By Rusty Nelson, former PJALS co-director
In a community of people who care about what happens in Syria, D.C., Olympia, and around the corner, one can be overwhelmed by calls to action. Choosing a struggle for personal engagement would be almost impossible except that the most compelling struggles often have a way of choosing us. Just when you think you can dedicate your life to saving pampered puppies from confused flight attendants, you might become inspired by hundreds of kids challenging authorities who want them to accept a few minutes of silence as assurance they won’t be terrorized, even killed, in the worshipful proliferation of semi-automatic weapons.
Is it enough that we trust these kids to walk out of school for a few minutes, or make up their own minds about the intent of the 2nd Amendment? Of course not. Some of us have been content with vicarious rebellion, and some of us didn’t notice revolutions until they were over. Some are parents who have bumped into emotional and communication barriers of our own construction. We all have limits, and we’re all still learning, but each of us has something constructive to offer young people who’ve learned it’s up to them to improve the toxic environment foisted upon their generation. Students taking on gun violence, in symbolic or tangible ways, need us. They don’t need us to tell them what to do, to organize them, or to empower them, but to encourage them, trust them, and watch their backs for administrations that tremble to think students might drag them out of the ruts of our hair-trigger paradigm.
I need your help communicating with these students because I’ll appear radical, perhaps scary. As my intermediary, you might explain that I lost many years to my inherited conservatism. I was brought up to conserve racial segregation, modest xenophobia, and brutal military adventures, and I think a reasonable education would inform young people that these anachronisms are obstacles to human progress.
I wish I could go into schools and encourage students, faculty and staff to pick up the pace, find a voice on matters of life and death, rattle the cages of more office holders and power brokers, make consumer choices that reflect consideration for the environment and labor relations. But if I get started, where will I stop connecting the dots? How can I present modest proposals for ending public policies of murder and oppression? Officials will be alarmed. Parents will be outraged. Educators will seek shelter. Maybe I’m taking myself too seriously, but it happened in 2001, as documented in the annals of this publication.
One of the first things I learned when I stuck my toe into the turbid waters of social justice, is the meaning of radical. You’ll quickly recall its connection to radish because it’s about getting to the root of things. And in any peace movement, you get to the grass roots or you don’t last. PJALS has lasted 40 years, and to last another 40, we have to cultivate more of the newer grass.
It starts with telling the truth about war. War is wrong and evil, and it’s a shame we don’t teach our children that. Americans refuse to learn we have not won a war since 1945; preparations for war make more war inevitable; killing in war is still killing and dying in war is still dying. We have continuous reinforcement of the myth that weapons of war contribute to the security of our country and our society. That makes the glorification of war a routine effort of nearly every element of our culture. Any mainstream writer, reporter, politician, entertainer, educator, clergy, or public figure who fails to agree that our military has to be prepared to kill many, many humans quickly and efficiently, will place personal success in jeopardy. It is also considered bad manners that we realize the Soviet Union won the Cold War by dropping out of the Arms Race.
If we could tell the truth about war, we could de-escalate the sidearms race. It would be easy to raise the age for buying semi-automatic weapons if we could raise the age for sending our children to war. Before I went to Vietnam, my army job was baby-sitting. That’s what we called administering companies full of student soldiers. Many of those young men were sent to Vietnam after graduation. Others had make-work jobs until their 18th birthdays, when they were considered old enough to kill and die to make America safe from Communism’s march through southeast Asia. Is it any wonder, between early enlistment, military prep schools for rich kids and Junior ROTC for poor kids that the U.S. refused to sign the international agreement against the institution of child soldiers?
If we tell the truth about war, we can tell the truth about guns. There is no more sport in hunting deer with an AR-15 than there is honor in the American military victory at My Lai, fifty years ago, March 16. Although the M-16 is now proven as a weapon designed to kill human beings, I was told something different in the 60s. The new rifle was said to be a great advance in combat weaponry because the tumbling bullet shattered flesh and bones, disabling the target (always a vicious, well-armed and trained Communist combatant bent on invading my hometown) so two of his comrades would be taken out of combat when they went to his aid. I never touched an M-16 until I was in Vietnam, having qualified as a small arms expert with a transitional rifle I never saw again.
With all the public discussion about recent horrors of guns in schools, it seems the shooting at Lewis and Clark High School has been forgotten. My daughter was one year out of LC, when a student brought a big handgun to class, confident that it would induce suicide by cop. His plan went well until one of the responding officers deviated from his script, stopped the bleeding in his neck, and ruined his suicide. My daughter is now a well-established teacher in Spokane. She and her son, in his first week of kindergarten, were locked down at Wilson School as authorities tried to sort out the shooting at Freeman, the school in my neighborhood.
Reports from Freeman High last September say the child shooter went to his handgun when his AR-15 jammed. I boldly speculate the kid had posed with his daddy’s gun without actually knowing how to use it. If he had been well-trained, there could well have been twenty dead children in his wake instead of one.
I’d be glad to see the 2nd Amendment repealed if it would reduce the carnage by one death/year, in or out of schools. And military-style weapons could be banned without damaging the 2nd Amendment anymore than it’s profaned by each public pronouncement of Wayne LaPierre. One alternative to banning the 2nd is banning the discharge of firearms, which would make the agricultural process, for which I have borrowed firearms, more unpleasant, while doing wonders for noise pollution in my otherwise peaceful neighborhood.
I like the bumper sticker, “Peace is Disarming,” and personally, I see lots of room for disarming to make all of us, not just the folks in schools, a whole lot safer. Law enforcement agencies deserve our assistance and cooperation in making our streets and neighborhoods safer, but they keep losing our trust with their accumulation of and reliance upon excessive firepower. Every time I hear about officers shooting someone holding a knife, a rock, or piece of glass or someone reaching for a blanket that might have a gun under it, I long for someone with the courage and good will to serve, protect, and defend me without lethal weapons, just as I tried to teach my children to look after themselves without hurting someone else. Yes, I’m different, and I won’t hold you to my standards of faith and community. But remember that neighborhood policemen in London worked effectively for many years without firearms.
Speaking of faith and trust, do you ever ridicule our government for splashing “In God We Trust” all over while spending more on weapons of mass destruction and pre-emptive war, calling it national defense, than on infrastructure, education, and health, combined? Do you ever laugh at people who claim to have absolute faith in God and won’t venture far without a loaded gun? Do you pray for peace and pay for war? Yeah, me too.
I think students and their parents and their neighbors should demand more than an end to school shootings. It’s a logical starting place, but let’s all challenge the way we think about guns and other lethal weapons. I’m hearing, right now, about school districts handing out detentions to hundreds of students who walked out in protest of semi-automatic weapons. I wish I could be in detention with them and with a singer, to teach them songs of disarmament and solidarity. That would be educational.
If school children can teach us that guns never make them safer, perhaps we can teach our leaders, again, that militarization, war, and nuclear weapons offer no security, but only increase the risk of destroying the earth. – RN