Monday December 17, 2012

Alden Graves

Discreetly brushing away the tears was touching, Mr. President. Now do something about guns in this country.

In 1963, I was 16-years-old. I was going to school at Vermont Academy in Saxtons River. I remember Friday, November 22 as a bright, sunny day and the weekend only as dark. I haven't been back to the campus in decades, but I could still take you to the exact spot outside the school's library where I was standing when someone told me that President Kennedy had been shot.

Hundreds of thousands of other people had been shot and killed during my 16 years on the planet. But, death by gunshot or rifle fire back in those sanitized years remained a comfortably bloodless thing if you hadn't experienced it first hand.

John Wayne stormed the beaches and a lot of the men running along beside him got shot and fell down, but it didn't seem any more physically traumatic than if they had tripped on something in the sand. Hugh O'Brien cleaned up Tombstone, but the shootouts were always conspicuously blood free, the bad guys gripping a part of their midsections, as if they had suddenly been seized by a particularly painful gastric attack. Hollywood didn't want to intrude too rudely on our romanticized notions of war or the Old West. Even when they showed blood in films, it looked like diluted cherry Kool Aid.

America didn't just lose a president back in 1963. JFK's death -- the images of his head exploding in a red mist -- foisted the horror of death by gunshot upon us. We looked at the Zapruder film as if our own heads were clamped in a vise; unable to turn away, waiting for that split second when John Fitzgerald Kennedy's promise would dissolve into that red mist and dissipate forever.

Others would soon join the slain president in our collective memory's chamber of horrors: Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King in April, 1968, and Robert Kennedy in June of 1968. Ronald Reagan would narrowly escape the same fate in 1981, shot by a man who wanted to attract the attention of an actress.

Today, America plays host to a new kind of horror: the mass shooting. And every time another demented misfit uses a gun to settle his beef with the world, we bury ourselves deeper into our pit of denial, where we hide and tell ourselves that there is nothing we can do about it. We hardly bat an eye when the gun lobby actually proposes allowing people on terrorist watch lists to carry concealed weapons. Even Charles Addams would be appalled. I am writing this before all the "facts" come out about the shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut that left 26 people dead, 20 of them children. At first, I thought I should wait until the details became clearer, but what difference do the motives of madmen ever make? What difference does it make what drove this particular individual to take a gun and cold-bloodedly murder 20 children?

What difference do the details ever make other than to provide vested interests in keeping this country an armed slaughterhouse with more excuses to sell even more guns? After Aurora, some loony Texas congressman lamented the fact that people don't go to the movies armed. How long do you think it will be before some right wing zealot speculates that the killings in Newtown wouldn't have happened if the teachers were armed?

It is difficult to trace the trajectory of emotions that many of us feel at this point. We have gone from horror to outrage to anger to numbness to something that feels an awful lot like disgust. Disgust for the purported leaders in this nation who still-- after Columbine, after Virginia Tech, the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and the movie theater in Colorado -- cower before the almighty wrath of the gun lobby. It is time some of these politicians gave some thought to the almighty wrath of parents who would like to believe that their children can go off to school in the morning without being shot to death before lunch.

This nation has steadfastly maintained a Scarlett O'Hara philosophy about sensible gun control -- "We'll think about that tomorrow." White House press secretary Jay Carney said on the day of the Connecticut massacre that it was "no time to be talking about gun control." Out of respect for the dead, we aren't supposed to talk about what killed them, I guess.

President Obama's expressions of sympathy were undoubtedly heartfelt, but it is way past the time for the American people to settle for regrets and condolences from our elected leaders when our children become the victims of their political cowardice. Mr. Obama has had four years to address the scourge of assault weapons on our streets and to close gun show loopholes that would allow a recent escapee from a mental asylum to purchase a firearm. He has done nothing except to occasionally intone soothing words that he hopes will calm some temporarily choppy waters.

There is a photograph amongst all the other depictions of stark horror in Newtown of a little boy, too young to possibly know the full extent of what he has lived through, with both of his hands covering his face. We should all remember the image of that child the next time we listen to some slick congressional flack for the gun lobby remind us of the threat to our Second Amendment rights - and how gladly most of us would exchange those archaic rights for the lives of 20 kids who never stood a chance against them.

Alden Graves is a Banner reviewer and columnist.