Remembering Olivia Engel, 6, and finding resolve after Newtown | Citizen | Indy Week

Remembering Olivia Engel, 6, and finding resolve after Newtown

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Don’t lose this feeling. This mix of tears and resolve—don’t get over it; don’t set it aside.

This is what I’ve been telling myself since Friday. Keep it. Act on it.

Last night, Pam and I took part in the vigil at Pullen Church in Raleigh. At the end, everyone lit a candle using one of the 27 candles already burning in memory of the victims in Newtown. Read the name beside your candle, the minister said, and keep it in your heart.

Olivia Engel, 6, from the Engle Family page on Facebook
  • Olivia Engel, 6, from the Friends of the Engel Family Fund page on Facebook
The name I read: Olivia Engel, 6.

When I got home, I found her picture online; family friends shared it on a Facebook page.

What a shiny little one she was. Precocious and completely endearing, someone said.

How terribly we failed her.

As a nation, how terribly we’re failing our children.

Yes, I mean where guns are concerned, and mental illness. But it goes much deeper.

We’re failing them by giving up on the future—their future—before they can shape it themselves.

***

@nytimes: Shooting at a Connecticut school. I was working on a different column Friday when I saw the first reports on Twitter. I went back to work. But I check Twitter reflexively, and an hour or two later, I saw an Associated Press report. @AP: 27 dead, including 18 children.

Later, 20 children.

Pam turned a TV on, and we followed the outpouring of media accounts. The tots who were lined up and killed. The principal and teachers who died so bravely. The killer, a psychotic young man with his mother’s arsenal of weapons, which she thought would defend her—and which instead killed her and other innocents.

For too long, we’ve stood helpless in America before the scourge of assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons that have no purpose, except, if they fall into the wrong hands, a murderous one.

An industry of weapons dealers and political apologists has grown up in my lifetime, and nothing they say makes any sense when measured against the senseless violence they promulgate; but reasonable people are afraid of them and are silent.

For too long, we’ve allowed people with mental illnesses to be imprisoned or abandoned instead of finding them the care they deserve.

So now we have a series of troubled young men armed like Rambo and shooting in movie theaters, shopping malls and, of course, schools, because what’s more instrumental in a shooter’s rage than his treatment, real or perceived, in school?

All this in a culture that celebrates violence, elevates the warrior and derides art and literature as effete.

It’s the holiday season, and over the weekend we were in a big-box toy store looking for a tutu for our great-niece Evelyn, 1, and a keyboard for her brother Jack, 4.

There were a fair number of tutus, but musical instruments were hard to find amidst the aisles of toy guns, tanks, combat artillery and other weapons of mass destruction for the boys. Not to mention the video games of death.

It’s nature and nurture, I suppose, that combine to produce a mass murderer, but we’re obviously going wrong with our boys, because in no other nation do angry boys grow up to be mass murderers on the scale that we tolerate: According to Time.com, 15 of the worst 25 mass killings in the world over the last 50 years occurred in the U.S. (Finland was second with two.)

Five of the worst 11 massacres in the U.S. have been since 2007.

Gun violence, too, is a singularly American problem. According to the Washington Post, we in America are 20 times as likely to be killed with a gun as people living in the other developed nations of the world. (Mexico, if considered a developed nation, is worse than the U.S. because of ongoing drug wars among the cartels; Honduras, very violent and under-developed, is also worse.)

Our problem, in a word, is the guns. We have far more of them per capita than any other nation. And unlike other nations, we allow people to own assault weapons which fire bullets in bursts of 30, 40 or 50 at a clip. Then we mythologize their owners, as if the well-regulated militia called forth by the Second Amendment might soon be needed to defend us from space invaders.

Little Olivia, we’re told, loved to dance and sing.

***

I’m a practical person. I like to write about subjects where there’s a chance to make a difference and avoid calling for the impossible. I suppose that’s why I haven’t written about gun control in some years. Politically, it was an issue too deadly to say its name.

Similarly, I haven’t written a lot about climate change since Al Gore's film came and went in 2006. It was “An Inconvenient Truth” that time would run out on the planet if the industrialized nations—meaning the United States, first and foremost—didn’t curb greenhouse-gas emissions. But we refuse to curb them, even though we could, and the polar ice caps are melting.

Thus, what should have been a crisis is now on the verge of being a catastrophe. though we remain in denial about it. That’s the column I was working on Friday—about the responsibility we have in North Carolina to force change on Duke Energy, now the nation's largest utility. I’ll write it in January.

But as I contemplated our failures on guns, mental health, the culture of violence and climate change, it dawned on me what the fundamental problem is: We’ve given up.

We have the know-how and resources to address all of these issues and others—like the so-called fiscal cliff—of lesser magnitude. But to do so requires that we first regain control of our political institutions. And in that regard, we haven’t a clue how to get our elected representatives to do anything good about anything.

It’s a hard problem on which we currently expend almost no mental energy. Instead, “We the People” cede our authority to soulless corporations, and the results reflect the nihilism of their quarterly balance sheets. Our hopelessness, sadly, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of despair for our children’s futures.

President Obama, Sunday night, called on the nation to gather itself and be worthy of the children who died in Newtown.

He was talking about curbing gun violence, but I think it goes way beyond that.

When I see the picture of little Olivia Engel, I think about what must’ve been in her mind just before she was gunned down.

And I tear up.

Every time I see a child I try to make eye contact, and when I do, the reaction is always the same. Little children are trusting. They trust that we, the adults will do right by them, now and for the years ahead.

They’re sweet that way, even the boys. No one should ever want to break that trust.

So that’s what I’m feeling, and it’s what I don’t want to lose.

I’m sad to the point of tears about giving our children a world more dangerous and unhappy than it ought to be.

I’m resolved to stop being so practical and to start being hopeful about what can be achieved with a political revolution—and to trust that, guided by hope, we can find our way to the future our children deserve.

The future you see in Olivia’s eyes.

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