It's Personal, Politics

‘Til the Day We’re Dead

On the cusp of my 11th birthday, I had my first lockdown drill. It’s not that I didn’t know there were bad people in the world; 9/11 was just a little over a year before. But I freaked out, clinging to the leg of my desk, watching the windows above us. The sky was blue as usual but it looked sickeningly foreboding.

“What’s a lockdown?” one of us innocent souls asks.

“A lockdown is when a crazy man with a gun is on campus,” our teacher tells us flatly.

This back and forth on the logistics goes on while my panic rose. What happens if I’m in the bathroom, says someone. Then hide in the stall, is the answer. What if I’m out on the playground and he finds me. “Then you’re dead,” says our teacher, flatly again.

Well, this is it, eleven-year-old me thinks. At least you’ve been to Paris.

“It’s a drill,” people told me.

The door stir, and some gasp. But our teacher tells us they’re going around to check that teachers have actually followed directions and locked doors.

“Oh, it’s definitely a drill,” says my teacher, who is pacing and cooler than usual. “If it weren’t, I’d be hiding under my desk, too.”

My teacher’s trademark dry humor remains through the episode. The old man must have seen some stuff in his life, but even his acceptance of the insanity is bewildering. The next minute or two is horrifying, because having never been through this you’re not sure what happens next.

The door stirs again. But more this time. This person is legitimately trying to get in. We’re having trouble keeping our voices low as panic grips more than just me. Ohmygod ohmygod, is my thought, I’ma die.

The person gives up. “All clear” comes over the P.A. system, and the teacher tells us we can go back to our desks. I sit back in my shitty plastic chair, my heart still racing, in disbelief that I could die in this shitty classroom.

The door is fumbled with again, and it opens. Everyone goes silent, and I think I might’ve shouted.

It’s Mom. She brought cupcakes for my birthday.

“The door was locked, I was wondering why I couldn’t get in.”

Damn it, Mom.

***

On June 2 I woke up in Shanghai, halfway around the world from that elementary school, and opened Facebook for my morning scroll. And the first thing I see is a status update from my college roommate who’s like a brother to me. I saw him just before leaving for da world, left him a gift for his birthday. His status says he’s fine, that he’s hiding and awaiting further information.

What the hell? Now scrolling through Facebook becomes a necessity, and I pore over the scores of statuses from my friends at UCLA. The ordeal is over now–I had the convenience of sleeping through the whole thing–but at first it seemed it might be much worse than a murder-suicide. Being so far away from it, brought in contact only by the internet, it doesn’t feel real right now. The pictures of SWAT all over the place I spent four years are surreal.

I know my actual brother is okay, at least physically. I text Mom to make sure. He was holed up alone in his room while rumors swelled about a shooter in the dorms. I have little idea of what it was like to be my parents during those 2 hours, with one child alone overseas and and the other potentially in mortal danger at school, but reading some of the parents’ stories online I felt sick.

And I realized that I could’ve woken up to very different news. Last time I was in China, sorrow combined with embarrassment as I saw a man read in the Chinese newspaper about the Chattanooga shooting. I knew before I left that at least one major shooting incident would occur while I was away; I didn’t think it’d be so close to home.

And I began to feel horrible for the professor who was killed; I didn’t have him for a class–though several of my MechE friends did–but somehow his loss hit harder than deaths in the mass shootings of recent past. And strangely, Stalin was the one to provide wisdom in this moment.

“When one man dies it’s a tragedy. When thousands die it’s statistics.”

***

I had nightmares about shooters on campus for a few years after the first lockdown. Even later in high school, when it would get quiet on campus, I’d worry. Our campus’s border with town was porous, and there wasn’t much to keep it from happening. All we needed was one student or random person to snap and have access to a firearm. Even working at my heavily guarded federal agency I could never feel 100% comfortable.

Oddly, I didn’t worry much about it at UCLA, even while the shootings got worse. Sandy Hook was the absolute worst, both before and after we knew all the details. Before, I knew one of my worst nightmares–see above–had actually happened, to kids even younger than I was during that first lockdown. After, of course, our worthless legislature was unable to take any action whatsoever.

They didn’t just get worse and more frequent, they crept closer to where I lived. There was Colorado Springs in November 2015. There was San Bernardino, thirty miles from my hometown, in December. And yesterday my brother passed by Engineering IV as a shooting took place inside.

For many of us, it’s gone from sort of abstract to very real. In January 2002 I learned what a lockdown was, and soon after about Columbine; in December 2012 that drill scenario materialized and twenty kids were dead. On June 1, thousands of students were ducking and McGyvering doors and texting their parents for what they thought could be the last time. Have we had enough yet?

***

So what do we do?

Look stuff happens, there’s always a crisis and the impulse is always to do something and it’s not always the right thing to do.

That coming from the man whose brother thought doing something in Iraq was better than doing nothing, and sadly the sentiment above is not gone with his campaign. Impulse to do something? That’s all this country has. If it’s broke, we fix it. If it can be better, we work for it. We’re the nation that took the automobile–not invented by us–and made it consumable for the masses. We’re the nation that saw Challenger and Columbia and decided to keep sending shuttles into space. We’re the nation that after 9/11 went ballistic on security in the cockpit and in the airport and on counterterrorism spending (and again I mention, invaded an unrelated country).

This is America. We do things. In some cultures, people resign themselves to suffering.

This one is supposed to be different.

But this is also the culture where:

average Americans nationwide routinely shoot and kill each other over the most petty of disagreements, including:

I’ll keep my policy recommendations nice and short. First, we talk about mental health, but we don’t do shit. We don’t even have healthy attitudes towards depression and other basic mental illnesses and we’re not handling it with the seriousness it requires. “Mental health is a topic that gets a lot of talk on the Hill,” I heard a senator say, “and little action.” When I was on the Hill myself, I picked up a pamphlet on mental health, but I’m not quite sure what our representatives ended up doing with it. “The mental health-care system in the United States is a multibillion-dollar industry that is still not big enough to serve all those who need it,” so said WaPo in 2012.

Second, guns should be on the table. The relationship ought to be fairly simple: a greater supply of guns, combined with “impolite” and mentally ill segments of the population, will lead to more gun violence. And sadly, Obama has been amazing for the gun industry, because talk and no action ends up making things worse.

According to the LA Times,”Sarkar carried a backpack, two semiautomatic pistols and extra magazines.” As weapons go in these major shooting events, these seem pretty tame, no AR-15s or the like. But a mass killing wasn’t his goal. Can we say, with confidence, that that couldn’t have happened?

The simple action is to reduce the supply of guns in circulation, however you do that–background checks, taxes, etc. I’m not saying to eradicate that supply. I’m appreciate that America’s gun ownership has its place in our history and culture. A large supply of guns in the hands of ordinary people, as shown at Lexington and Concord, was crucial for Patriots’ resistance to the British. And guns are cool, sure. But America is supposed to evolve. Will it this time?

Let them take arms… The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

When Jefferson said this 200 years ago, I’m sure he meant something sensible (maybe?), but the only patriots dying today are unarmed civilians. I don’t know if he meant six-year-olds.

Lastly, those of us that believe that these policy actions are necessary need to be assertive. Too often the rhetoric on this side is tinged with hand-wringing and “we’re just too awful to accomplish this” in response to the heated response from gun owners. You’ll never take my guns, they say (even if that’s not what we propose). The proud members of the NRA think every day of how they can prevent even the most sensible of gun control measures.

These are our lives we’re talking about. Why do we not respond with at least the same amount of passion?

***

I’m not counting on grace next time. If God has tried to show me anything through this, it’s the fragility and fleetingness of life.

Thinking back to my elementary school story, or how I’ve worried about shootings since then, you might think, now Richard, you worry too much (and looking at the above text, you write too much).

But I ask: How safe do you feel today?

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