I think, in my 13 years of primary and secondary education, I never once even imagined being threatened by a school shooter. It wasn’t that Chicago was some kind of nonviolent place during my childhood years of the 1980’s (quite the opposite), or even that my schools (or at least my K-8 school) were particularly sheltered. It just wasn’t something you imagined happening. Indeed, there WERE images of real violence in schools at the time – but these were associated with inner-city Chicago schools, and everyone acknowledged the same thing: what was happening there was not normal. A common response to it, flight from it, was, of course, very problematic – but at least this indicated the continuing baseline of normality, of what was expected in a school.
Today’s event in Washington could be entitled the “March for Normality,” the normality of a school experience in which “threats” meant anxieties over math tests, over being teased by mean kids, over whether you were breaking the dress code, over being late for class. Or perhaps it could be called the “March for Peaceableness,” a Wendell Berry word that epitomizes what a school should be. A peaceable environment is an environment where violence is not the norm, where violence is not expected. I did not walk through a single metal detector at my K-12 schools, nor do I think a single person in the entire building was armed. There were no security guards hanging around entrances or roaming hallways. That’s peaceableness.
We need to ask ourselves deep questions about why our schools – not certain isolated schools, but the vast majority of them – can no longer be peaceable places. We need to ask ourselves why so many people would view it as “normal” to arm teachers in preparation for random acts of violence. We need to ask ourselves as a society how we have imposed a barbaric backward cultural step on our children, one they live with in their minds and in what they see at their schools, compared with my own very average childhood.
The issue of guns in our society is not a simple one at a policy level or in terms of the cultural symbolisms the issue now evokes. Or rather, I think I know what I would do, but I accept that we live in a society that is a democracy, with competing visions about these things. But perhaps we should be clearer about what we expect as a society for our schools, what we would consider to be normal. Normal is a school without violence or the perpetual preparation for it. If we are perpetually preparing for it, then something is very wrong. Further, those who defend gun rights – whatever their arguments – need to recognize that bringing a gun into a school imposes a threat of violence that is not equivalent, but exceeds, other sorts of violence… and all the more so insofar as the weapon is closer and closer in design to a means of violence in war. But I want to emphasize the debates over the availability of this or that “thing” should be understood as “means” questions. The “end” in mind should be shared: the normality of peaceable schools. And if we don’t share that end, then we are truly failing as a society and it is cause for great sorrow.
Which may well be the case.