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.
Sunday night, my wife, Pam, and I took part in the vigil at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. At the end, everyone lit a candle using one of the 27 already burning for each of the Newtown dead. Read the name beside your candle, the Rev. Nancy Petty said, and keep it in your heart.
The name I read: Olivia Engel, 6.
When I got home, I found her picture on a Facebook page. What a shiny little one she was. Precocious and 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.
I was working on a different column Friday when I saw the first reports on Twitter. Another school shooting, I thought absently. But I check Twitter reflexively. A bit later, I saw another report: 27 dead, including 18 children.
Later, 20 children.
Pam turned a TV on, and we followed the outpouring online. The kids who were slaughtered. The principal and teachers who died so bravely. The killer, a psychotic young man with his dead mother's arsenal of weapons, which she thought would protect her.
For too long, we've stood helpless in America before the scourge of assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons that have no purpose, except, in the wrong hands, a murderous one.
An industry of weapons dealers and political apologists has flourished in my lifetime, and nothing these interests say makes sense when measured against the senseless violence they promulgate. But reasonable people are afraid of them and silent.
For too long, we've allowed people with mental illnesses to be imprisoned or abandoned instead of cared for. So now we have a series of troubled young men armed like Rambo and shooting up 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 amid the aisles of toy guns, tanks and combat artillery 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 developed nation do angry boys grow up to be mass killers on the scale we tolerate: According to Time, 15 of the worst 25 mass killings in the world in 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.
Rampant 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 other developed nations. And unlike other nations, we allow people to own assault weapons that fire bullets in bursts of 30, 40 or 50 at a clip. Then we mythologize their owners, as if the well-regulated militia called for by the Second Amendment might defend us from space invaders.
Little Olivia, her family said, 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 I try not to call for the impossible. I suppose that's why I haven't written about gun control recently. 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 crusade came and went in 2006. It remains an inconvenient truth that time will run out on the planet if the industrialized nations—meaning the United States, first and foremost—don't reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But we refuse to do it, even though we could, and even though the polar ice caps are melting.
Thus, what was a crisis then is on the verge of being a catastrophe, though we remain in denial. That's the column I was working on Friday—about the responsibility we have in North Carolina to force change on Duke Energy. 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 the resources to address these issues and others, of poverty, disease and malnutrition. But to do so requires that we first regain control of our political institutions. And in that regard, we haven't a clue, nor the will to organize and plan.
Instead, We the People cede our authority to soulless corporations, and the results reflect the nihilism of their quarterly balance sheets. Our lack of national purpose, sadly, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy about the hopelessness of our children's future.
When I see the picture of Olivia Engel, I think about what must've been in her mind just before she was gunned down. And I tear up.
I make eye contact with children, and when I do, their reaction is always the same. Children are trusting. They trust that we adults will do right by them, now and for the years ahead.
No one should ever 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 be less practical and more hopeful about what can be achieved if we go back to work, first on guns, and then, with renewed purpose, on the tougher problems.
Let's set a course to the future our children deserve. The future we see in Olivia's eyes.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The price of surrender."