As Tragedies Mount, We Wring Our Hands and Do Nothing

There will be another shooting in another school that is at least as bad as Uvalde’s, at least as bad as the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012

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My God, what do you say in these moments? What do you write? Dozens of people — mostly children — gunned down in a school and the grief arrives arm in arm with a rush of familiarity. The school shooting in Uvalde, Texas is not just a tragedy. It is another tragedy. It is not only a scarring explosion of violence, but part of a predictable, preventable American drumbeat: an unthinkable, unspeakable thing … happening again. 

What do you say now? I think you must — we must — try to remind ourselves of the depth of the loss. To insist that we not lose sight of the stakes involved at Robb Elementary School.

When each of my children was born, I sat up late in the hospital, feeling the rushing currents of reality. It was as if the elemental aspects of life were magnified, every emotion twice as strong, gravity enhanced to make motion seem impossible, my leg muscles inexplicably strong enough to spring up whenever the baby cried out. Each time, I wrote it all down, trying to capture the feelings in the halo of that moment. “[Humans] are best when we are creators…” I wrote in 2013. “From time to time we produce such shining potential that the daily grind of human life becomes not just tolerable, but comprehensible. From time to time, we produce miracles.” 

That’s the real reason for doing right by kids. We talk, particularly in education policy, about the demographic imperative of preparing kids for the jobs of the future or of raising standards and achievement for participating in a global workforce. It’s not that those things are unimportant. It’s just that children already warrant our love, protection, and investment simply because they are children. They are uncertain promises made to a hazy future — we owe them the very best we can offer because children are the acme of human creativity, the greatest thing humans can make.

So: what do we do for them now? How do we escape this pattern before the next tragedy sounds? And why is it so hard? 

You should know by now, but just in case, it bears insisting: the United States is the only place in the developed world where events like these regularly happen. As part of a sobering analysis of gun violence data, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump writes, “In 2019, there were 29 kids under 5 shot and killed in the United States for every kid under 5 shot and killed in other high-income countries globally.” Gun violence is the most likely cause of death for American children — more than car crashes, drug-related issues, illness, drowning or anything else. 

In the wake of the tragedy in Uvalde, as has become macabre custom, we are hearing some politicians suggest that the real American problem is that we lack sufficient weaponry to deter mass shooters, including those targeting schools. And yet, evidence backing this response is scant. What’s more, the United States is already awash in guns. We have more firearms per capita than any other country. By far. 

Guns are barbarically easy to access in our country. That appears to be the key variable — that’s why your American child is more likely to die from a bullet than anything else. That’s the cause of this uniquely depraved, repetitive tide of violence in the United States. That’s why there will be another shooting in another school that is at least as bad as Uvalde’s, at least as bad as the horrific massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. If more — and more readily accessible — guns were going to solve the problem, it already would have happened. 

What are we going to do? What are we willing to do differently? 

A parable about American democracy and its recent past: my scientist father introduced me to politics and public policy through climate change. Throughout the 1990s, he got involved in various forms of local environmental activism and dashed off letters to our congressman. “The climate science is settled,” he’d tell me. “It’s now just a question of whether we humans want to actually run the global experiment [keeping emitting higher and higher levels of carbon] and test whether the science is right.” 

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) would send back form letters explaining that the congressman cared deeply about the environment, that he understood that there were strong views on this issue, but that he also believed it was important to “have the debate” about whether climate change was a real problem. 

My dad would shake his head as he read this to us. “We’ve already had the debate,” he’d exhale. “The science has been conclusive for years.”

This was the 1990s. It was right around the time that conservatives began lampooning Al Gore as “Ozone Man.” It was a solid 20 years before Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) brought a snowball to the floor of Congress to “prove” that climate change wasn’t a concern. More people and more politicians are paying attention now. But mostly, the country is floating along, some of us hoping that the data are wrong, others picking fights with people who dare publish the data, and most of us acting as though somehow things will get better without us doing particularly much. 

The problem goes well beyond climate change.

I’ve written a few times in recent years that education reform’s receding political tide has left education policy adrift. Conservative politicians have largely retreated to a world where evolving versions of “school choice” are their only policy tool, even as their response to a global pandemic. Liberals have coalesced around various proposals to invest more in public education, albeit usually without meaningful efforts to reform the inequities inherent in education systems. 

First: The point is not to equate the two positions like some mealy-mouthed bothsidesist. The point is that everyone in public education has essentially given up on making the system fairer. There is little appetite for overhauling how schools are measured or run or improved. At this point, we’re acknowledging that our schools are fundamentally unfair but mostly just hoping that this will resolve itself without requiring any substantive, controversial effort from the rest of us. 

The flattening of education policy thinking is emblematic of our national governing sclerosis. Pick a major issue — climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, mass shootings, et al. The standard American response now is to muddle through, incapable of mounting a sustained push to overhaul our public policies. When was the last time the country faced a major social challenge and collectively acted to address it? Our muscles for self-governance have grown weak

It’s fashionable to blame this on a dearth of civic education and correspondingly waning public spiritedness. Conservatives have an idea here: They are exploring whether faith in American representative government can be revived by banning books and instruction that teach children about the past sins of American representative government. The last Republican presidential administration converted this instinct into overt propagandizing — censorship in the name of inculcating children with “patriotic history.”

And indeed, the flagging of faith in our democracy does stem from the presence of evidence, but it’s not the historical record that’s to blame. Americans feel as though nothing can be done because we have grown accustomed to nothing being done. We have learned that our social problems are insuperable. Never mind that other countries — essentially all of them — have solved the problem of mass shootings. Here, in our country, nothing can be done. Our public institutions keep teaching us that we must simply accept these crises, that their worsening is inevitable. So far, as with climate change, conservatives seem unwilling to do anything serious to address this problem. 

So perhaps conservatives can now expand their efforts to defend American children from information about American shortcomings — by banning any discussion of recent massacres in school. If this sounds far-fetched, note that, for most of the past quarter century, the country prevented the federally funded National Center for Injury Prevention and Control from researching gun violence. 

But it is hard to produce patriotic love for a country by hiding facts about it. Mass shootings keep happening. Climate-related weather disasters keep becoming inconveniently more common. Hyper unequal schools keep producing unfair opportunities and unequal outcomes for American children. All of this is hard to hide. At some point, our collective failure to do anything to change the rhythm of our social problems becomes a norm too obvious to deny. 

How does representative government fail? One way is when it repeatedly proves to the public that it cannot adequately represent their preferences and address their common problems. 

What are we going to do? Will we really just meander on, aimlessly trudging towards — and through — our next collective failure?

We won’t make it harder to get access to guns. Not for young adults, not for people who can’t pass a background check, not for anyone. We won’t impose limits on who has access to guns designed specifically for massacring humans. We won’t impose new limits on where people can legally carry guns. We’ll just float along, hoping that this was the last time that this pattern will repeat, that the drumbeat will stop in this latest bloodstained classroom. 

To bring a child into this world is to celebrate the full promise of human possibility. But it is also to accept a host of duties — to be vulnerable enough to take charge of a lived project that is not your own, even if it is in your care for a while. For this project requires you to risk your future comfort, happiness and safety by placing some piece of it in your child’s hands. Sometimes their lives will validate all of your work and suffering and love, but other times, they will hurt and you will be powerless to protect them — or you — from that pain. 

It’s beyond tragic that we have failed to protect families from these crushing losses in Uvalde and before them, Oxford Township in Michigan and Parkland, Florida and Newtown, Connecticut (and, and, and). But it’s somehow even worse that we appear willing to keep adding to our tally, waiting for the next time, accepting that nothing is the very best we can do. 

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