Ever since the massacre of the innocents in Newtown, Conn., almost two months ago, the image of those children -- terrified, alone at the last -- has stayed with me, as it has with many, many other conscientious Americans. I think also of the six teachers and school personnel who died trying to protect their charges.
Which is why a film I saw shortly after the massacre, The Children Are Watching Us, continues to resonate. A wrenching drama, the film shows how the adults in one child's life, for their own indefensible reasons, fail and betray him at every turn, leaving him unprotected and traumatized. Set in Italy and released just after World War II, it still speaks to us in today's troubled America.
The theme of the failure to protect is signaled at the outset: The film opens with the mother taking her four-year-old son to the park, ostensibly to play but really to meet her lover, who delivers an ultimatum: Leave with me or it's over. As she tucks her son in that night, we know this is the last time. The father, devastated by his wife's abandonment and feeling ill-equipped to raise a child, farms him out to a sister-in-law who runs a lingerie workshop, not the best environment for a child. About the time the father retrieves the boy, the mother, apologetic, returns home, but not for long. On a family vacation at the seaside, and after the father returns to his work in Rome, the lover shows up, a rendezvous the boy discovers. Longing for his father, the boy runs away and gets as far as the train station before being caught by the police and returned to the mother. But the mother deserts yet again. Back in Rome, the father, desperate by now, puts the boy in a boarding school run by the Catholic church, and then, overwhelmed by loss, commits suicide. In the final scene, with the mother present, the boy enters, sobbing, having been told the terrible news. The priest in charge prods the boy, "Go to Mama." The boy starts toward her, then -- the bond irretrievably broken -- turns and slowly walks away, apparently to remain in the care of the priest. The final image is the receding figure of the despairing little boy.
Unsettling as the central drama is, there's another unsettling encounter in the train station: The boy asks a white-haired grandmotherly woman for the train to Rome. But, rather than put her book down and ask this waif of a child, "Little boy, where are your parents?," and take him in hand, she points him toward the trains and goes back to her book! You could hardly find a more potent representation of an indifferent society.
Nor is leaving a child in the care of Catholic priests reassuring, given the astonishing latter-day revelations of widespread molestation of children by clergy, with the church -- a putative moral institution -- protecting itself, forget the child victims.
Additionally, consider how else our society has failed children, with a sexualized culture; the mainstreaming of pornography; child trafficking; video games that, as one anguished mother described to me, award extra points for shots to the head and for rape; and not to forget a crushing national debt that we'll bequeath them, all actions (or should we call them crimes?) of a society bent on its rights and satisfactions, not on its responsibility to protect its children.
This imperative to protect the children at the most basic, imperative level -- life -- is what's ultimately at stake in the present firestorm over gun control. Conservatives faulted President Obama for "exploiting" children for political gain when he included a group of them in the public announcement of executive actions he will take on gun control (also here). But he is exactly right: In a healthy society, the most vulnerable members -- the children -- should feel safe, and the president is trying to get us back to health by using the elemental prompt: children.
Mr. Obama has continued to do his part in pressing for gun control, most recently appearing in Minneapolis, where he spoke against "military-style" assault weapons and appealed to the public to keep up its support. (See the White House website here.) Encouragingly, public support remains high (here and here). At the moment, legislative action is reported most likely on universal background checks and high-capacity magazines, though Senate majority leader Harry Reid is equivocating on the ban of assault weapons. (Really, Senator, why do ordinary citizens need assault weapons? Is this the best way to protect children?)
Also encouraging: Despite the hysteria radiating from the National Rifle Association, whose leaders hype fears of a tyrannical government, many NRA members support stronger gun control and understand that, contrary to leadership's claims, the Obama Administration is not -- repeat: not -- advocating repeal of the Second Amendment.
But, encouraging signs notwithstanding, we're a long way from cleaning up Dodge City. America is still awash in guns, in fact even more so, with gun shops racking up record sales because buyers fear the forthcoming restrictions. Meanwhile, gun associations, to ensure future consumers for the gun manufacturers, are ramping up their recruitment of young shooters (also here).
Which is why, for the sake of the children, conscientious citizens must keep pressing for stronger gun laws. No doubt the going will get very rough, no doubt politicians will flag, claiming it's "too complicated." Nonsense: It's not complicated. Put simply, are we civilized or not? Do we protect our children or not?
This we must do, because the children are watching. They must see their elders put down their books and fight for them, push for their protection from gun violence, but also for a major clean-up of our decadent culture. And, please, don't tell us advocates of reform that we're dreamers, because: It must be done. Instead, use that energy to write to your newspaper, your members of Congress, even to the NRA. Join and donate to an organization working for gun control (see below).
Because, if we fail our children further, so grievously have we harmed and handicapped them that I foresee generational conflict in the not-so-distant future, when they might break with us, as the little boy did at the end of the film discussed above. In truth, if they did break with us, they'd be rebels with very good cause.
So, remember the children and our responsibility to protect them, and keep pressing on. The children are watching us.
Organizations working for gun control include: Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence; Children's Defense Fund; Coalition to Stop Gun Violence; Mayors Against Illegal Guns; National Gun Victims Action Council; and Stop Handgun Violence. Note also Americans for Responsible Solutions, the PAC recently established by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and husband Mark Kelly to counter the gun lobby.
About the film The Children Are Watching Us (I Bambini Ci Guardano): Two other child-centered films by director Vittorio De Sica -- The Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine -- are more famous, but the antagonists in those films are criminals, while the antagonists in Children are, more chillingly, nearer the child and seemingly benign -- his family and society. For De Sica's filmography, see here.
Carla Seaquist is author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she recently published a volume titled "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is working on a play titled "Prodigal."