buyback program in your community. Sign petitions. Meet with your representatives and tell them what change you want to see.
While we’re busy with that work, we must also meet ordinary violence with ordinary heroism. See people: the invisible, sad, lonely, hopeless people, and meet a need. Not because those people are killers-in-waiting (they most assuredly are not), but because when we do what is good and kind and decent, we create a new world. Listen to someone. Share a meal. Look up from the screen of your phone and smile. Be patient. Slow down. Accept kindness in turn.
We can do better, and we will do better, but we have to put our shoulders to this boulder and push. There is no alternative if we want to sleep at night or face our reflections in the mirror come morning. People keep telling me that there’s nothing that can be done and if that’s true, we aren’t the people I thought we were. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we’re in hell now. Let’s not furnish it; let’s keep moving and find our way out.