I am running this blog I did after Sandy Hook again, because I am tired of trying to find a new way to say the same thing, but I have to keep saying something, because that is part of how I do my part now. Let me just leave you with this beforehand:
Number of school shootings since Sandy Hook: 115
Number of people who have died: 117
Number of people who were injured: more than are reported, trust me
“I didn’t do anything!”
Those were probably the last words spoken by Dr. John Locke, English professor and advisor for the Comparative Literature degree program at the University of Arkansas. He said them to James Kelly, the man who killed Locke in his office in Kimpel Hall while I sat awaiting Dr. Locke (he would have taught my Intro to Comparative Literature class that semester) just one floor above the fatal scene.
They were true words. True for both shooter and victim. The Comparative Literature committee had voted one week before to remove Kelly from the PhD degree track he had been on for 10 years. The past several years, Kelly had enrolled in classes, collected financial aid, and then dropped the classes. He hadn’t done anything. And of everyone on the Comp Lit committee, Dr. Locke had been the only abstention in an otherwise unanimous vote to dismiss Kelly. Dr. Locke hadn’t done anything either.
For Dr. Locke, not doing anything was arguably at the core of his peaceful self. He practiced Buddhism, encouraged meditation, and taught his students the beauty of non-action in a world overrun with busy-ness.
For James Kelly, not doing anything was perhaps a signal of a troubled soul, someone who could not find his place in academia or outside of it. He was in a holding pattern, and for some reason his mind could see no way out of it.
Of course ultimately Kelly did do something. He shot his beloved advisor. He turned the gun on himself. And he permanently altered the lives of people he would never meet. He made me a school shooting survivor, a club that is less and less elite every day.
And here I sit, a little over 12 years later, alternately taking in and avoiding details about the Newtown, CT shooting in which 20 children, 6 educators, one mother, and one lost and ill individual are all dead. I have been here before. Sometimes, like in the Virginia Tech shootings, I take in all the details, following every news report, watching snippets of memorial services, going through the catharsis of experiencing the horror all over again. Sometimes, like in the case of the Amish school, I avoid all details. The horror seems too unspeakable, too traumatic, and I am unprepared to go into the dark places again.
With Connecticut, I seem to be walking the tightrope between the two extreme reactions. Maybe the difference this time is that I cannot totally avoid this news. I am on Facebook now, and if I am to just keep up with the goings on of my friends and family, I will be drawn into prayers and worries and debates about why these things keep happening. We will all talk about it. But will we do anything?
In many ways, the Monday after the Friday shootings was like every day I drop my son off at his elementary school. It took the comment of an office staff member to remind me it was different for many people. She said, “So many parents who never walk their kids to school are walking them today.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Because of Friday.” “Oh yeah,” I shrugged. My reaction may have seemed callous. It may have seemed that I did not even care about the loss of elementary school kids. It may have seemed that I had forgotten to have a different perspective. The truth is that day everyone joined me instead. More often than not I drop my son off at school aware that it could be the last day I see him. I pray most days that he won’t be a victim of a school shooting. That is the legacy of surviving one. The fear is almost always with me. Some days it is sharper than others, but it is always there. As I explained to someone who wondered how my politically divided household was handling the debates on gun control, I remarked that school shootings are part of the ethos of our family. We do less debating than we do checking in to see how we are all handling the emotional ramifications.
But I do have feelings about gun control. I do also have feelings about how mental health care is handled in this country. I have these feelings. But I have never acted on them. In the 12 years since my life was irreversibly altered by violence, I haven’t done anything.
Some will argue that is not true. I did do something. I graduated from the University of Arkansas with a Masters in Comparative Literature, despite the fact that the department was in chaos in the immediate years following Dr. Locke’s death. I also accepted a call to ministry, knowing that I wanted to choose to follow a God who works for shalom and guards life even in the midst of death. I have since finished a Master of Divinity and am poised to complete a PhD in Religious Studies, a poignant round-about way of honoring a lost professor who taught us all about how faith of any kind can lead to a path of peace and non-violence.
Those can all be called accomplishments. Or they can be viewed as preparations. Preparations for entering a life that will either be spent in pulpit or behind podium, as pastor or professor. And from either location I can be a voice advocating for peace. But I need to do more than that.
Someone just today reflected on the difference between pacifism and peacemaking. Pacifism is a stance of non-action. Pacifists do not add to the evils of the world. Neither do they confront them, however. Peacemakers get in the way of war and chaos. Pacifists be. Peacemakers do. Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God (Mt. 5:9).
I fear it is time to enter the fray. It is time to take action, to contact senators and representatives and tell them to change the way things are. I am tired of sitting here, not doing anything, and watching nothing change. I am tired of expecting another school shooting to happen rather than being horrified that such an unthinkable thing could occur. I am tired of praying over my son as if I will never see him again. I am tired of that way of life being normal. I may not be able to fix it for me. But maybe I can fix it for someone else.
We need a better way to take care of people who are truly sick, who cannot control the urge to kill. And we need to remove the temptation to kill in massive numbers by stopping sales of assault weapons that fire multiple rounds in short time. Will these methods stop every killing? No. James Kelly didn’t have an assault weapon (the assault weapon ban was still in place in 2000) – his gun held only 6 bullets. He had 96 bullets with him, though, and a list of the professors who had voted to dismiss him. Had he been able to fire more rapidly, had he been able to do mass carnage without regard for the necessity to reload, had he not had to shoot twice to kill Dr. Locke so that there was time enough for people to call police about the first shot (allowing the police to respond before Kelly left Dr. Locke’s office), I might have been part of a more “memorable” school shooting. Such reforms will not stop these deaths from happening. But maybe they can limit the death toll.
There are times when doing nothing is appropriate. When such non-action leads to a life of peaceful existence in an overwhelmed world, as Dr. Locke showed us, not doing anything can be beautiful. And if James Kelly had had the emotional and psychological competence not to kill someone in a fit of frustration, depression, and rage, his non-action would have been welcomed. But there are other times when peace must be made in times of chaos, and that takes action. In light of Newtown and all the tragedies that came before it, this is not the time to say, “I didn’t do anything.”
It is time to do something.
Michelle J. Morris, December 2012