I don’t believe outlawing guns is the answer. I don’t believe arming teachers is the answer. I don’t believe any one faction is to blame for the atrocities that keep happening in our safe zones–such as our schools and churches–and other places where the public gathers. No solution is that simple. Instead, the change we need is far more drastic and difficult. We must abolish our cultural affinity for madness.
To do this, each of us must move away from acts of aggression and toward acts of kindness. This includes how we behave when we are driving, what we say when campaigning for office, how we phrase opinions on social media, how we shop on Black Friday, and what we shout from the sidelines. It also includes what we demand be done to our enemies. And it includes banishing the ferociousness, hysterics, and injurious disorder in that which we are willing to call entertainment. We reward violence in this country by the mere fact that we light it up on our television, movie, and gaming screens … seemingly everywhere and all the time.
Like a raindrop in a pond, the energy wave of every action (thought included) has the power to alter the entire surface surrounding it. Which energy do you want to be a part of spreading?
My post today was launched last Saturday night. The groceries were put away. Our stomachs were full. The dinner dishes were washed. The doors were locked. Our cozy, comfortable clothes were on, and it was time for a quiet night. Relaxing on the couch, I grabbed the remote and turned on the television for a little entertainment. That’s when it all went bad.
I got caught up in a documentary on CBS called 39 Days. Here was my chance to learn more about what the activist students from Parkland, Florida wanted after a gunman opened fire inside the place where the students were mandated to spend their day. I had been hearing about them on the news. Who were they exactly, and what was their message?
Like any effective documentary, 39 Days had a limited focus: the student-led, grief-to-action campaign for gun control following the February 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Not surprisingly, I was left with mixed emotions. Did they fully understand the implications of the constitutional change they sought? Was there really some corrupt force in the National Rifle Association hiding behind first amendment protection? Could this innocent-yet-violated emotional experience bring about the change so many other citizens have failed to achieve in the recent past?
You must remember, I am not a mother. I do not have to send a child or grandchild out into the dangerous world every morning. Also, I am not adept at navigating through teenage drama to find authenticity in their fears and concerns. In short, there is distance between me and the current state of affairs inside America’s public schools.
I do know that I rarely hear good things. Almost every parent I talk to has a personal story about a bully. Almost every parent I talk to has a story about a letter that came home communicating a district-wide concern about safety and security. Almost every teenager I speak to seems a bit agitated, nervous, and self protective.
Plus, as I watched, my mind applied a broader experience to the context:
- Texas First Baptist Church Shooting (Nov. 2017)
- Las Vegas Slaughter (Oct. 2017)
- Orlando Nightclub Massacre (June 2016)
- San Bernardino Massacre (Dec. 2015)
- Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting (Dec. 2012)
- Aurora Colorado Theater Shooting (July 2012)
- Virginia Tech Shooting (April 2007)
- Pennsylvania Amish School Shooting (Oct. 2006)
- Columbine Colorado (April 1999)
…just to name a few.
And I was thinking about more than just shootings:
- The Austin Package Bomber (March 2018)
- A truck driver who plowed through a crowd of protestors in Reno, Nevada (Oct. 2016)
- A car driver who plowed through a crowd of protestors in a Ferguson suburb in Minnesota (Nov. 2014)
- The Boston Marathon bombing (April 2013)
I don’t think anyone would argue that the Parkland young adults don’t deserve to be heard. Every voice matters. And when that voice comes from a direct witness to such pain and fear, it shall be heard with compassion and a sincere ear. It shall be heard with a quest to understand so that the proper, preventative changes can be made.
However, whatever your opinion of gun control, whatever value we may receive as a benefit of keeping assault weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill, this won’t fix the hard fact that America is not just in serious pain, it is in love with serious pain.
39 Days ended with a dramatic reading of the 17 names of the dead, timed to the very few minutes it took for the shooter to inflict his carnage. My heart ached. I wondered how frightening it must be to go to school today. I prayed for a resolution.
Then, after a commercial break, CBS seamlessly moved into the next item on its broadcast agenda. I didn’t know what I was watching, but I could smell the tension in the first scene. Pretty adult cheerleaders, a hug from a coach, a glare from a fellow girl in uniform, lights and activity and cheers from the crowd as the squad jogged into the stadium’s back hall. “This is a crime show, isn’t it?” I said, appalled at timing. “Here comes the next killing, right on time.”
Flash to the coach-hugging cheerleader in her bath rob. Candles. Soft music. A test of the water’s temperature. I was about to see death unfold fewer than three minutes after an hour-long, heartfelt plea to stop the killing. I didn’t want to watch, yet I had to know if my hunch was true. A few seconds later, her face was underwater, eyes bulging, resisting, struggling, pure fear…death.
In that moment, I became furious. Enraged even. And I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
How dare they? How dare the network flow from one ratings grab to another with such immunity to consequence? How dare they air entertainment from murder within moments of an exhibition on the heartfelt campaign to stop the murdering?
When the students chanted “enough,” they were referring to assault weapons and the like. Although I missed the beginning of the special, I heard no mention of outrage about the culture of violence behind the spark that ignited a young man’s desire to send bullets into his peers?
It turned out that the second show was a rerun of the criminal law series called Bull. This was one of a thousand drops in a lake of shocking scenes, the energy of which has turned our hearts to ice. Most people–myself included–would say that’s a pretty good show. We are numb to the violent images that exist to grab our attention and keep us watching.
At War Always
What is remarkable about the campaign of the Parkland students is they are underdogs against giants. These meek peacekeepers are up against a government that has grown to lead the world in military action, the nation to call when there’s a need for warlike conflict. That started because we are willing put our might behind the protection of freedom and human life. Yet it has grown into a military doctrine that has failed our own citizens.
Stirred up by the fear of terrorism, we have employed a hostile security strategy. Now, to our children who look up to us, we are the men and women who solve the world’s problems with grenades, tanks, missiles, and guns. Consider that our president just agreed to sign a flawed national spending bill only because it contains adequate funding for military conflict. Further, as our own public schools rot in disrepair or struggle to inspire kids under the constant stress of inadequate funding, America finds the money to build or rebuild foreign learning centers in the places it bombed to smithereens.
This is the message to our young citizens: bombing deserves greater financial investment than they do. How are they to know the implications of peace when this is the path down which they have been lead for all of their lives?
With each generation, fewer of us grow up with the leadership of creators such as those who made programs like public television’s Sesame Street. What once spewed from our picture sets while Mom or Dad busily completed the chores of daily life now has barely enough funding to survive. Still, its inner city main street community — with its big yellow bird and cute little muppets — hangs on as it strives to build the character of its audience. Yet, are we willing to send them even a few of our entertainment dollars?
Name me a television show today on a major network that is akin to moral standards of Little House on the Prairie or The Brady Bunch. Who wants to watch that anymore? Sure, there are stories about communities and families, but the average program disguises cruelty as humorous insult or bad behavior as a necessary evil of the times. There is rarely a strong moral lesson. The characters in today’s sin-based plots abuse and hurt each other in ways that John Boy Walton could have never comprehended.
Meanwhile, the networks must do whatever it takes to maintain viewers. Since they can’t shock us with petty punches and innuendo any more, they must get tougher, more graphic. We need greater potency with each hit. This crescendo, designed for the adult with the pocketbook, effects every viewer, especially the young and impressionable with the developing personality. And unlike Sesame Streets’ desire to build character and knowledge, what does the CBS network strive to build? Ratings. And the formula it uses? Violence and vice. Can the young child tell the difference between what is virtuous and what it is self-indulgent? How can the new puppy tell the difference between the words “sit” and “stay” if the teacher doesn’t take time to explain?
And for our teenagers, what do we teach when we flash without a moment’s pause from a documentary pushing for constitutional change to stop the killing spree to a popular television series that starts with a glamorous kill?
We can’t point fingers at the weapons, the law enforcement, the legislature, or the parents. We are all responsible for letting this happen. Entities such as Hollywood keep giving us violence and vice because that’s what we keep tuning in to. Are we really surprised that some of our unstable children are aspiring to be the next murderous psychopaths?
Entertainment is said to follow reality, but when do we pull the curtain in order to foster a new reality? How can we expect to raise the national level of human decency when we refuse to turn these images off? When do we shut down this nationwide attraction to violence and vice?
Vision for America’s Future
The fact that we as consumers of entertainment have allowed our culture to spiral down this vicious path is very hard to swallow. It’s easier to turn away and lay the blame on someone else.
But while the reality of our part in America’s violence problem may be difficult to accept, it’s also remarkably empowering. I may not be able to fix how others act, but I can darn well do something about how I act. I can control my knee-jerk response. I can stop laughing when others fall down. I can stop yelling when others step in my way. I can turn off the screen before the act goes down. I can hug a friend, not as a trendy way to say hello, but as a means of spreading truly good energy. I can smile and hold the door, not just when I feel the warm beauty of spring, but when the ice of winter has made me cold and grumpy. And I can stop trying to pretend that I am bold, tough, admirable, and strong, and let those close to me see that I am timid, sensitive, flawed, and weak.
I can talk openly about my mistakes as way to both fix them and to divert those who follow me from doing the same. “I was wrong, kid; be kind.”
What kind of woman mauls down a crowd with her car? What kind of person ignites a bomb full of nails at a finish line? What kind of man opens fire on a fun-loving crowd from the security of his distant hotel room? The kind of person that enjoys watching a cheerleader’s face as she drowns. For the bulk of us who view such an image, we keep watching to find out how the detective solves the crime. But we cannot forget the consequences unleashed subconsciously when we see that image nor can we ignore the consequences of publicizing graphic murder, night-after-night, in the first place.
Imagine where we’d be if, after every massacre, we debated the need to reinvent our culture with same fervor with which we point fingers? What if we campaigned for a grassroots effort to invite the ill and the outcast into a social club of good health? And if we do accept that the influence of violence hangs over all our heads, do we react to the problem with more violence? More anger? More fear? Or do we come at it with kindness? Do we dare? Can we be brave enough to lay down our arms? Can we trust in our assumptions that the majority of people are good? Can we seriously think peace could ever been as contagious as violence? It’s risky business, being a peacemaker. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
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