Words by Daniel Moore
From Inauguration Day to the March on Washington for Gun Control, one student reflects on the responsibility Americans must face in the wake of tragedy.
I. The Storm Surge
A rare dusting of snow blankets the National Mall as we arrive at the Washington Monument. A wintry haze veils the late-morning sun as we approach a crowd of thousands. Somewhere in there is Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, explaining how he is here today as a dad, not a politician.
“This is Starkeisha Reed, who at 7:30 in the morning was in her living room getting ready for school and was shot by an AK-47. This is Claire Holden, who was on the bus going home from school.” He’s choking up. When he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, he says, they buried children like Reed and Holden every two weeks due to gun violence.
I crane my neck and study the faces around me. The rally, billed as purely a product of grassroots activism, a proverbial march on Washington for stricter control of our nation’s firearms, includes a fairly accurate cross-section of America’s melting pot. Some wave factory-sealed posters spinning clean AR-15s as monstrous villains. “STOP NRA!” they proclaim. Others carry the name of someone they knew.
My roommate Joe Reino and I try to get closer to the stage, but the crowd is too dense. We settle next to a few older women with wild tufts of red hair — possibly grandmothers. They’re not waving or flaunting but holding their signs resignedly at their sides: “We Are Sandy Hook.”
I heard the Dec. 14 news through the static of an airport taxi-cab radio. I had landed in the far southwestern enclave of the United States, descending from a clear sky upon the cliffs of sunny San Diego, visiting a friend. It was only the second time in my life my jaw uncontrollably dropped, my stomach churned with disbelief and I shook my head, whispering, “Goddamn.”
I texted my mom, an elementary school teacher back home. I talked to a few of my friends. My Facebook blew up with posted anger and typed-out sorrow, but no one had much to say that really meant anything. In my motel room by the bay, I spent the afternoon inside, blinds drawn, two feet away from the television as the president cried at the podium. As the police gave updates. As the news recycled through the same helicopter aerials of the school.
I turned off the TV after awhile, numb and introspective. I walked by the water until night darkened my view. It was now overcast, chilly and raining. I was 2,800 miles and three time zones away from the blood of Newtown, Conn., but distance didn’t seem to matter.
Human tragedy forges a connection that cannot be elevated into eloquent poetry or stamped into perfect prose. Rather, it’s the moments of reaction — those hours, days, weeks, months that follow — in which we vicariously contrive some kind of meaning. That night by the water, I suppose I was chasing that meaning. I was asking the questions for which there were not answers.
For me, as the nation collectively took a few silent days of grief, I tried to enjoy the rest of my California trip. During the lazy holidays with my family, I tried to avoid news coverage of the child funerals. I tried to ignore the flags frozen at half-staff, while the flag of death, invisible and invincible, cracked in the wind.
In January, I moved to Washington.Then came the storm surge.
II. Out of the Cave
“This time — this time will not be like the times that have come before,” Joe Biden booms through my kitchen. “We will take this fight through the halls of Congress. We’re going to take this to the American people.”
“They better be very careful,” Joe Scarborough warns me as I shudder in my morning bath towel, fumbling with breakfast.“Republicans better be careful and think twice before they make their next move.”
I slide my Washington Post out of its yellow plastic sleeve. “Obama’s gun proposals are a matter of life and death,” a headline reads. I gulp some stale coffee. Really? Life and death? Huh. Sip.
From the couch in my apartment, seven miles away from Capitol Hill, I can’t turn the TV off. Public opinion polls proving some pundit’s point flash on the front of the evening news. The talking heads espouse their bias more fervently than I’ve ever seen. The ideologue revels in the chance to be heard and agreed with.
“Finally, Democrats are getting out of Plato’s cave when it comes to guns and are not fearful of their own shadow,” explains political strategist Chris Lehane. “Now you have Democrats who recognize —” Slam. I’m out the door and beginning my morning Metro ride with the rest of Washington.
During my first days in the nation’s capital, I take some long walks along the mineral-blue Reflecting Pool. I gaze at the Washington Monument, trying to glean some wisdom from its original construction. I peer through the iron gates of the White House, thinking mildly conspiratorial thoughts, wondering who inside was cooking up what scheme in which area of the world. On the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I crane my neck to study the 16th president’s resolute countenance and his rigid backbone. I saunter by the east portico of the U.S. Capitol Building, then around the West Front where thousands of empty chairs await a new presidential term.
Rhetoric. In Washington, it chokes the daily commute like Beijing smog. It fills the shallow news hole of countless media outlets stationed here and following the talking points like salivating dogs. It commands the front page and the lead story. It encircles ethereal concepts of liberty and the pursuit of happiness and turns life into an abstraction. There’s no conscious “agenda setting” as you may have learned in school, but rather a default setting. Rhetoric. Does it work? Does it bring change?
“I’m going to put everything I’ve got into this,” Obama promises on Jan. 16, while issuing 23 executive orders on gun control — flanked by children who had written to him. A few days later, the firearm market analysts report “unprecedented” sales of military-style assault weapons.
To counter the rise in sales, there were 2,783,765 background checks nationwide in December, up 38 percent from the month before. Suspicion plagued movie theaters, subways, high schools, courthouses and public arenas.
I’m in Washington a mere 10 days before an organized “March on Washington for Gun Control” creeps into my Facebook feed, liked, shared and posted. I RSVP for me and Joe, who is a Capitol Hill intern for Sen. Sherrod Brown.
After work, Joe will loudly imitate constituents who call to complain about the senator’s inaction on a number of issues. “They’ll say: ‘Are you listening to me?” Joe quips. “‘Obama’s gonna take away my guns, isn’t he? You tell Sherrod Brown that I —’ And I’m like, ‘Sir, may I please take your name down? Sir? What town do you live in? Sir, please?’”
III. Armed Principles
A week before the rally, I’m standing on a patch of mulch on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol, watching the same man I had watched in California pause to wipe away tears. He’s got his right hand raised, his left on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible.
“I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear…”
Obama’s a speck from my view, but the audio is crisp and reaches me on the rebound of an echo. The sea of lawmakers flanks him, divided cleanly down the middle both literally and ideologically.
“…preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
“So help you God?”
“So help me God.”
“Congratulations Mr. President…”
Then comes the classic idealism that has defined the first black presidency: A call for action through unity and equality. A call for everyone to do their part to make the world just a little bit safer.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
Two days later, I come back from a frigid late-night run and discover a sweaty, aggressive Wayne LaPierre, vice president of the National Rifle Association, under bright lights in Reno, Nev., responding to this concept of absolutism.
“Mr. President, you might think calling us absolutists is a clever way of name-calling without using names. But if that is absolutist, then we are as absolutist as our Founding Fathers and the framers of our United States Constitution. And we are proud of it.”
So that’s what it’s coming down to, I realize. Those are the sides in a battle that desperately needs compromise – in a city that has repeatedly failed to understand its meaning.
The night before the gun control rally I’m feeling a little homesick, gripping an overheard bar on the Metro. It roars past all thirteen stops from my office at the Student Press Law Center back to my temporary home in Silver Spring. Orange line to New Carrollton, a transfer at Metro Center, red line to Glenmont. Earbuds in and eyes glazed — the standard DC look. The train emerges from a tunnel and blurs by graffitied, gray structures that filter into high-rise corporate apartments and disintegrate back into liquor stores and McDonald’s.
“Takoma. Doors open on the right.”
How quickly the neighborhoods change here. How quickly the land changes when you cruise at 10,000 feet. I’m beginning to find something similar in the large issues that I once thought were headquartered only in this city.
As an example, take something as ambiguously “inside-the-beltway” as LaPierre’s absolutism rhetoric. As much as it struck a chord with Washington politicians, I remember leaning against the Portage County Courthouse on a warm September day as William Koberna smoked a cigarette and spoke softly about wanting to be the first in his family to earn a college degree. That ambition was crushed after the sophomore had a bad run-in with his financial aid office and posted angry, threatening messages toward the Kent State campus less than a week after the Aurora shootings.
He mumbled how his arrest in July was totally blown out of proportion after being picked up by national news outlets like the Associated Press and The Los Angeles Times. Without any prompting from me, he said he regretted it.
“I really didn’t mean it,” he told me. “I loved it here. I just did one stupid thing and flushed it all down the drain.”
We talked about his favorite parts of Kent, his classes, his friends and even the downtown development projects that he will miss to some extent. He finished the smoke and went inside to chat with his dad and lawyer, who eventually advised him to leave and that his court hearing had been rescheduled.
If what the gun control debate really comes down to is compromise, imperfect change toward the better, how do we gauge which imperfections are acceptable? Which liberties do we give up to make life in this country a little less imperfect? And should people like William Koberna be sacrificed for the greater good? For once, I don’t think this battle is political posturing. I really think everyone’s afraid. The facade of Washington is actually just a facade. The business-as-usual daily grind of the House and Senate is merely an escape. The ghosts of Newtown are haunting Constitution Avenue.
IV. We are Sandy Hook
Colin Goddard, a survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 — who still carries three of Seung-Hui Cho’s bullets inside of him — begins speaking. His gruff voice is shaking.
“You know, I’m not doing this — I’m not here today because of what happened to me. I’m here today because I kept seeing what happened to me happen to so many other people — and nothing being done about it.”
He talks for two minutes about the need for everyone to call their congressman. He emanates a panicked, almost-naive brand of hope, commonly found in a victim-turned-activist. He lofts textbook-metaphorical rah-rah’s like “today is the starting blocks,” while knowing or perhaps not knowing two-thirds of the crowd will leave their social media pledges unfulfilled.
“We need to challenge any politician,” Goddard is saying to the loudest ovation yet, “who thinks it’s easier to ask an elementary school teacher to stand up to a gunman with an AR-15 than it is to ask them to stand up to a gun lobbyist with a checkbook!” — the crowd’s energy is feeding the fiery crescendo of his speech — “We are America. We are Americans. We have overcome tragedies. We have overcome difficulties — once we realize we are better than this, that we can do better than this. That we don’t have to accept these [tragedies] as normal. We believe that. That’s why we’re here today.”
On the first floor of The Newseum — home of iconic journalism memorabilia through the ages — there’s an exhibit of Pulitzer Prize winning photos that displays captured moments of the most cruel human tragedy and suffering. The Vietnam War’s Napalm Girl in ’72. A Bangkok student publicly lynched in ’76. An Iranian execution by firing squad in ‘79. A machete entering the head of a suspected Zulu spy in South Africa in ’91.
Mary Ann Vecchio’s infamous moment of despair in ’70 — her body collapsing in Kent State’s Prentice Hall parking lot over the lifeless, face-down body of Jeffrey Miller —still stands as a moment in time.
Whether the Connecticut tragedy amounts to a patchwork piece of paper signed into law or adopted socially among our communities, it’s going to speak volumes about how human we really are. After the Twin Towers turned to rubble, the country came together to fight a common enemy outside our borders and support an ostensibly obvious course of action — an invasion — that turned out to be, well, imperfect.
Sept. 11, 2001 was the first time my jaw dropped and I shook my head. Even as a 9-year-old with a limited worldview, my stomach churned. Sandy Hook was the second. In the Newseum gallery, as safely removed as I was, peering at tragedy like a scientist through a lens, it happens again.
I see the vulture waiting for a starving African child to die. I’m with the young couple in the surf as they realize their baby has been swept away by the tide. I can almost touch the firefighter cradling a bloodied baby pulled from the rubble in Oklahoma City in ’95.
Human tragedy forges a connection that cannot be elevated into eloquent poetry or stamped into perfect prose. Rather, it’s in the moments of grief and in the fear that it will happen again.
As I pass the photographs, it all finally becomes too much and I shake my head — “Goddamn.” It’s not that I haven’t contemplated war and famine and massacre before; I’ve always known these things existed. My personal fear lies in the answers to the questions that dogged me in California. That which justified a tang of pity for William Koberna; that wet my eyes at the Newseum; that maddened me with all I have experienced in Washington.
Newtown is our tragedy. We own it. Our jaws dropped together, we cried together and we half-staffed our flags together. But my greatest fear of all is that I will to sit here in my apartment, ride the train every day to work, see the sad headlines, and no one — not the government, the lobbyists or the American people — is going to do anything about it.