The Courage to Change–a child’s response to the Sandy Hook massacre

“There are too many men with enough courage to kill one another,

and not enough men with the courage to stop the violence.”

Lee van Laer


On Friday, when I learned of the shooting, I wanted to drive to the elementary school in my own town and retrieve my son.  It wasn’t that I was afraid.  We live over a hundred miles away from Newtown, CT.  I just wanted to bring him home. Because I could.

Instead, I let him finish the day and enjoy his long-awaited “Friday Free Time” with classmates. While I endured the wait, my heart broke for the parents who wouldn’t welcome home their children that day. Or any day after.

When my own son finally walked through the door, I exhaled, and drew him onto my lap to explain why I had been crying. His tears silently joined mine, and then so did his anger.

When we had exhausted both, I suggested we light a candle…
but instead of one, Aidan dashed around the house to collect a candle for each child, for each life lost, including the prinicipal. He loves his principal too.

Even as far as Pakistan, fellow school boys were lighting candles for the lives stolen.

The President reflected on this global mourning during the Prayer Service in Newtown last night:

I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart.

He went on to say that our first job is caring for our children:

If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

But we aren’t getting it right. And to be honest, I’m not sure we can, especially when I witness us reach back for the comfort of Mr. Roger’s words or when we over-reach toward heroes.

It’s time to sober up with the facts–not only about guns: 94,871 people shot in this country this year, but also about ourselves: We believe in killing. It’s part of our national fabric. We celebrate it in history, in video games, in theaters, and in warfare around the world.

And yet, I don’t believe the situation is hopeless; because I don’t think that we have the right to collapse into such self-pity after first-graders were murdered during morning circle.

Yes, it is complex. It is terribly complex. But one component is simple. Let’s start there.

Compare the U.S. to Japan, where almost no one owns a gun:

In 2008, the U.S. had over 12 thousand firearm-related homicides while Japan had only 11–about half of how many children lost their lives in a few moments in Newtown. Incidentally, 587 Americans (including children) were killed in 2008 just by guns that had discharged accidentally. (Read more.)

We don’t even need to go anywhere near the extreme of Japan when it comes to fireaarms. We can look at Australia, where they only banned assault weapons.

In the 18 years before the law, Australia suffered 13 mass shootings – but not one in the 14 years after the law took full effect.  (Read more.)

I know that some in our country are too afraid to give up their rights to weaponry. They cite a history of domination by dictators in the face of unarmed civilians around the world. I feel their fear. I understand it. They want to protect us.

What they won’t face is that our greatest enemy is–within. We are actually killing each other (and ourselves) with the weapons we claim as our protection:

  • A gun in the home is more likely to be used in a homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense.
  • Of youths who committed suicide with firearms, 82% obtained the firearm from their home.
  • The risk of homicide is three times higher in homes with firearms.
  • Gun death rates are 7 times higher in the states with the highest household gun ownership.(Read more.)
  • More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. (Read more.)

So the real question is this: Will we stop pretending that this is about our right to protection?

Or are we prepared, as President Obama asked, to say this:

Such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom.

“NO!” my 12-year-old cries out to his President.

Aidan isn’t interested in “freedom” that takes his life at the school and at the mall and in the movie theater and at the mosque; nor does he want the the honor of meeting the President of the United States in response to the random death of his little sister or mother or grandmother or teacher.

This freedom for violence disgraces us as a Nation:

Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.

Isn’t it ironic how many uniformed men, with impressive weaponry, appeared at Sandy Hook–too late.  How devastating to be prepared–for nothing. My heart breaks for them and for the fathers who weren’t there to protect their daughters. For the mothers who couldn’t comfort their sons as they lay bleeding. For the first-responders who found almost no one there to rescue.

Though dozens of ambulances raced toward the school, only a few departed with such purpose. The hospital was readily prepared to care for massive casualties, but only two adults and two children arrived–the latter pronounced dead inside their doors. There was nothing for the highly trained doctors and nurses to do.

Contrast that with what happened in Central China on the same day: 22 school children were attacked by a man wielding a knife. Some of the injuries were serious. The act of violence despicable. The terror horrifying.

While this readily points to the truth that madmen can always challenge our resources, this doesn’t mean that we can’t limit theirs.  The bodies of those 22 children are being cared for–in a hospital–instead of deposited–in the ground.

If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.

“You GO!” my son hollers to his President.

In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.

Can we admit to ourselves that this kind of violence has become routine?

By the end of this day, two-hundred and forty-four people will have been shot; an average so common place as not to receive national attention.

The massacre in Newtown simply brings to light what happens in the land of the “free” every day:

There have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

“Yes…” my son whispers back, as he embraces me.

(Kelly Salasin, December 17, 2012)

More on guns and the USA:

Batman & Bullets

Death as Entertainment (murder in schools)

Which Wolf (Co-op Murder)

My Favorite Republicans (Obama & gun laws)

Parenting without Power (or a gun)

The Magic of Travel

Do you know the scene from the film, Mary Poppins, where they all jump into one of Bert’s chalk drawings on the sidewalks of London?

This is exactly how I felt when I found myself inside one of the photographs from a travel book that has sits on my coffee table.

The family and I have drooled over the pages in this volume ever since we received it two Christmases ago. When I found out that I would be spending a week in Japan for work, my youngest insisted I search out his favorite–the Golden Pavilion; while I had long been intrigued by a red-gated shrine.

To my surprise, both of these treasured locations were in the town that I visited after my work in Japan was finished.

On my second day in Kyoto, I headed out early to make the long journey to the outskirts of the city to find Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine.

Once off the train, I followed others up a steep hill, past tiny shops, and homes, until I saw a single red gated entrance ahead.

That’s not how it’s supposed to look, I thought; but soon I came to the place that I had seen in my book, and I felt a bubbling up inside.

I began my stroll through the gates, tentatively, giddily, in absolute awe of my surroundings and good fortune; and shortly discovered there were more gates than I ever imagined.

Some travelers quickly turned around and headed back, but I continued, and continued and continued–drawn forward by the embrace of the gates and what lie ahead.

But what I hadn’t seen in my coffee table book was this: these beautiful red gates went on for miles, eventually winding up a steep mountainside.  So I climbed, and climbed, and climbed, certain to reach the top at any moment, but only to find another turn, another set of steep stairs, and another stretch of gates–which were beginning to loose their charm.

One post was being repainted and another repaired. There were buckets of paint, and drop cloths, and tools. These aren’t so special after all, I thought.

But still, I continued.

Up and up and up I huffed, cursing myself for skipping breakfast. Suddenly I came to a landing, and to my disbelief, there where two small shops, here in the middle of nowhere.

I dismissed these as overpriced concession stands, until I heard the cry of a baby overhead and realized that these were homes to families who served meals to travelers like me.

Soon after I caught sight of a delivery boy running up and down the steep steps with packages in hand, and later I saw more than one sweat-soaked man carrying propane tanks on their backs.

I continued on, dismissing food, suspecting that the end would come soon, but just like my childhood climb of the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, the “end” was a constant illusion.

By the time I made the final approach to the last set of stairs which led to a mountain top shrine, I resented Mary Poppins for ever suggesting that I jump into a picture.

I begrudgingly climbed the last bit, dismissed the garden of relics, and dragged myself around the top of the mountain for a unique view of the city; which I quickly deemed unworthy of such a climb.

To salvage the journey, I decided to take another route down the mountain, instead of returning the way I’d come as I had seen others endure.

The backside of the mountain, though very wooded, had its own set of gates which definitely headed down; and I quickly applauded myself for such cleverness.

On the way down, I only passed one other pair of hikers, and they were unlikely tourists; but this was an adventure, and I was eager for the challenge.

Soon I left the gates behind me, but I needn’t have worried because there was yet another small shop up ahead, beside another shrine; though when I looked inside, it was eerily empty.

After this, the path, turned into just that, a path, and a dirt one at that, which grew narrower and narrower, until I was surrounded by wildness and woods.

This is so cool, I thought; so much better than the gated stairs and all the other tourists.

Maybe I would even see one of those wild monkeys that they took the trouble to translate about.

Should I look for them?

Should I not?

Is that what I was hearing in the trees?

Should I be worried?

Should I really be hiking down this mountain alone?

Forget wild monkeys, did Japan have snakes?

Just as winded my way down steep hill and considered turning around, a long golden brown serpent slithered in front of my feet and I yelped; turned on my sandals, and ran–all the way up the path, past the empty shop, up the steep stairs and the winding gates on the back side of the shrine, past the sweaty men hoisting propane tanks, and back to the top; and down the gated path I had come.

My shortcut cost me another hour of hiking, particularly as I took a few wrong turns along my pioneering way.

I sat down at the first restaurant for ice cream cone, forgoing breakfast.  I made myself sit until the cone was almost finished, (as the Japanese are rarely seen walking with food), and then I began the trek down the mountain; which surprisingly was much harder on my trembling legs than climbing had been.

Toward the bottom, I met up with some traveling friends from New Zealand; who I had met earlier in the week at the market.  They asked how far it was to the top and whether it was worth it, and I don’t remember exactly how I replied; except that I felt triumphant and satisfied, and this may have encouraged them to go on.

Along the way up and down this journey, I had made other friends too, or at least said, Konnichiwa or Ohayou Gozaimasu, or simply smiled at:

Small groups of young men in sports uniforms running the gates for training.

A middle-aged man in a head band, stretching, with whom I shared the mountaintop view of the city.

A well prepared group of businessmen–on vacation–who passed me with sturdy packs on their backs and hiking boots on their feet.

A retired couple from England with whom I shared a bench beside a pond. (They had seen more of my country than I had.)

Couples. Holding hands. Giggling. With young women hiking the steps in shockingly spiked heels–without complaint. (Maybe they hadn’t known about the climb either.)

From time to time, the gates would grow hushed, and I’d come upon lone photographers, pausing in the stillness, waiting to capture the magic of this stunning creation–into which we had miraculously fallen.

Kelly Salasin, May 2012


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