The smoke never really clears. The smell of sulfur and saltpeter lingers, a haze swirling over the blood-smeared floors of schools, churches and movie theaters, a sinking fog kissing the grey, turned ground of fresh graves, seeping into the chasms of breaking hearts.
This is what war is – knowing those who have violently died at the hands of a committed assailant and fearing for the safety of those who could be the next to die.
When I was young, the Vietnam War was a yoke borne by families on every street, rural highway, tiny lane, and on every floor of every tenement in the country. If you weren’t drafted to go to Southeast Asia, then it was your brother or your neighbor, your son or your classmate. If there were a body bag coming back from the jungles and rice paddies on the other side of the world, chances are it, too, contained the remains of someone in your life’s orbit.
Think of what losing someone in a pointless war would mean to you today, or at any stage of your life. The social fabric that you now take for granted would be pocked with moth-eaten holes framed by broken threads and irreparably lost connections.
The American wars of the first three-quarters of the last century – the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam – were felt by every citizen, every immigrant, every red, white and blue community. Even the challenges to our country during the Great Depression left few families unscarred. These were the times of shared fear and sorrow, events that unified us in common despair.
In their aftermath, we grew a strong resolve, and brought the lessons from the foxholes of war to the streets where we lived. We woke to recognize what the countries of the Old World had long ago grasped after centuries of poverty, pestilence and war, that we are all on this ride through life together, and that which serves any of us – rich or poor, black or white or brown – is necessarily beneficial to all of us.
That’s not to say, of course, that we birthed a social utopia. History reminds us that we stubbornly hold on to racism, privilege and xenophobia, but the battles we continue to fight shoulder-to-shoulder enable us to come together and bring change to even those endemic, systemic injustices.
Those battles never end, and we continue to push forward and take a stand, but our national determination, so far removed from our shared struggles, is lacking. The will to help others is too often dependent on the values of our siloed communities.
Yet we fought wars and climbed out of poverty with each other’s help. We found cures for diseases like polio and built a strong middle class with each other’s help. The only way we can keep slaughter out of our schools is with each other’s help.
Here we are again, after another senseless massacre of children, unified in our struggle to end it. Hundreds of thousands of marchers, millions of supporters, and a week after the biggest anti-gun violence action in American history, the frustration is beginning to set in.
It is a disgustingly familiar pattern – universal anger, to predictable bias, to back-burner apathy.
After the horror in Las Vegas, last year, where a gunman used modified assault weapons to murder nearly sixty people, we came together and talked about bumpstocks and trigger cranks, mental health and background checks. Then we moved on.
Sociologists call the unity we display in our initial reaction to these mass casualty events a “surge of solidarity.”
In an article about the aftermath of the Vegas shooting, the Washington Post’s Janell Ross examined the phenomenon of unity after tragedy, and how it too quickly evaporates, returning to tribalism and resignation. She cited nineteenth century, French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who is credited with laying out the theory of “collective conscience” to describe a society’s solidarity in adhering to common norms.
“First there’s a surge of solidarity,” wrote Ross. “That’s expressions of unity, then insistence that it remain uncomplicated by anything outside an affirming national claim to enduring decency, bravery and communal concern. This requires that the country or the affected community reject, combat, silence and isolate those who would dare to differ even slightly in describing what happened, how people responded, what matters right now and what should happen next.”
Think about 9/11, and the way that our representatives in Washington, D.C., came together on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and spontaneously sang God Bless America, or later, how newspapers had a problem criticizing any discernibly unwise military action George W. Bush undertook to “fight them over there, so we don’t have to face them” here, or how a controversial observation about the hijackers by comedian Bill Maher got him thrown off TV.
Community solidarity is also evident in our initial sympathy for victims of natural disasters, like the devastation of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the destruction and isolation of Puerto Rico after the 2017 hurricane.
In the context of mass shootings, besides sympathy – and, of course, our cathartic, though impotent, thoughts and prayers – we offer a wall of national solidarity, declaring in one voice that “something must be done” to stop this carnage from ever happening again. But without constant reinforcement, that solidarity, as strong and unstoppable as it seems at the time, will soon disintegrate.
Durkheim, said Ross, pointed out that it doesn’t take long for our unity to develop cracks and collapse. Yes, the collective conscience of the whole brings solidarity, but any solution offered in response is to a mass tragedy requires the collective to agree to amended norms, which, in turn, requires validation from the smaller group conscience with which we identify best. Rather than resorting to violence to enact these new rules (which, according to Durkheim, is a frighteningly possible outcome), we return to our respective corners:
“Claims of universal compassion and concern tend to give way to the usual points of political and social cleavage — Republican and Democrat, black and white, renter and homeowner, possessor of significant savings or a household that lives paycheck to paycheck.”
True unity will always have outliers who would just as soon destroy an entire society rather than have to sacrifice, what is to them, even the most narrowly disagreeable principles. They have a right, of course, to voice their opinions, but opportunistic politicians, and the biased media who kowtow to them, empower their divisive causes.
Unity requires a declaration from our community leaders, be they pastors or politicians (or you). “When, in the course of human events…” and “We hold these truths to be self evident…” are the courageous declarations that launched a great country. They are our foundation.
The Founding Fathers did not worry about pleasing British loyalists. The changes they sought required bold action.
Instead of exploring possible, positive outcomes and acting on our “universal compassion,” we cower in our divisions, allowing us to blame one another for a lack of action. That is, to borrow a phrase, sad.
The real sad part is, everyone knows this is what happens. Durkheim’s social analysis is interesting, but it’s not a surprise. Children were murdered, and we moved on. An island is still rebuilding from a devastating hurricane, and we moved on. Our eagerness to show resilience is as predictable as our resistance to change.
Recently, the New York Times talked to people in a Republican district in Northern Virginia, to gauge their level of interest in the debate over stricter gun laws. One older gentleman was resigned that interest in mandating solutions would fade like all the other times following a school shooting, while a local high school student remained defiant:
“’Every time something happens, everybody’s hollering,’ Garland Ashby, 77, the owner of an estimated 75 guns, said of the recent protests over gun control, rubbing at his cigarette stub from a park bench in this town of 4,200. ‘A couple of months it’s in the news, and then it’s gone…It’ll go away,’ Mr. Ashby predicted, grinding the cigarette into the mud. ‘Like all the other times.’
“’They’re looking for us to get bored,’ said Rosie Banks, 17, a high school junior about 40 miles east in Sterling, Va., …’We’re not going to get bored.’”
There will be more hurricanes and earthquakes. We cannot control and prevent them.
There will be more mass killings by folks who hate the world and are confused by their place in it. That is something we can, at least, increase the likelihood of preventing, if we can agree to be more proactive by strictly enforcing current gun laws and passing tougher regulations on deadly weapons. It is a mistake if we do not.
The question, then, is an echo from the past.
“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake,” a young John Kerry rhetorically posed to the United States Senate, in 1971, having served his country as a decorated Vietnam veteran. By then, a nation weary of watching flag draped coffins had begun to raise its voice, to question what moral purpose is served by sending young men who they knew, who’s families they knew, to die on the far side of the planet.
We came together, marched shoulder-to-shoulder, and collectively pressured our representatives in government to end a futile war.
Now, there are children dying, and their only risky behavior is stepping off a school bus and into a classroom, or out of the family car and into a church pew, yet we remain stubbornly divided on solutions. Who will be the last to die for our inaction, for what all the world looks like a preventable mistake?
Like the protests against our involvement in Vietnam, those who march to end gun violence are not necessarily likely to be its victims. This is a cause for those who will die before the next march if nothing is done. There are more people afraid to lose this battle for our collective conscience than there are those willing to find sensible solutions to protect young bodies from high velocity bullets.
We have a culturally divided nation that has historically found it difficult to change direction. How long did the Old South hold on to its racist, antebellum culture, its romanticized, Gone With the Wind individualism? It took a U.S. Supreme Court finding that separate is not equal, and it took an unprecedented movement, marching arm-in-arm for basic human dignity and respect, and against a vestigial racial caste system that enabled white supremacy.
Nearly 18 thousand of the young Americans who were drafted and sent to Vietnam died – almost a third of all those killed in action. They did not all choose to go to war. Likewise, not all those who spilled blood in the fight for equal rights and justice were active participants in the Civil Rights Movement, yet their deaths, too, helped awaken the collective conscience.
In 1963, when a Klan placed bomb exploded in a Birmingham, Alabama, church, four young girls, who were there for Sunday school, died. That the act itself was cowardly cannot be argued, yet the perpetrators went unpunished for decades because those who could help turned away. Fear of losing position and being ostracized by their slow-to-change community left a heartless void in the heart of Dixie.
But not all in the South cowered. Not all meekly shook their heads and pulled the curtains closed. Atlanta is only about a two hour drive east of Birmingham, yet what followed there may as well have been an ocean away.
Eugene Patterson, the executive editor of the Atlanta Constitution for most of the 1960s, came in the evening of the bombing and wrote a moving piece that not only sympathized with the four little girls and their families, but also made a point of calling out his neighbors, with phrases like, “we in the white South,” and other similarly fraternal epithets, for the cruelness of the murders, and the immoral ugliness for which they stood in cold silence.
“Only we can trace the truth, Southerner,” he wrote, “you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.”
Patterson went on:
“We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.
“…We – the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition — we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.”
As long as we sit on our sofas and suck tisks through our teeth every time children are mowed down in a school, or a church, or a playground, the tacit support of our inaction, the scapegoating of the perpetrators as insane, lone operators, remains something for which we all must be accountable.
“This is no time to load our anguish onto the murderous scapegoat,” Patterson wrote, “Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better. We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment.”
The battles we choose to fight define our courage. Repelling murderers and challenging supremacy, like standing in front of a tank, are fights we enter knowing there are risks to life and family. Being a kid in school or church comes with no such agreement. Going to the movies comes with no such agreement.
People are senselessly dying, right now, and they did not request nor agree to be martyrs for some righteously principled stand. They are dying because we allow assault weapons on our streets and in our homes, where, like a dark family secret, they are bound to come out.
This isn’t just a case of our fellow soldiers sitting next to us in the foxhole who depend on us to protect them. It is our neighbors’ kids, and they have no reason to be completely confident that we will keep them safe.
The protests over the war in Vietnam, and the tens of thousands of dead Americans, caused us, briefly at least, to be more circumspect about the “quagmire” potential of foreign military entanglements. The sea-to-shining-sea revolt against pointless militarism also brought about an end to the draft and a Constitutional Amendment lowering the voting age to eighteen. It took rivers of blood and mountains of treasure to bring us, albeit belatedly, to the recognition that the only glory in war is making it out alive.
The Civil Rights Movement marched so that punitive segregation, Jim Crow laws and racially motivated voter suppression would be relegated to the dark history in which they belonged. That cost more lives than we will ever know, including a man who was our nation’s drum major for peace and justice.
Saving lives should not be a noble cause, relegated to a courageous few. That makes it sound like a job for trained special forces or knights in shining armor. Saving lives should not be a gift for the wealthy or a handout for the poor. That we are driven to fight for our individual survival is human nature. Saving the lives of others is a human imperative.
We’re into the thousands, now, on school shooting deaths. They weren’t fighting for a cause. They were just being kids. They certainly did not ask to be in this fight. Our inaction has brought the fight to them, and they are not backing down. They have had to grow up quickly to fight what is a definitively existential threat to their futures.
“We’ll outlive them,” a high schooler from Maine told the New York Times reporter, assuring them that, eventually, his generation will make certain that change will come. I hope you do. I hope it does.