An Exercise in Community Response

If you were on campus Jan. 16, you heard sirens. You saw people bleeding. You were pushed aside by paramedics and police.

All of this was a part of a gruesomely realistic training exercise for local emergency personnel. January 16 was an administrative reaction to the Newtown massacre—a tragedy we have yet to respond to as a community.

Perhaps it was the timing; the shooting occurred during finals week, right before Claremont students dispersed for winter break. But this conversation still needs to happen, even six weeks later. The closest I came to discussing the Newtown shooting with my peers happened the day of the massacre itself. After staring at my ceiling and trying to process the news, I walked into the room where my friends were studying. “Did you hear?” I asked. They all nodded. We were pretty quiet that night.

It can be powerful to share grief, but it’s far from enough. The drill on Jan. 16 signified that as a residential academic community, we are automatically in a position to discuss the implicit threat of a school shooting. Furthermore, as citizens of an America laden with the legacies of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and now Sandy Hook, we have a civic duty to join the national dialogue that has ensued. But we also need to look at the faults in the way our country talks about gun violence in order to create the most effective discourse possible. In other words, we need to talk about Newtown, and we need to give the discussion the attention it deserves.

Nationwide discourse following Newtown has quickly become dominated by a sense of futility. The FBI won’t release any sort of profile of the school shooter. Meanwhile, the media buzzes like a fly, moving from one source of blame to the next. We’ve heard the list: video games, television, mental health services, bullying, and, of course, the guns themselves. A striking characteristic of the national approach to gun violence is people’s general unwillingness to admit that a confluence of factors might be at work. An obvious example is the NRA’s laundry list of causes besides guns that breed gun violence. However, I am also taken aback by liberal derision toward the concept that our society needs to condemn more than just our lenient position on gun control. This trend of oversimplification acts as a disservice to our country, but maybe here in Claremont we can try to do better.

American media is guilty of worse than oversimplification. Do you know who Hadiya Pendleton is? Four years ago, she made an anti-gang video for her Chicago elementary school. In January, she performed at the presidential inauguration with King College Prep. Last Tuesday, she was shot at random in a city park. Because Pendleton was killed only 10 days after her performance for President Obama, amidst the current gun control debate in Congress, her story has picked up steam with the national press. The same cannot be said for the 506 individuals killed in Chicago last year, 87 percent dead by gunshot wound and 80 percent black. Our nation is far more fascinated with the Adam Lanzas than the Hadiya Pendletons.

In talking about the massacres themselves, our discussions should be victim-centered. By gratifying our own morbidly voyeuristic interests, we are handing the killers the infamy they crave. To quote a statement that has gone viral on the Internet, “Why a grade school? Why children? Because he’ll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody.”

Even more telling than the attention lavished on Adam Lanza? The lack of attention given to the dead kids in Chicago. Living 20 minutes away in the relatively plush suburbs of Chicago doesn’t give me license to say these homicide statistics “hit home.” But I’ve spent time in East Garfield Park; I’ve listened to sixth graders talk casually about who’s packing, whose older brother just got buried. Call it desensitization. Call it racism. But American media lumps the dead children of our cities into homicide statistics that can be fired off for a 30-second sound bite, while spending hours dissecting the life of the white guy who walked into the elementary school with a gun.

I wrote this Jan. 31. On that day in Atlanta, a 14-year-old boy was shot in the head by a fellow student. Two died in an office shoot-up in Phoenix the Tuesday before. On Jan. 30, a school bus driver sacrificed his life to a gunman who is still holding a six-year-old boy captive.

These events may feel far away from sunny, happy Claremont, but as we can infer from the Jan. 16 exercise, no campus should be considered immune. We need to talk about Newtown. We need to talk about Hadiya Pendleton. We need to talk about gun violence in the nuanced, analytical way our liberal arts education enables us to. If there’s any issue worth popping the bubble for, it’s this one.

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