My wife, Julie, my son Taylor, and I participated in March for Our Lives in NYC three years ago this week.
I started my day this morning having received an email from my assistant principal informing faculty and staff that sometime today we would complete an A.L.I.C.E. drill. For those unfamiliar with the acronym, it stands for Alert. Lock down. Inform. Counter. Evacuate. Alice is the anesthetized term for an active shooter drill.
For me, the most stunning aspect of the email notification was my blasé response to it. I’d no sooner read it than I had swiped right on my cell phone’s screen and deleted it as if it were just another of the many routine emails that appear daily in my inbox. Somehow, the notion of a person stalking the hallways and classrooms of my school building with weapons capable of massacring a large number of children seemed as banal as the monthly fire drills I’ve participated in throughout my career, just another state requirement to be checked off the list.
I want to ask, “How did I [we] get here?” How has the potential for being a casualty or watching your students gunned down in a mass shooting become so normalized in American society and schools? Both questions, however, reveal a purposeful naïveté on my part. Despite the obscene number of mass casualty shootings that have occurred in America in recent days, weeks, months, and years in grocery stores, malls, concerts, places of worship, nightclubs, etc., I want to live “normally” and do “normal stuff.” I don’t want to live constantly looking over my shoulder. I still do NOT want to believe a school building is an attractive target for these deranged males (They are always male.). As weak as it is, this is the only explanation I have for my blasé response to the morning email notification of the day’s forthcoming A.L.I.C.E. drill.
It all makes me worry about the psychological damage being done to our children who have never known anything but the constant threat of unprovoked and unpredictable carnage. My generation grew up and for a long time lived under the plumes of an imagined, yet what seemed a likely-to-be-realized mushroom cloud of nuclear annihilation. Not so much consciously but on the unconscious level, we waited for what felt like the inevitable news that nuclear-tipped warheads targeting the U.S. had been launched and would soon be devastating American cities and military installations. After which, radioactive fallout would be raining down on the entirety of the country. I’m not sure how anyone can even begin to understand or quantify the amount of psychic damage caused by such paranoia, gloom, and doom.
A major difference in the existential threat of nuclear annihilation versus the threat of falling victim of a mass shooting is that, for my generation, we at least knew the enemy. From where the death and destruction would come was predictable. We understood that the suffering would be widely shared, and in the twisted geopolitical reality of the Cold War, the damage that would be inflicted upon us even made some sense. Nevertheless, there would be no letting down of our guard. No Pearl Harbor. As a nation, we were constantly prepared and watching the skies.
In the culture of gun violence in which our children live today, however, there are no such luxuries. The killer can come from anywhere and begin his rampage with no obvious provocation or reason. The dead and wounded are typically unknown to the killer. The victims are simply the relatively few who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the explanation for the killer’s savagery, more often than not, dies with him, or it is inspired by such garbled logic or vitriolic hatred that it doesn’t provide even the slimmest of justifications for the inherently unjustifiable deed. The only predictable outcome is that, afterwards, the rest of us will shake our heads in faux horror, supporters of absurd justifications and protections for the ownership of weapons of war will bury theirs, legislators in the pockets of gun lobbyists will deflect attention to mental health, the faith-filled will offer up useless thoughts and prayers, and we all will continue to live under the delusion that it would never happen here to us or to ours.
Swipe right. Delete.
At 12:50, the announcement was made that there was a shooter in the building. Although they had been forewarned that it was only a drill, my students’ faces turned to me for directions with very real fear in their eyes. “Shelter in place? Fight? Flight?” Their expressions asked, and suddenly it struck me that, if it were an actual live shooting, the next words out of my mouth could determine whether or not they would live or die. To think there was a more innocent time when all the damage my bad advice could cause was imperfect syntax.
In the immortal nonsense words of The Beatles that capture the nonsensical nature of the culture of violence which we tolerate, live in, and must plan for in our daily lives and schools, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
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