Last week I got to spend an evening with the five-year old son of my dearest friend. It was a rare and special few hours of one on one time with L, this earnest, clever kid with his little corn-teeth smile and a shock of sandy hair he likes to push back from his face any time his thoughts come too fast.
L has two big brothers, and a little sister too, so it was extra special to take some time out together, just the two of us. We checked out the Christmas windows in the mall and visited Santa’s Village to see the giant lit-up Christmas tree. We ate burnt maple syrup crepes and sat in the gutter to watch a light show play across the Town Hall facade. All the while discussing the really important things. How does Santa get around the world so successfully? What if you lived on the moon, would he find you there? How many reindeer actually are there, and what makes them fly? (the answer apparently is magic dust).
We also spent considerable time beginning our sentences with imagine if … Imagine if I swallowed all of this ice and it created a giant puddle in my chest! Imagine if we could actually feel the world spinning! Imagine if we went to the top of that tower and we were higher than the whole city! Imagine if that sound of children singing Deck The Halls is actually coming from tiny, tiny people who live in the Christmas trees, and they’re serenading us from between branches?! I think I can see them waving!
So much wonder in that little brain of his, fizzing and sparking away. Everything a possibility, everything just a little bit magical. Imagine if we looked at the world like this, always.
Imagine if it were L.
This is all I could think about on Saturday when I woke to the news of the Newtown tragedy. When it soon became clear that so many of the victims were children close to L’s age. Imagine if it were L. I thought of his soft, sticky hand in mine as we navigated the night-busy city streets, the shyness when he tried on his newly acquired reindeer antlers, the way he said I’ll wait until it gets dark because he’s old enough now for self-awareness, and the self-consciousness that comes with it, too. I thought of the maze at Santa’s Village, how L said you go that way and I’ll go this way, and of my instinct-reply that we should stick together because I don’t want to lose you, kid.
I thought of all this, and I cried the entire day.
When President Obama made his heart-constricting speech on the afternoon of the tragedy, he was clearly moved and struggling for composure. In this speech he said I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do. He’s right, of course. But I’d like to add that you don’t need to be a parent to feel that grief, to tap into the collective pain and to find yourself over-whelmed by the loss of those twenty little people and the adults who died trying to protect them. You only have to imagine if.
Imagine if it were your sister or brother, your niece or nephew, your godchild, your friend. Imagine if you got that call, the one that says something has happened down at the school this morning and you knew before they even told you, because it’s happened before, this kind of thing. The scale, the loss might be different this time, but the story is the same. There have been 16 mass shootings across the US in the five years since Virginia Tech in 2007. The victims have included politicians, university students, movie-goers and yes, children. But now 20 of them, in one horrific morning. Imagine if it were your turn to be at the centre of it.
And harder still, something you can only edge up to because it hurts too much. Imagine what those 6 and 7 year olds experienced – the ones who lost their lives, and the survivors too. Early on I read of a little boy who started running when the shooting began, who kept running until they found him a full kilometre away. I can’t verify the story but it’s what I see when I think of this day. I see a little, terrified boy who is running away from something he couldn’t imagine. He looks like L in my mind, he is the same age, he has the same frame. It makes me cry all over again.
But I’m also mad. Furious. Stand on the roof and scream it out loud furious. How many shootings does it take? How many times do we have to watch and read of parents collapsing with grief when they see their child’s name on that list? How many times do we have to count the names of those who have been murdered by civilians with fucking military-grade weapons in their hands?
The ostrich-ing began on Facebook almost as soon as the news hit. The inane guns don’t kill people slogan and the comparisons with cars and knives and forks (yes, knives and forks people, because apparently supporting gun control is like blaming cutlery for making a person fat). Analogies lazy at best, completely ignorant and dangerous at worst. They present simplistic arguments, relying on a most superficial logic. People wilfully ignore the express function of assault weapons such as the AR-15 – used to such devastating effect in both Colorado and Newtown – and instead talk incessantly of law-abiding citizens and self-defence as if they can easily and definitively separate the good guys from the bad guys, as if most of the mass shootings of the last decade weren’t carried out by citizens who were themselves until that day law-abiding. Law-abiding citizens with access to guns that can fire off two hundred rounds per minute.
There is such identity tied up in the right to bear arms. And the arguments against gun control seem to perpetuate, even idealise, a culture of us and them. If you take our guns away we will be at the mercy of them – this shadowy, un-named other just waiting take away what is rightfully yours and mine. I never understood it, and I don’t understand it now. I’ve lived in dangerous places around the world, including developing countries where democracy and order teeter on a daily basis. But no place seems more dangerous now than an America that will not examine its ideals.
Imagine if the Assault Weapon ban of 1994 (a ‘sad era’ said the NRA) had held for longer than a decade, and allowed for a real cultural shift. Imagine if after Columbine the US, both the Government and its communities, had worked decisively and across political lines to address the issues of mass shootings (you can read about how Scotland addressed it here, and how my adopted country Australia addressed it here). And yes, those of you who rightly mention lack of mental health support as a huge factor in these tragedies, imagine if people who needed help could access it as freely and with as much constitutional protections as they can currently access a gun. But it is the gun than enabled a troubled and isolated young man to murder his mother, 6 teachers and 20 1st graders on Friday morning.
Imagine if. Imagine if those 20 little ones got to go home on Friday afternoon when the final bell rang.
I think of L, I’ve thought of him all weekend. I think of seeing his name on a list, of seeing his little earnest face staring out from a news site photo gallery that counts the dead. It breaks apart my heart. And I’m only imagining if.
“Go stop being strangers to each other” – Maggie Koerth-Baker