Like most everyone I know, I am having a really hard time coping with the horrific murders in Connecticut. Since I have young children myself, I keep having these nightmarish visions placing our family there, me waiting at the fire station and my child never returning to me. I see the sweet face of 6-year-old Noah Pozner, the youngest murdered victim, and in my mind, his face morphs into the face of my own 5-year-old son. He could, after all, have been my son, that young Jewish boy attending elementary school in a "good, safe, suburban school." The nightmare plays over and over again in my head, until I shut it down. Something I, as someone whose child was not actually there, have the luxury of doing. Truth be told, I have absolutely no clue how anyone in that community, especially those whose children or family members were murdered, will ever find any peace. It is beyond fathomable.
"Unfathomable" has, far and away, proved the most common descriptor on the boiling feeds of my Facebook and Twitter accounts since Friday's tragedy. And on every emotional level I know, "unfathomable" seems a fitting descriptor of the cold-blooded mass murder of innocent children and teachers in an elementary school; it goes against the most basic core values and code of social order and decency we have. But the heartbreaking thing is, this event was not "unfathomable." It is certainly "fathomable" -- it has been fathomable for a long time now. People have been heartlessly and carelessly or calculatedly murdering or injuring children through gun violence for a long time now.
I vividly remember first hearing about the school shooting in Columbine on April 20, 1999. Sitting in the lunch room of my rabbinical school in Cincinnati, we all sat stunned and declared the shootings "unfathomable." Until one of my professors called our attention to the fact that children were being shot and killed all the time; the difference being that Columbine symbolized the expanded reach of gun violence into middle/upper class white America. He called us out on our own selectivity in personal identification with a certain type of event and victim over another, and challenged us to see the Columbine murder victims as part of a longer series of American tragedies and travesties with a much more expansive trail of murdered and wounded children strewn in its current's wake. One that demanded multi-faceted government, educational, health, social, spiritual and psychological engagement and action.
In 2011, 700 children were hit by gunfire in Chicago and 66 of them died. There is ongoing mass murder in Chicago's gang-ridden neighborhoods to which most of us living in safer, suburban neighborhoods have closed our eyes or ignored. On Friday, speaking about the victims of the Newtown attack, President Obama stated, "They had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own." And this is true. It is what makes the murder of children in particular so horrific. But I wonder why the same is not being said too of those children struck down by gun violence in the city of Chicago (or elsewhere). I think about Aliyah Shell, the 6-year-old girl murdered by gang crossfire while sitting on her mother's lap, on the porch of their Little Village home earlier this year. "Birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of her own" were Aliyah and her family's right, but the same cry was not made nationally when she was murdered, or any of the other of the hundreds of children like her. It is as if we have somehow, as a nation, accepted that for children like Aliyah, such future promise should not be assumed; and that is simply unacceptable. Because birthdays, graduations, weddings and children should be part of the promise to any and every child. And that future has been stolen from all those slain in the wake of gun violence: black or white, wealthy or poor, shot down in their house or walking on the street, lying down to sleep or waking up, sitting on their front porch or at their desk in their classroom.
Many will take issue with me here. They will say that linking the Chicago youth murdered to the Newtown tragedy somehow diminishes one or the other. They will say this is a time of mourning, not of speaking and acting. They will claim that these are two different problems, one impacting one way and the other a different way. That a school shooting is, by its nature, different than gang related gun violence. On all counts, I disagree. It is indeed a time of mourning, a deepening mourning given these most recent, horrible events. But one and the other are both inextricably intermingled in what can only be called a community and system-wide web of failure. And that failure isn't rooted in one cause over another. It is immensely complex; it is about gun control and mental health and gang prevention/education and security and anger-management and race and wealth and class and early intervention and public health and, and, and....
If not now, when? Genesis/Breishit teaches that all humans are created in the image of the Divine, and in the Mishnah we learn that each life is an entire world. When one destroys a life, he destroys the world. When one saves a life, he saves the world. The matter is more urgent now than ever. So I will not allow myself the anesthetizing ease of time or distraction. And to my own nightmares, I will be mindful to add the face of Aliyah along with the face of Noah. I hope remembering both of these children will remind me of the totality of the real task at hand, and as such, strengthen my personal resolve to be an individual who actively works to create and catalyze change across our communities, within and without, in the areas in which I have a voice and impact. May it be so for each and every one of us who has not yet been caught in the cross-fire directly.
My prayer is that perhaps this most recent horror in Connecticut will be the spark that ignites a system-wide change across all channels, so that the flow of all the murdered souls, whose lives have been cut short too soon, might finally be checked.
Things you can do to start to make a difference now:
Feel free to use the comments space below to add your own ideas and/or resources for how to make a difference.