December 21, 2012

Four readers share thoughts on the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.

No safety anywhere

I was at the airport on Sept. 11, 2001, seven months pregnant with my fourth child and eager to enjoy a business trip that promised a night on my own while my husband tended to the “big” kids at home. There were five of them in our blended family, ranging in ages from 8 to 12. When news of the terror attacks reached the airport — along with cries to run amid rumors of bombs — I jumped into a stranger’s car and persuaded the driver to get me home to Annapolis. There, I rushed to the elementary school and found my fourth-grader. I enveloped her in my arms and whispered, “You’re safe. I’m here.” She looked at me and said, “I will never be safe again.”

Those memories came to mind on the Friday afternoon that the news of the horrors in Connecticut reached us. There is no safety anywhere: Beyond our love and embraces, we can guarantee our children so little. Things that in my own childhood would have been unimaginable have become a nearly routine part of our civic lives. Gun violence erupts and we engage in our now too-familiar rituals of collective and private mourning and grief, along with our assurances that truly, now, we will act.

Children suffer the world over when adults fail to act. They succumb to diseases that can be treated or prevented. They are victims of war and civil unrest, of our failures to negotiate peace in the Middle East or to fight hunger in our own nation.

They bear witness to atrocities. They know, despite our assurances, how little we can do in the end, really, to keep them safe.

When I’m afraid, I turn to something Helen Keller wrote, and I take comfort there. “Security is mostly a superstition,” she said. “It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

I want my son, now 11, to engage in that daring ad­ven­ture. All children should have opportunity, joy, time. Illusory or not, they should feel safe in this world, especially in the institutions we design and manage for them. I am grateful every day for the — mostly — women who create a safe place where my son learns and grows, and I am heartbroken for the Newtown, Conn., community, which has experienced such devastation.

This summer, when gun madness erupted in Aurora, Colo., I wrote in The Post about my futile efforts to protect my son from that news — and my realization that I could shield him from so little. In the wake of Newtown, I have talked to him about gun violence and mental illness, about the adults who guard and protect him, and about the insecurities that abound in our lives. The night after the shootings, I led a community vigil, and two of my children stood with me in the growing cold and dark, trying to find warmth and comfort in community. Monday morning, my son wore white and blue to school: We had heard these are the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School (though it turns out they are actually green and white), and our children are trying to show their solidarity with those children.

We know the cues, the gestures and the words. Now we need to find it in our political and social will to act on solutions. The children are counting on us.

Janice Lynch Schuster, Riva

Ann Telnaes animation: America’s cowboy mentality. (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

We need to talk

Ten years ago, the Beltway sniper terrorized our community. Back then, I woke up every morning with a new routine. I would take a nice hot shower and say to myself, “Today is a good day to die.” Then I picked out either my bright red sweatshirt with a white logo on the chest or the black sweatshirt with the red star on the chest, and I drove my children to College Gardens Elementary School in Rockville. After dropping them off, I joined the other parents in line. Together, we formed a wall that stretched from the bus drop-off area to the front door.

No one asked parents to show up and form a wall, and we never discussed it. I wasn’t surprised how many other parents I recognized standing in front of the school. The kids saw us every morning as they trudged off the bus. It’s been a decade now, and I’ve watched those kids grow up. In all those years, we never talked about it. In fact, this is the first time I ever mentioned this.

I wore the high-visibility clothing and stood on the south side of the entrance facing toward the field. I expected the shot would come from there. That way the sniper could jump into his car and be on Interstate 270 heading north in less than three minutes. I figured the shooter was going to pick only one target, and I wanted to be such a good one that even I could have hit it at 100 yards using a bow.

We learned later the sniper had a Bushmaster rifle. So did the guy who killed all those children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It’s time we had a serious talk.

Peter Vos, Rockville

Every shooting matters

We have heard so many times on the news reports about the Newtown tragedy: “It shouldn’t have happened here. It’s such a safe place.” But the “safe” places are exactly where these incomprehensible massacres keep happening. Newtown, Blacksburg, Columbine, Aurora, a Safeway parking lot in Tucson. What could be more removed from the world’s dangers than the West Nickel Mines Amish School ?

As we talk about getting rid of the types of weapons that make these horrendous events possible, how do we also confront why the tortured young men who have successfully planned and carried them out are driven to such rage? It seems we are looking at only part of the problem when we single out guns. The intelligent and disconnected will find other, maybe more disastrous, ways to vent their pain.

But when kids are shot on the streets of the District, at a Metro stop in Montgomery County, on the way to school in Prince George’s County, why do we not hear in the media, “It shouldn’t have happened here?” When four young people died in a drive-by shooting in the District in 2010, why didn’t President Obama stop to note what a tragedy it was? Why didn’t Republicans quit arguing for a day to show their support for the victims and their families? If all the young victims of gun violence in the Washington area had been gunned down in one room instead of alone or in small groups, would we have said, “It shouldn’t have happened here?”

Violent, intentional deaths of innocent young people — of any race or social class — shouldn’t happen anywhere.

Ellen Ternes, Waynesboro, Pa.

Sippy cups and guns

As the mother of a 19-month-old, I have become well-versed in the litany of “things that will kill your baby.” My husband and I take the warnings seriously; we rejected used drop-side cribs, recycled BPA-laden baby bottles and, for anyone who’s seen my Facebook picture where newborn Maya lies near the crib bumper sent by well-meaning relatives — well, she wasn’t the only one lying. That bumper came off before the picture finished uploading.

Lawmakers have acted decisively to save our children from these killers. As of 2011, the manufacture and sale of drop-side cribs is illegal nationwide. Individual states are pushing for a similar law to prohibit crib bumpers. And the Food and Drug Administration yielded this year to concerns and banned bisphenol A from baby bottles and sippy cups.

Yet legislators have done little to curb the most chilling risk our children face. Let’s review a few numbers:

How many of our country’s babies died due to drop-side cribs over 10 years, meriting a nationwide ban? 32.

How many of our country’s babies died due to assault weapons at a single school on a single day this month? 20.

I am struck by this horrifying irony. The government will do anything in its power to protect my daughter from the slim chance that she will face harm in her bed but very little to prevent her from being slaughtered in her kindergarten classroom.

In our home, just to be on the safe side — and because it’s the law — we found a modern crib, installed “breathable” bumpers and bought BPA-free bottles. We are glad to be aware of the dangers facing our daughter and to have the opportunity to take action against them.

So, Congress, we thank you. Our babies are living through their naps. They sleep well. Now we just need to make sure that, when they wake, they aren’t going to get shot.

Marina Koestler Ruben, Washington