Last weekend, my best friend from college, an elementary school teacher, visited me in New York. We were having lunch on Friday when she looked up from checking the news on her phone and said, “There was another school shooting.” Her face had turned pale. Her school in Colorado trains multiple times a year for such an incident, with students as young as kindergarten learning how to dive on the floor.
"Schools should have bullet-proof blankets, each student should have one. Do bullet proof blankets exist?” My friend said later that night as we stayed home, watching the news, googling our solutions for school security. (Bullet proof blankets do exist, and they’re around $3,000 each and meant for police and the military.) She was glued to the television, hearing the stories of the teachers who survived, recognizing their preparedness tactics: Lock the classroom immediately, don’t ever open the door for the police until you’ve seen a badge or they unlock the door themselves, because it could be the shooter. She remarked how many times she's had to practice those drills.
Listening to my friend talk about her training, it made me fear for her life. The last time I worried this way about a close friend was when my college roommate enlisted in the Marines and served three tours in Iraq. Our school teachers, like our soldiers, are on the frontlines of violence. And why should any of us be surprised?
There’s the simple, powerful law of cause and effect—an action or event will produce a response. In Buddhism, it’s called Karma. In science, it’s call science. (I jest, but in essence that’s accurate.) When we have a military industrial complex, innocent people are killed. Mostly, it has been the civilians of other countries that have had to suffer from our invasions, and more recently, our drone strikes. But the “armaments industry of vast proportions” that President Eisenhower warned us about in his farewell address has repercussions for us right here at home. The market for assault weapons that our soldiers use is big business domestically.
The NRA is one of the most powerful special interest groups in Washington, partly due to grassroots activism. But how does a grassroots group have pockets as deep as the NRA? It’s puffed-up by the support of the firearms industry, including manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. That’s a war-chest that has long intimidated politicians on both sides of the aisle. Even the Democrats, who nearly lost one of their own, Gabrielle Giffords, in a rampage shooting in Arizona, did nothing in response. By doing nothing, more massacres were allowed to happen.
In 2004, while working for a grassroots organization that was tiny compared to the NRA, I had a conversation that still haunts me. While registering voters on a college campus in Portland, Oregon, I met a student visiting from Denmark. He told me that, given the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, he knew that the United States didn’t treat the rest of the world well, but he was surprised, by coming here, to see that the United States didn’t treat its own citizens that well either. He was referring to our health care and education systems being underfunded and broken. But his observation also applies to the special treatment enjoyed by the violence industry, which includes everything from a defense budget that dwarfs all other government budgets to the prison industrial complex and of course the seemingly untouchable gun industry. Cause and effect: A government that lives by the sword will kill its own people with that same sword. No one is safe in a militaristic economy. It’s quite simple: No one.
As Nicholas Kristof pointed out on Monday, our own country resembles the war zones we created in the Middle East:
"The tragedy isn’t one school shooting, it’s the unceasing toll across our country. More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined."
That’s a shocking statistic, and hopefully a wake-up call. Since the terrible news broke on Friday, I haven’t been able to read a related news story and not cry. I’ve cried every day since Friday. The last time I was this impacted by the loss of innocent life, the lives of children and families devastated by violence, was when Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin visited my college in 2002. She presented a classroom of students with a slideshow of photographs she took on a trip to Afghanistan, just a few months after we had invaded.
In her slides, I saw an Afghani girl, not yet a teenager, holding her six year old brother who was drooling, his expression one of terror. He suffered from the shock of losing their parents after their home was turned into a crater during a US strike. And thus it became the sister’s job to raise her traumatized brother; they were only children. My heart broke that day. And that will stay with me for the rest of my life the same way I can never forget the angelic faces of Emilie Parker and Noah Pozner, and too many others killed in Newtown, Connecticut.
As we renew the battle for gun reform (and for improved mental health programs and policies), let us not forget that it is only one tentacle of the American military industrial complex that plagues the world. It may seem as though we are spiraling into the society of 1984 that Orwell had warned us about. But there’s enough time to reverse the “boot stomping on a human face forever” trend, to quote Orwell’s book. There is hope, there’s always hope. Isn’t there?
Author and educator Roman Krznaric, founder of The School of Life in London, and a professional optimist, is advocating for “empathy as social change.” Only he calls it, outrospection. His video on the subject and its heroes, including Orwell, is a must-watch and very inspiring animated presentation. Perhaps greater empathy is the solution to inspire action and vigilance: to see all news stories—from the drone strikes in the Middle East to the threat of fracking in our communities and the continuing BP disaster in the Gulf—with the same empathy we have for a massacre of innocent first graders. We’re all connected. The way our government inhumanely treats civilians trapped in war or just slaps the wrist of a polluting corporation can “trickle down,” in some way, to the rest of us.
At least we should be thankful that there's such a thing as bullet-proof backpacks, and like our guns, they are enjoying robust sales.
Photo Image Credit: Jayel Aheram