This to me is a key part of the President’s remarks at last night’s vigil in Newtown, Connecticut:
This is our first task — caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.
And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?
I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.
There’s more than that – the President eventually points out that there can be no more excuses for inaction, and that we cannot be prepared to say that “violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom.” But I think this part is the most important. And the most dangerous, actually.
Let me say something unpopular. There is nothing special about the fact that the Newtown massacre was visited upon 6 and 7 year-olds in an elementary school, relative to massacres where the majority of the victims are college students or adults. A human tragedy is a human tragedy regardless of the age level that it most directly impacts. But the fact that Newtown is seen as a spur to action, as a “tipping point,” that it can get someone like Joe Manchin to say that it’s time for action on the matter – is reflective of the basically dumb way we do politics in this country. In many cases, no outrage, no tragedy, no activity at all rises to the level of legislative response unless it gets visited upon children – and I could probably amend that to say “white children.”
This distorts that legislative response in pretty obvious ways. Suddenly the safety of innocent children becomes the paramount goal – “our first task” – in policymaking, as if the safety of innocent people above the age of 10 or 12 or 13 should be an afterthought. The very invocation of children in this context foregrounds the issue of safety in ways that inevitably make it much easier to strip away certain civil liberties. Suddenly you hear about how there ought to be an armed police officer in every public school. Or maybe how everyone entering a school needs to be searched. Think of the children.
The children will be invoked to satisfy whatever public policy preference any lawmaker holds. Heck, Louie Gohmert on the fringes of the far right wants principals to be armed with assault rifles so they can protect “those precious kids.” The impulse is insane, but it comes from the exact same place as someone who describes defending children as our “first task.”
I grew up with guns in my house. My dad was an NRA member with rifles locked in a cabinet. He had a license to carry a concealed weapon. One day when I was pretty young, my best friend stayed overnight with me. His mother was a bus driver whose day started very early. She came in to get my friend – I believe she had a key – wearing her satin coat. My dad heard noise and pulled out his gun to check on the activity. He saw the back of my friend’s mother headed out the door with a child in her arms. He cocked the gun and asked who it was.
Fortunately, she showed herself and the moment passed without incident. But this is the potential consequences when the foremost task becomes protecting the children. It inspires irrationality and overreaction. It could be that the politics of gun safety have changed because Democrats realize they are no longer reliant on a constituency that would punish them for legislation banning assault weapons or extended magazines. But lining this up with a massacre of children and making that the tipping point can just put us in an unwise legislative place. If gun violence or our decaying mental health system is a problem, it’s a problem for every American, regardless of age. And we shouldn’t confine our response just to deal with the impact on the children.