20 children are dead and I don’t know what to say about it.
I’m angry and I’m sad but I don’t know what to do about it.
What I do know is the routine, I do know what comes next.
Because I, like you, am an expert in mass murders and the way the news, our country and our world responds to them.
I was only 11 when Columbine took place and I am only 24 now–in 13 years, I have seen (from the safety of my living room) 31 school shootings. School shootings are, unfortunately, just a small part of the violence that grips our country. In those 13 years, I cannot even begin to calculate the sheer number of suicides, rapes, assaults, robberies and murders that have taken place in the USA.
So when I learned the news of Sandy Hook Elementary, I was angry and I was sad but I was not surprised. I think anybody who claimed sheer shock was being slightly disingenuous. Violence is too widespread to be all that surprising anymore.
Like I said, I am an expert on school shootings so I can tell you with confidence what will happen next. Now that we are done parading shell-shocked witnesses and survivors in front of news cameras, now that we have begun preliminary arguments about gun control, now that we have ironed out most of the gruesome details, now that we have seen the candle-lit vigils and images of grief-stricken faces, now it is time to place blame.
“Who or what is responsible?” is the next question that will dominate the news cycle and the responses will vary from the reflective to the inflammatory.
It’s guns! It’s the parents of the killer! It’s the illegality of school prayer! It’s a lack of religion!
“Who or what is responsible?” is the question we will all be asking but all of the questions we ask are really just indirect ways of dealing with the fact that we’ll never have an answer for our most pressing question:
Right now, I don’t want to write about ‘blame’ because there is enough of that already.
I don’t want to write about ‘why’ because I don’t know how to.
Instead, I want to talk about a 16th century english metaphysical poet by the name of John Donne. If you paid especially close attention in your high school english classes you might recognize him as the man who coined the phrase, ‘for whom the bell tolls’ in his poem Meditation XVII. But ‘for whom the bell tolls’ was never the portion of this poem that was the most striking to me, though it was obviously the most famous. Another lesser-used idiom was also extracted from Donne’s XVII, “No man is an island.”
John Donne penned a truth 400 years ago which many of us forget today and we are lesser for forgetting it.
We are all interconnected, we are all intertwined and when one of us suffers, all of us suffer.
This might seem like bleeding-heart liberalism.
This is bigger than politics or party-lines, it’s bigger than philanthropy or “hand-outs”, this is about every aspect of your life and livelihood, this is about your finances, your future and your safety. This is about your child going to school without being shot in their classroom.
John Donne is not the only man or woman to have realized that nobody is an island unto themselves.
Abraham Lincoln understood it when he delivered his 2nd annual address to congress and spoke out against slavery. He said, ”In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
Mother Teresa crystalized the notion when she said, “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
Winston Churchill knew it and echoed it when he said, “If the human race wishes to have a prolonged and indefinite period of prosperity, they have only got to behave in a peaceful and helpful way toward one another.”
12-term Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson realized it when he was weighing in on what the next steps should be after the US completed a covert-operation to drive The Soviet armies out of Afghanistan. He argued that if the US left Afghanistan with no schools and no streets, it would be a perfect vacuum for extremists to come to power. It would put the US and the world in danger. He was unfortunately correct.
Nobel Prize Winning Economist John Nash realized it when he hypothesized and then proved that, “the best for the group comes when everyone in the group does what’s best for himself AND the group.”
Pastor Martin Niemoller embodied the idea when during the Holocaust, he famously and bravely preached: ”First they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Aboriginal-Australian Lila Watson knew it when she said to aid workers, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Unfortunately, a tone and attitude of self-interest has taken hold and some individuals believe that their first and only commitment should be to themselves. This is sadly ignorant because even if your entire life’s purpose is simply to serve your own success, you work against your goal when you don’t look at the larger picture.
Because no matter your wealth, your education or your position of power: you are not an island.
The economy is better served when we think about what is beneficial for everybody as opposed to what is just beneficial for ourselves. Foreign aid is just as much about national and international security as it is about do-goodery. Providing a great education for everybody’s child is a direct investment in everybody’s future. Making sure anyone who needs it has access to mental healthcare isn’t just about helping individuals with mental illness, it is about keeping the public healthy and safe.
And that is exactly where we failed.
So now we’re back to a school shooting, where we failed to keep 20 children and 8 adults safe. And now we are back to news coverage where it is apparently due time to dole out blame. At the end of the day, we should all acknowledge that blame lies with the young man who obtained over 4 legally purchased guns and opened fire on an elementary school. However, we do the 20 young victims a disservice by not acknowledging the part each and every one of us played.
We are all embedded into a community and that community is bigger than our family or our church or our city or our state. The 20 children and 8 adults who were murdered last week are part of our community. And yes, the young man who murdered them is also part of our community.
So we do ourselves, our community, 20 murdered children and 8 slain adults a terrible disservice when we write off the assailant as simply evil personified. This argument fails on so many counts. Since I was 11, I have watched 30+ school shootings occur on US soil while the rest of the world COMBINED has had 13. Why is that? Are there just more inherently evil people in the United States of America?
I doubt it.
We all built the community that the shooter, Adam Lanza grew up in, we are all responsible for a culture that is far too tolerant of violence. Some of us might have tried but none of us ensured that Adam Lanza had access to mental healthcare and we certainly did not ensure that he grew up in a society that didn’t stigmatize him for his mental illness. We didn’t assure that he grew up in a community that valued peace. We did fatally assure that he could access military-grade guns freely–because somehow we believe that an INDIVIDUAL’S right to own an assault weapon is more important than the safety and wellbeing of our whole COMMUNITY.
So as we delve into the blame-game, perhaps we should think twice before pointing fingers at just one person or one parent or one entity. Better yet, perhaps ‘blame’ should be traded out for ‘reflection’ and we should each consider what we can do, what action we can take, which habit we can change, what conversation we must have to make our community safer. Maybe it’s time to remember that, like it or not, we are all deeply connected and there are consequences when we fail to acknowledge that no man is an island.
As for, Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Rachel Davino, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Ana M. Marquez-Greene, Dylan Hockley, Dawn Hochsprung, Madeline F. Hsu, Catherine V. Hubbard, Chase Kowlaski, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Anne Marie Murphy, Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto, Benjamin Wheeler and Allison Wyatt:
I’m sorry. I’m sorry we didn’t do better. I’m sorry we didn’t work harder. I’m sorry we didn’t build a safer world for you, for us, for everyone. But above all, I’m sorry your story had to stop here because our community and our world will be all the lesser for not having you in it.
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s or
Of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”
-Meditation XVII by John Donne