I was eighteen years old on April 20, 1999, the day of the Columbine High School massacre. The world stopped. People were stunned—and in pain—for days, weeks. The story was the lead on every news show, in every newspaper, for days, weeks. The footage of Pat Ireland falling out of a second-story window into the arms of two police officers is forever burned into my consciousness. This was a national tragedy.
More children died last Wednesday in the Parkland shooting than died at Columbine. But almost twenty years later, these tragic events have become routine.
After Columbine everyone was asking, why, why, why? What was the reason? We barely ask why anymore. We have come to accept the violence that bursts forth from the shadows into our everyday lives as something to be expected. We have a running narrative about the individuals that perpetrate violence in this savage way. They are just that—individuals. Individuals with mental disorders. Individuals who had “troubled pasts.” Individuals who struggled to connect with others. And so on.
This narrative is false. This is not about individuals. This is a systemic problem. The evidence bears this out. The real narrative is about how our society codes maleness and white maleness in particular. The real narrative is about the messy entanglements of entitlement and disappointment, weakness and isolation.
If we want a different narrative, one in which violence is not the norm, we have to start asking ourselves some very difficult questions. What do we expect of / demand from our youth? Basically, perfection in every way—success as defined by a consumerist society, that is: having the most of all the very best stuff, relationships, bodies ect. How do we communicate our expectations? The mass-media, social media, at home, at school, through major institutions like the White House, TV, movies, books. Youtube, advertising (I’ll stop, but you get it). Are we setting young men and women up for failure by creating a nearly impossible standard for them to meet? Yes. Are we supporting them through difficult life transitions? No. Are we even equipped to do so? Not really. We aren’t equipped to talk to our children about reality. We’re too busy trying to turn back the clock sixty years, to make America whatever again. So we close our eyes and shut our ears against the lived reality of our youth. We don’t know how to talk to our kids. We don’t know how to listen. We don’t know how to ask.
It’s time to reassess the national conversation around school shootings. Because we won’t change the narrative if we go about our daily lives like good Americans. We won’t change the narrative if we buck up and put on a face and act like it’s okay to talk about anything and everything except what happened last week in Parkland, Fl., if we practice avoidance.
We won’t change the narrative if we hand the ball off to lawmakers. Gun laws need to be addressed, yes, but if we think that stricter gun laws are anything but a poultice on a cancerous lesion, we’re deluded. Gun legislation is only a piece of this very complex puzzle.
We won’t change the narrative by further stigmatizing mental health issues. Mental health is merely another piece of this very complex puzzle.
And we certainly won’t change the narrative by buying bulletproof backpacks for our children.
On Thursday when I dropped my kids off at school, the teachers waiting to greet the children were smiling and waving as always. What else could they do? As I pulled away I broke into sobs. For the families of the deceased, for the kids, for the teachers, for me, for all of us.
I’m truly afraid, but this isn’t about me. This is about how we as a nation are allowing our humanity to be drained by the constant barrage of violence and acting like it’s normal, that it has nothing to do with us, or that we have nothing to do with it. It’s not normal. And we all have a lot to do with it. It’s time to turn our gaze inward and recognize that our culture is toxic. It’s time to recognize that glamorizing, glorifying, and valorizing competition and violence is no way to build a healthy community. It’s time to recognize that teaching young men that emotions are a sign of weakness is no way to raise good men.
The children who died at Columbine almost twenty years ago would be adults now, have their own children, maybe. Who would they have become? What about the children killed at Parkland? We’ll never know. How many lives must be cut short, how many children must die, before we begin to reckon with the rotten legacy we’ve built?