It is hard to imagine any violent incident in American culture being without an historical antecedent as this is an extremely violent culture. As terrible as the recent massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school is, the violence there is not without a horrific precedent. Its horror parallels the tragic bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church nearly fifty years ago. On Sunday, September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded as the congregation prepared for its “Youth Day” service. Four of five girls downstairs in the lady’s lounge were killed instantly.
The girls were all quite young, Denise McNair was eleven and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were all fourteen. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, two black boys, thirteen-year-old Virgil Ware and sixteen-year-old Johnny Robinson were also killed. Ware was killed by a white teenager, Larry Joe Sims, an Eagle Scout who was driving home after attending a segregationist rally. A police officer, Jack Parker, shot Robinson in the back as he was a part of a group throwing rocks at a white segregationist’s car as rioting ensued in the streets. Historically, violence in America has known no sacred bounds.
In the documentary film 4 Little Girls that commemorates the bombing, director Spike Lee shows a photograph that I wish I could find that captures the devastation of the crime. The photo shows a relatively old man who you would think had seen it all but who has turned away from the church clearly weeping and distraught; he was clearly astonished by what he had observed. Families didn’t know quite how to handle the devastation. I learned from reading Carolyn McKinstry’s memoir, While the World Watched: A Birmingham Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement that Birmingham schools were open the Monday immediately following the bombing and she was one of those who went to school. Johnny Robinson’s family offers the same story in the NPR segment that I link to above. They went to school the day following their brother’s death just as McKinstry went to school the day following a dear friend’s death. The impact of moving on so quickly without having psychological or emotional support took a toll on McKinstry’s mental health. Interestingly, Christopher Paul Curtis engages just this possibility in his commemoration of the bombing represented in his first children’s book, The Watson’s Go To Birmingham–1963. The young protagonist in that tale briefly descends into madness as a result of the bomb’s devastation. These stories suggest that rushing into “normal” may not be a good idea. Perhaps tragedies like these offer us an opportunity to redefine exactly what “normal” might be.
In thinking about this new normal, with an eye towards history, I have been quite interested in the gun control discussion. Attempts to nuance the discussion have turned towards an examination of new gun control laws and considerations of mental illness. Mental illness is not new to our world. I’m not convinced that adding mental illness into this discussion of gun control necessarily makes us safer. Perhaps a richer conversation about the quality of our cultural experience needs to frame these talks. In earlier times, like during the Civil Rights era, people could be shamed by their behavior. It was one of the reasons why the media was so important to the Movement. Photographs of police dogs attacking unarmed people and water hoses being turned against nonviolent protestors shamed the federal government. We seem to live in a shameless era. How does the permissiveness of our times inform recent gun violence? In his remarks at the memorial service in Newtown, President Obama asked the nation to reflect on how honest we have been in our efforts to make our communities safe for our children. In general, the concept of honesty is important for us to consider. We are not honest with ourselves about our efforts regarding safety or most other things. A dear friend and I couldn’t stop talking about descriptions of Adam Lanza and some of these other shooters as “brilliant.” Brilliant people, we surmised, do not enter movie theaters and shoot-up unarmed patrons. Brilliant people do not go to elementary schools and massacre defenseless children. Brilliant people compose “Sugar, Rum, Cherry;” brilliant people write Beloved; brilliant people paint the Migration Series. Brilliance is generative, not destructive. What is behind the media’s commitment to this description of Lanza? It seems dishonest.
Even if there were gun laws in place regarding the procurement of weapons and mental illness, from what we know of Nancy Lanza, who was tragically killed by her son, she was not mentally ill. She did however, think that her son suffered from Aspergers. Whether it was the Aspergers or something else, she apparently cautioned a baby sitter against diverting attention from Adam, “even to go to the bathroom.” So one wonders why she decided it was safe to have guns around him. Was she being honest with herself about what he was capable of? How would gun laws reasonably respond to such issues of judgement? How do we account for the delusions of those who are sane even as we consider restricting the rights of those who are not?
In going forward, I think we need to turn to the past. Our violent history should be instructive to us. Perhaps it could give us some clues about how we respond to our grief; how we move beyond fear; how we move on.