I grew up with this inherited trauma. I know it in the mode of second generation.
In 1939, 24 years before I was born, my mother's father was murdered, shot in the head by a mentally unstable man. My mother, then six, carried the weight of this unjust death throughout her life. At first pliable, like lead, it hardened toward the end of her life. When mass murders would race, staccato-like, across the newswire, I'd call her in Milwaukee and for a few days she wouldn't answer the phone. It was too much to talk about. Enough already. What is there to say? Really.
1970. There's Mom at the kitchen window. Water running in the sink; crickets outside in the yard; apples ripening, hanging low on the trees, ready. Her back is to us and she's crying. "Thinking of my dad," she'd say. And the pastoral landscape of youth was ripped thoroughly through, its horizons twisted into the junk metal of a violent and permanent alteration: the ghost of a man, an illness, and a gun.
The murders in Oak Creek at the Sikh Temple--just a couple weeks after she died this summer--would have conjured her more political outrage. She'd have seen the racism in it, the stupidity of war, the irrational targeting of "enemy populations" and she'd have felt shame at a nation with citizens who refused to accept the inherent diversity of the human species. But beneath the rational anger there would still have broiled the raging fires of bullets propelled through human flesh, tearing it apart, taking life. The grotesque injustice--to be borne yet again. An illness and a gun.
Sandy Hook's particular crimes--the total destruction of innocent lives, the blessed souls of children, the shepherding power of teachers' protective benevolence, the stupefyingly instantaneous vacuity of places where there was once only promise, potential, glory and beauty--would have been too much to bear for Mom. It was the first time since July when I actually said aloud, "Thank God Mom's dead." If not crushed by the weight of the loss, she'd have burst apart in anger and disgust at a distinct cowardly American civic inaction.
Our shared grief with the suffering families will be an act of citizenship. Our mournful wails of pain at the loss of innocent life will be an act of citizenship. Our holding close of those children we love, ensuring them of what can never truly be promised--that they are safe, watched over, protected in their places of learning--until we fundamentally change our gun laws in this country.
Watching politicians cry no longer moves me. Power is not a luxury, after all. In the right hands, it is a duty to be carried out. In the wrong hands, it is an inexorable path of destruction, the genie released from the bottle, a wound that never fully heals.
And as I learned from watching my own mother weep each year at the anniversary of her father's murder by gunfire, power is meant to be a privilege. To be employed for good. It goes astray in the wrong hands, requiring at times an epic force to bring it under control, a battle for good over evil.
This is now our great American crossroads and the fight over gun control should be measured in these terms.
Background checks; assault weapons; cop-killer bullets; waiting periods. These are among the most sensible regulations ever offered in a legislative body. That they are greeted with the kind of bravado and moral outrage with which the gun lobby treats them is nothing less than a total bastardization of the Founders' constitutional intent. And any contemporary political leader worth his or her stature of the privilege to serve the citizenry ought to say so. Plain and simple.
When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, he said, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." He then went on to speak of the need to wage war for "many, many long months of struggle and suffering...to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime." And he concluded, "You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival."
So you can cry over the loss of life. It is the most profound expression of human empathy we possess. But our blood must also brim from toil and sweat--the work required of us to fight the necessary fight to change our laws, to justify the Constitution, to release ourselves from the idolatrous tyranny of guns and those who worship them.
It was no Second Amendment sanctioned militia in Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Oak Creek, or Tuscon, (or wherever the next murders will take place); it's the work of madmen, who should be stopped, by the will of the people to write and enforce laws to stop them.
When the innocent die we will shed tears; but with blood, toil and sweat we will redeem their souls by safeguarding the future for others.