As we all finished our finals and prepared to leave for break, somebody turned on the news in your common room. Maybe you overheard on the way to the bathroom, or maybe you were walking back, exhausted from a finished test, when your friend somberly asked, “Did you hear?”
I was at the airport that day. People were unusually quiet as the death toll continued to rise. For some in my row, the usual last look at the smartphone before takeoff invited tears.
I remember that last glance at my phone informing me that teachers told students to close their eyes as they walked past bodies. For some reason, that one piece of information stuck with me. I thought of little else for the entire flight. Murmured conversations on either side of me let me know that few people’s thoughts strayed too far from my own. I felt a kind of unity with them. We stood together—or rather sat together, on our somber plane ride—against something evil.
And then … it faded. The sadness and togetherness I felt with total strangers in the airport transformed to happy togetherness when we all reunited with the families we were traveling to see. We read about the fiscal cliff and the Mayan apocalypse. We perused top 10s of 2012. For me, the harsh dead grass of winter I had returned to at my house was soon covered in a thick layer of snow that made the world magical again, made it easy to forget.
It is easy to forget these things, isn’t it? We all have a sick fascination with the sting of tragedy, but when it fades to an aching dullness, it’s in a strange way more painful, and we cast this dead weight away. Our society is filled with distractions enough to allow us to do this with ease.
I remember all of the times since 2007 when the news has been turned on in college and boarding school common rooms. We watch elections and major scheduled events, but the most chilling is when someone wanders in unexpectedly and turns on the TV. On Sept. 15, 2008, we watched Lehman Brothers declare bankruptcy and the stock market drop over 500 points. This summer while studying abroad, we turned on the BBC after Aurora. This fall we watched coverage of Hurricane Sandy.
These tragedies always seem to be these explosions of pressure built up from problems we refuse to deal with because doing so would require sacrifice. We don’t want to swallow difficult regulatory changes in the financial system. We don’t want to live lives that result in lower carbon footprints. We don’t want miles of red tape before we buy a gun.
And I always think in these moments: “If nothing else, this, at least, will get us to act.”
And then the urgency of the moment leaves, and we promptly forget.
Despite 2008, the regulations on our hugely unstable financial system are still not working. Despite multiple extreme weather events that climate scientists agree to be manifestations of a changing climate, there has been no meaningful U.S. action on climate change. Despite Columbine and Aurora and Newtown, despite the fact that 15 of the 25 worst mass shootings in the past half-century occurred in the United States, there has not been a single piece of federal gun control legislation passed in the U.S. since 1999.
What will it take for us to shed our political dogmas, to recognize problems so large that we come together to solve them no matter what it takes? What will it take to force us to sacrifice to create a better world?
These tragedies do have the capability to spur action. In 1933, the country felt the consequences of the Depression long enough to pass the Glass-Steagall Act, which included stringent regulations that kept our financial system stable for over half a century. In 1996, after a gunman entered a school in Dunblane, Scotland and killed 16 children, the United Kingdom effectively banned handguns. U.K. citizens agreed that the loss of this right protected the right to life for enough people that the sacrifice was worth it.
On Dec. 25, a little over a week after Newtown, a friend posted on Facebook a picture of an infant holding a gun.
It was captioned: “Baby cousin supporting her rights ☺ <3”.
Not even the death of 20 schoolchildren and six of their teachers inspired a moment’s deviation from dogma, a moment’s acknowledgement that the debate is worth having.
Guns are a large part of my hometown culture, and my friend feared interference with this custom. I would have responded, but I feared losing my peace-of-mind.
It was Christmas, after all.
But now, Christmas is over, and it’s time to remember that there’s still dead grass under the snow.
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Friday.