When I got word that a shooting had happened in the science building of a community college in Oregon, I was sitting in the science building of a community college in Massachusetts. In interviews, people always say, “I never thought it could happen here.” I have not labored under such a delusion for some time. It can happen in first grade classrooms, in movie theaters, at the mall, the post office; it would be a fantasy to think any of us are safe.
Safety, of course, is not, and should not be, the highest goal of society. I cannot, I know, have both perfect liberty and perfect safety, and they often vary inversely. I value my privacy and my liberty, and I will make certain concessions for them when it comes to security. But this government can no longer claim to offer us even a modicum of safety from gun massacres. If any one of us is not killed that way, it’s sheer luck and chance, not the reasoned and careful actions of our representatives, that kept it from happening.
At a vigil one night after the Oregon shooting, one speaker, alluding to the gunman, urged listeners to “never speak his name.” As if he’d been an act of God, a flood, or a tornado. As if we are powerless against the force of it. And yet, even hurricanes get names. And yet, when someone named Mohammed commits an act of violence, the name is all we can focus on, thinking that the name, in those cases, is the explanation. We let slip our confirmation bias: that Muslims are prone to this sort of thing, and when they do it, we are vindicated in our opinions. We have the reason. We have the solution you all seem to like best: more anti-terrorism theater.
What is your solution for me? My students talked about the shooting in class. One woman said, “It should be same as the street. If you know everyone got a gun, nobody going to fuck with anybody else.” Except they do, and they die. So if your solution is for me to carry in my classroom, I refuse. What else do you have?
In cases like Umpqua, the rote response is, “Mental illness, that’s the trouble here. It’s not the guns.” But if it is mental illness, then where is your clamor to fix that? Where is the uprising to pass legislation making sure everyone with a mental health issue is found and can get the help he needs? People who commit suicide are mentally ill or unstable in some way too. The depression that leads a person to attempt suicide is a deep, deep one, but we know guns are the trouble too. Suicide attempts with guns are fatal 85% of the time. Suffocation is fatal 69% of the time, and all the other means, including jumping off bridges, fail to even break the 50% mark. The mental illness matters, but the means matters too. The difference between 69% and 85% is a lot of lives saved, and a lot of time won to try to get better. I’m weary of hearing the equivalent of “stuff happens.” You say it’s all mental illness? Mental illness is not intractable, but you same lawmakers who refuse to move on guns also fail to get Americans the mental health care they need. If you showed such paralyzing cowardice in any other line of work where lives are at stake, you would be out of a job. An ER doctor, a nurse, a police officer, or firefighter who locks up in the face of a crisis is a failure and a liability. What about you? How much “stuff” has to happen before it seems worth changing to you?
We have new locks on the doors in our science building. They were installed last year as a defense against an active shooter. For several weeks, we all repeatedly and accidentally locked ourselves in or out of classrooms. We have the routine down now though. When the lock is set, a small red display is visible from outside the room reading “SECURE.” When the door is unlocked, it reads, in green, “UNSECURE.” I still have a mental hitch when I see this. Green means go, green means ok, green means open, green means good. But the word on the door is “unsecure.” Green means complete liberty, and no security. Red, the stop sign, the halt, the “do not pass,” that is security. I teach at a community college, and these are congenitally open places. Everyone can study here. Everyone can walk into my classroom or my office and talk science, or life, or jobs, or family. I can’t wall them off. I can’t hide in my office and slip the bolt to secure. I wouldn’t even if I could. Some of you think that we, the students and faculty, should do a better job of rushing and tackling the shooter. It’s moot, what happens when he is already in the room; my security should not be defined at that doorway. You need to define it where you are, with all the powers vested in you.
I cannot fathom what you are waiting for. This is our own twisted version of Niemoeller’s poem: “First they came for the moviegoers…the grocery shoppers…the first graders…” And yet still, you do not speak up. What are you waiting for? Can you still not see yourselves, your children and grandchildren in these dead? Is it only when they come for the lobbyists, the corporations that will rouse yourselves? My weapons are poor, and not at all lethal. They are only my words. But we will come for you with these weapons. Now, tell me, how are you going to defend yourself?