Reading the names of the dead in a cold world – Rosemary Haskell

Rosemary Haskell (Haskell@elon.edu) is a professor of English at Elon University in Elon, N.C.
Rosemary Haskell (Haskell@elon.edu) is a professor of English at Elon University in Elon, N.C.

Huddled in a patch of sunlight on a freezing March morning, I listened to three Elon University students read the names of the 17 who died in the Valentine’s Day school shootings.

Seventeen names – I think we gave them a minute each. It seemed like a long time. I’m afraid I thought about getting back inside to my warm office. I’d forgotten my coat and scarf, and the sunlight was unreliable in the bitter wind.

I closed my eyes and tried to focus on each of the 17 names – of teenagers and adults – whose lives had ended in a hail of bullets fired by a boy whose life, apparently intolerable, demanded the mysterious salve of the deaths of others. Who can tell what pain he was trying to assuage? Who can say if in fact he did get some relief from this orgy of violence and bloodletting?

The teenage shooter easily found his means — the gun that rattled out bullets with great efficiency. At 19, he legally bought the weapon, not many questions asked, as far as we can tell.

Now, he’s in jail, a grim future ahead. The death penalty has been mentioned, though that would be years away, even if it is imposed. Evidence suggests that he was, as they say, a troubled youth. Recently bereaved, he may have acted in a haze of grief and fear.

I strained to hear the soft naming of names. I was wedged in among a crowd of students who had minutes earlier been in class, with calculus, or Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic satires, or irregular French verbs their main concern. That was before they rose to file outside to join this quiet protest.

And I thought that if every week we had to stand in the cold and read out all the names of those killed by gun violence in the United States in the preceding seven days, we’d be there for a long time. More gloves and scarves would be needed. The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive lists, so far this year, 3,047 gun-related deaths, excluding suicides, as of March 20. Simple arithmetic puts that at about 38 per day, 266 per week. If each death gets one minute of silence, that makes for 266 minutes per week. Four hours, 26 minutes.

And, if we flew our flags at half-staff each time 17 people were shot to death in the USA, the flag would never be raised in our lifetimes.

Why don’t we do that? Why is it that we notice only the grisly clumps of deaths – the group-slayings – rather than the steady trickle of ones and twos who collapse in a pool of blood daily, weekly and monthly?

Perhaps you have to be young and beautiful, like the ancient Greeks, or tiny and cute to have your death attract national attention. Most gun deaths go unlamented, at least publicly. In towns across North Carolina, every day’s newscast brings tidings of “a few” – mainly men, often African American – going down to death in the silence of national oblivion.

Whatever the motivations behind these shootings – robbery, revenge, accident, other crime in progress, mysterious instinct for mayhem – they could not happen without the weaponry we so casually supply.

I applaud any efforts to improve background checks, ban the sale of military weapons, and strengthen medical attention for the mentally ill. These are all good ideas.

But until our country falls out of love with the gun itself, not enough will – or can – change. It may take a generation, but it would be possible to wean ourselves from the gun, to ask law-abiding citizens to surrender their weapons, to ban the sale of arms to almost everyone, while allowing hunters to hunt, and gradually to move our culture’s values in the direction of life, not death.

Cultures can change. We no longer let our children rattle around unrestrained in cars, or blow smoke in our children’s faces, or boast about how we can drive better with a few drinks inside us. We’re less racist, less sexist, less homophobic than we used to be. We don’t have to face this terrible annual, weekly, daily, butcher’s bill.

Young Americans, show us the way. We need to follow their lead. Otherwise, we will continue to huddle in our own tiny patch of sunlight, trying to fend off the cold.

Rosemary Haskell (Haskell@elon.edu) is a professor of English at Elon University in Elon, N.C.