On December 14, 2012, at about eleven in the morning, my brother and I were packing up our guitars and other instruments in the multi-purpose room of an elementary school in Trenton, Michigan. A little while earlier we’d played a concert for the entire school, kindergartners through fifth graders and their teachers; everyone had now returned to their classrooms. We were alone, except for the custodian who was getting the room ready for lunch. The principal walked in and said, “We’re on lockdown.” That’s how we heard about Sandy Hook. The news, mind-numbingly horrific under any circumstance, was especially unsettling as we stood in a room which a short time before had been filled with two hundred children and their teachers.
There had been horrific shootings in schools—and in so many other places—before Sandy Hook and, like perhaps many of us, I’d managed to numb myself to them all. But, Sandy Hook hit close to home. Since the mid 1970s my brother and I have played thousands of concerts in elementary schools. At all our shows, the youngest children sit closest to the stage; that morning we’d been standing less than ten feet from the first graders and their teachers—kids and teachers just like the twenty first graders and six teachers who were shot in Newtown.
Sandy Hook, and the many heart-breaking shootings before and since, have all adhered to a nearly identical, disheartening template; shock and despair, followed by “thoughts and prayers” platitudes, feeble attempts and utter failures to legislate meaningful gun laws, and finally the vanishing of the tragedies from the news, and our consciousness, like the buried bodies of the victims.
At first, the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School seemed to track that same familiar, sickening pattern. But then came the young people, the survivors. They were not about to follow that blueprint.
One of the most loathsome lines I heard after Parkland, as after nearly every other mass shooting, was, “Now is not the time...” to talk about, or to legislate gun control.
In my mind, I always retorted with, “If not now, when?” The ancient phrase comes from a Jewish scripture, the Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, a collection of ethical guidelines that are read and studied weekly in many synagogues. I remember reading them (usually unwillingly, I admit) along with my father and brother, in a small group of men from our congregation on many Sabbath afternoons when I was a teenager. After Parkland, several of those Pirkei Avot teachings came to mind.
The “If not now…” phrase, one of the most well-known from the Pirkei Avot, is actually the third of three sentences. The entire passage reads, “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to see how they apply to the Parkland young people. I present Exhibit A. Former Senator Rick Santorum, he of the failed Santorum Amendment of 2001 that tried to promote the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in public schools, recently also seemed to agree with the age-old teaching. Sort of. Responding to the activism of the Parkland young people he said, “How about kids instead of looking to someone else to solve their problem…” (Yes, I am taking the quote out of context. It’s even more idiotic in context.)
On the other hand, Emma Gonzalez, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior, and one of the founders of the Never Again movement, forged a stark and poetic re-stating of those ancient words when she ended her stunning, silence-filled speech at the Washington March for Our Lives with an even more succinct and powerful version of the proverb. “Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.”
Gonzalez and the other Parkland young people have—to our country’s credit—received enormous support for their activism, but also—to our people’s shame—much ugly and obscene condemnation for daring to speak out.
The censures have ranged from the truly moronic—that they were crisis actors—to the simply stereotypical, that they are not mature enough to properly understand these complex issues. There’s a marvelous passage in the Pirkei Avot that speaks to this last condemnation. “Do not look at the flask but at its contents. You can find a new flask with old wine, and an old flask which does not hold even new wine.” These young people have offered moving reflections, and demanded thoughtful changes to gun laws that might save lives. On the other hand, the resounding silence, as well as many of the pronouncements and propositions of the “old flasks” don’t hold water, or much else that’s worthwhile. (Santorum again, “… Do something about maybe taking CPR classes!!??”)
Of course, the Parkland young people have also made naïve, green and callow statements. Yes, they’ve used profanity at times. But to dismiss their grief filled testimonials, their thoughtful prescriptions for sensible legislation, their passionate calls for change, because of their tone is, at best, two-faced and disingenuous. The Parkland young people don’t need me to defend them, but I can’t resist responding to their attackers—not with a quote from the Pirkei Avot, nor perhaps in a very Christian spirit—by borrowing another Emma Gonzalez quote, “We call B.S.!”
The Parkland young people have even taken on the very mature, difficult, sometimes uncomfortable, occasionally even painful task of self-reflection. They’ve understood and acknowledged that their unique status—being primarily white and well off—and their resulting privilege, has given them a platform and visibility that likely would not have been afforded to young people of color in other communities. They have confronted themselves and us not only with the necessity of creating changes that will prevent further tragedies like the ones they experienced, but have also insisted that we all recognize and face related issues, including gun violence against women and police shootings of unarmed black men. At the Washington MFOL rally, Jaclyn Corin, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, said during her speech, "We recognize that Parkland received more attention because of its affluence, but we share this stage today and forever with those communities who have always stared down the barrel of a gun." Then in a moment weighed with great symbolic significance, Corin brought Yolanda Renee King, the granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, to the stage, visually, and viscerally connecting the gun control cause to King’s great dream of an end to racism, and to his message of non-violence.
I will confess to having my own initial reservations about the Parkland young people naming their movement Never Again. When you are, like I am, the son of two people who survived Nazi concentration camps, the phrase Never Again only refers to the Holocaust. Period. So, my first reaction to the use of that phrase by the Parkland young people was a somewhat testy, internal question. “Where do they get off coopting that phrase?” Others followed close behind. “Is this willful or merely ignorant appropriation? And does that matter?”
I thought about it. I looked up the origins of the phrase. Apparently, it’s a bit uncertain, but this much is pretty sure. It did not originate with the Holocaust. It wasn’t widely associated with the Holocaust till about 1968, when Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League, an American extremist group, began justifying its violent tactics with the Never Again slogan. Kahane used the phrase as a call to arms, as a battle cry, and applying only to Jews. For him it was not, as it has been for me and for most others, a reminder that we must all be on guard to ensure that a tragedy like the Holocaust never happens again—to any people, Jewish or not. For most of us the phrase has served as a warning, tragically not always heeded, to never allow racial, ethnic, or religious hatreds to again lead to a Holocaust-like horror.
The longer I thought about it, the more I began to feel that Never Again did not belong exclusively to Jews and the Holocaust. I also started to see commonalities between the Holocaust and gun violence in this country. The numbers of victims are wildly different, and anti-gun-control advocates do not intend to target a single group the way the Nazis did. (Perhaps a debatable point...) But just as, over many years, the attitudes and laws—and lack of laws—that created the atmosphere that led, it seemed inexorably, to the Holocaust in Europe, the attitudes and laws—and, again, lack of laws—have entrenched a culture that has normalized the incredible carnage in our country and has culminated in Columbine, Newtown and Parkland.
It hardly needs to be said that the Parkland young people do not need my permission to adopt Never Again, but I freely and wholeheartedly give them my blessing.
My favorite passage from the Pirkei Avot is: “The day is short, the task is great. You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to withdraw from it.” The “Never Again!” mission of the Parkland young people will, sadly, take time to achieve. (It’s still only weeks since Parkland, and there’s already been another deadly school shooting, another unarmed black man has been shot by police, and there have been many other gun related deaths.) But Parkland has changed me. I no longer feel the numb ennui, the docile cynicism, the accommodating attitude that allowed me to tolerate the intolerable. Instead, I feel that President Obama was also speaking for me when he wrote to the young people of Parkland, and the others who have joined them. “We have been waiting for you. And we’ve got your backs.”
At the Washington March for Our Lives rally, young Yolanda Renee King unforgettably, delightfully, and with preternatural charm, led the massive crowd in chanting, “Spread the word! Have you heard? All across the nation, we are going to be a great generation!”
They already are.