Since it was uncharacteristically warm for a February day in Tennessee, my friends and I decided to sit on Alumni lawn for the afternoon. Everything was normal until our conversation slowed to a stop, our attention shifting to the flag at the front of the lawn that had been lowered in remembrance of the victims of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. As we watched an officer walk up to the flagpole at the front of the lawn and slowly draw the flag back up to the top, I felt like I was watching someone perform a tired, old ritual. As I thought about how we always seem to be mourning the victims of another avoidable tragic event, I remembered a day that made me realize that we very well may be setting ourselves up for a future of more tragedies.
In high school, I worked summers as a pool cashier at my local recreation center. One slow, muggy afternoon, I waved goodbye to a father and his son. The boy, who must have been only seven or eight years old, was skipping a few paces ahead of his father until he suddenly slowed to a stop. He scrunched his face up, looking up at the giant flagpole that stood in front of the recreation center.
“Daddy?” he asked. “Why’s the flag at the top today?”
My hand froze mid-wave. Although that day was the hottest it had been all week, I felt a cold chill run through my body. As hard as it is to believe, this child was simply used to living in a time when having flags perpetually at half-staff is the norm. The flag had been lowered in respect to the victims of the mass shooting that had occurred at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando earlier that month, but several weeks later, it found itself at the top of the pole again.
It terrifies me to think that students are viewing active shooter drills the same way I once viewed fire drills–a necessary response to a natural danger.
His question was all I could think about for the rest of the day, especially because I could never imagine my younger self asking such a question. A ten-year age difference, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t usually mean much; however, in this case, ten years might as well have been fifty. It seemed as if we grew up in two completely different worlds.
That was in 2016. Today, in the waves of grief flooding the days following the mass shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I found myself thinking about how we as a country are addressing the coverage of these types of tragedies. It’s been barely a week since seventeen children were mercilessly gunned down in their own school and yet, I can already sense that media coverage and public interest in the mass shooting is beginning to dwindle. Is the loss of seventeen lives beginning to lose relevance already? Is the pain and unspeakable grief that members of their community are experiencing not worth taking seriously anymore?
If you trace the American public’s reactions to school shootings over the years, you’d notice that we are adjusting back to our usual routines post-shootings faster and faster, almost at an exponential rate. Many would argue that the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 was incredibly significant in that it made us begin to think seriously about the threat of extreme acts of violence in our schools, and it’s continued to linger in our collective consciousness. Sandy Hook, we assumed, was supposed to be the last straw. We thought that reform would instantly follow the horrifying murder of elementary schoolers, but we allowed it to just be another unfortunate event. We’ve gone from experiencing an excruciatingly slow recovery from such horrors to simply accepting them as a fact of life and moving on. But, as I realized from watching that boy at the pool, have we thought about the message we are sending to today’s children?
My hometown’s school district canceled class the day I wrote this so that faculty and staff could spend the day receiving extra training for what they should do in the event that there is a threat of a shooting. How did they explain that to the kindergarteners and first graders? From such a young age, they are already coming to terms with the idea that this is something normal or to be expected. Our society has caused children to regard unfortunate events as the default nature of our world. We are essentially priming a generation of children to feel indifferent in the face of horrible acts of violence and hatred, which can only lead to a future generation of adults who would rather focus on less urgent matters because terrible things are “bound to happen anyway.” It terrifies me to think that students are viewing active shooter drills the same way I once viewed fire drills–a necessary response to a natural danger.
By letting our guard down so quickly, we are teaching today’s children that this is something normal, which means there is nothing they can do about it too.
Approaching shootings with a diminishing sense of urgency is incredibly harmful. By behaving as if these horrors are just a fact of life, we are removing responsibility from both the perpetrators and from the people who have the power to change things. It makes us inactive, resigned. By letting our guard down so quickly, we are teaching today’s children that this is something normal, which means there is nothing they can do about it too.
To prevent a culture of resignation from taking hold on our youth, it is vital that we emphasize talking about current events while instilling hopefulness and vigilance into today’s children. If we remember to acknowledge and respect every tragic event with the same weight, we can slow the progression of desensitization and eventual nonchalance while ensuring that children realize that there is something they can do in this world. We should accompany each problem with a potential solution when talking to children about current events and remember to acknowledge the efforts of those who are working hard to impact this world in a positive way.
Some Parkland survivors started aggressively pushing for swift gun reform almost immediately after the shooting. We can’t let them fight by themselves while the rest of us allow ourselves to move on, subconsciously waiting for another tragedy like this to happen. We have to send the right message to today’s children and remind ourselves that this isn’t normal. We are easing ourselves into a mindset that accepts such occurrences as merely daily horrors. We must reject this sort of thinking lest we wish to normalize pain, suffering, and inaction in the face of threats to our basic right to live.