Published in The Baltimore Sun, January 26, 2011
My sixth-grade teacher could not bring herself to tell the class that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. She returned from having been called to the office to report that “something has happened, but I don’t feel that I can tell you what it is.” And so we went on with the remainder of our Friday afternoon lessons in a state of excited wonder. The unfathomable news came to me later, outside the front door of the school, where I was serving on safety patrol. It was on the lips of everyone who passed my station in front of the circular drive, where my duty of keeping students back until it was safe to cross kept me from focusing fully on the magnitude of what I was just now learning.
At one point, our principal comforted a first-grader immediately behind me. “Yes dear,” she said softly while zipping the tiny girl’s jacket, “the president is dead.” And then she added, “it was an accident.” In those days, we thought 6-year-olds should not have to hear about the deadliness of a high-powered rifle, or learn that there were people who would use one for such monstrous evil. We have lost a good deal of our childhood innocence since then.
I often think of that moment when I hear news of the violence we have come to accept as routine: whether a psychotic act, such as the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords that left six dead and 13 wounded in Tucson, or just another day in Baltimore’s battle with crime that regularly claims lives and often victimizes whole neighborhoods. I wonder if we have become so desensitized that we do not regard such continual violence in our midst with the contempt and abhorrence that it deserves, or that it has become so overwhelming as to render us helpless to do anything meaningful to address it.
Lee Harvey Oswald used a cheap, mail-order rifle to blow a hole in our collective hopes and ambitions for a world led by a new generation of Americans. Today, we can keep someone as dangerous as Jared Lee Loughner out of our military, and even out of a community college classroom. But we could not keep him from buying a Glock 19 semi-automatic handgun, with an extended magazine, and carrying it to a public place to cause death and destruction. Some might say that the lesson is that these acts of madness or fanaticism cannot be avoided. That the perpetrator is then prosecuted is of little consolation to the victims, their families and the lives turned upside down, but we seem resigned to accept it.
When violence makes its appearance on the national political stage, we devote enormous attention to the causes and consequences. We debate gun control and our rhetoric. But we continue to live in a world in which the stigma associated with mental illness often results in lack of treatment and timely intervention that might prevent such tragedies. It is one example of our failure to demand meaningful action to address the root causes of the violence that has become our all-too-common companion.
Consider our continued toleration of the routine murder that is the daily byproduct of the ongoing drug war that has turned communities in cities like Baltimore into prisons of despair and hopelessness. We have spent more than a trillion dollars in the approximately 40-year-old war on drugs and have succeeded only in overwhelming our court systems and vastly increasing our prison population. And judging by the never-ending costs, the multitude of drug-related cases that burden our health care system, and the suppliers and users who continue to be paraded through our courts, we do not seem to have made any significant progress in the reduction of drug abuse. Instead, we have created a criminal culture that has made violence a way of life in many urban neighborhoods; established a cycle of crime that destroys families and communities; and glorified a lifestyle that disdains education and employment.
In Baltimore, recent events reveal that we regularly find the need to send teams of plain-clothed police officers into this world of casual violence to the point that there is sometimes no way to tell the good guys from the bad. Gun battles erupt in the streets. We mourn and call for investigations but do little to eradicate the underlying scourge that the enormously profitable drug trade regularly visits on our neighborhoods. We have yet to muster the courage to find a way to take the profit out of the equation and to address drug addiction and abuse as the health problem it truly is. Instead, we fight the symptoms rather than the disease by engaging the dealers in the exchange of bullets that are their stock in trade. We meet them on their own level, diminishing our effectiveness and our moral standing.
I walked home from school with a friend that long-ago November afternoon. Our eyes focused on the sidewalk as we struggled to find a way to properly react to the event that had so viciously intruded on our young lives. Then we came upon an elderly man who was leaning against a utility pole. For the first time, we saw a grown man publicly weeping. Because of his age, he knew how to respond to what had occurred and what had been lost.
We should all be so wise as to have such a visceral response to violence in our culture, the fortitude to declare that it is not acceptable, and the courage to find meaningful solutions.