Days after 17 people were killed in a high school in Parkland, Fla., students are speaking out. They are angry and frightened. Vigils, marches and school walkouts are planned.
Have you seen the viral speech that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student and survivor Emma Gonzalez gave?
“We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” she declared. “Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America. . . . We are going to be the last mass shooting.”
I’ll be on the Mall with her when the students march on Washington on March 24. But there’s another way to shame our do-nothing, NRA-purchased lawmakers into taking action on common-sense gun regulations, too. It’s an idea that a reader emailed to us — a School Gun Violence Memorial.
It would be the kind of permanent structure that’s part of every Washington tour, the background for a zillion tourist selfies, and it would set the scope of this national tragedy in stone.
What’s that you say? This isn’t nearly big and significant enough for such a gesture?
True, it’s different from the 58,000 Americans who were killed during the Vietnam War. Or the 416,000 military deaths during World War II.
But the carnage exacted by our love affair with guns is sobering. More than 10,000 people are killed each year in homicides involving guns. If you include suicides and accidental shootings, that toll rises to an average of more than 30,000 a year.
Of course, since we’re just talking school violence, that’s fewer than 200 deaths since the massacre at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif., in 1989. Justifying a memorial for just under 200 people could be hard, even if most of them are kids.
Wait. At the Pentagon, that’s similar to the number of innocent folks who died on 9/11. And the sweeping, beautiful memorial to those 184 victims sailed through the approval process.
If someone were to propose this memorial to school kids and educators, it would have to go through the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. It’s an interesting body I covered for a while, a gathering of prominent artists, architects and thinkers who debate and decide what warrants a memorial in our country’s monumental core.
So I checked in with Pamela Nelson, a Texas artist who served on the commission from 2001 to 2011, to see what she thought about a school violence memorial.
She held nothing back.
“There are so many victims of our massive number of guns, at concerts, schools, in lonely rooms in suicide. I personally detest all guns, not only the automatic weapons,” she said.
So she wouldn’t have a problem with a memorial that makes a statement about the impact of guns on American life. She had an idea for how something like this should look in Washington. And we’re not talking granite or bronze.
“Maybe it is time to dig a trench in the capital and bury all the assault weapons. That is the only fitting memorial I endorse,” she said. “The names, locally, as in cemeteries, must be honored and remembered in the local communities.”
Each of those towns had memorials. There were crosses and stuffed animals, empty chairs painted ghostly white. All ephemeral memorials that faded with time.
People in Newtown, Conn., are working toward a permanent memorial to remember the 20 first-graders and six adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary five years ago. At Virginia Tech, the 32 students and faculty members killed on campus are memorialized in a permanent semicircle of 32 stones — the April 16 memorial. In Columbine, Colo., there is a Ring of Remembrance and Wall of Healing for the 13 people killed April 20, 1999.
Yes, the victims are remembered in their home towns. Their spirits and memories are kept alive.
But in Washington, the memorials aren’t just about remembering each victim, are they? Relatives and friends come to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But the wall itself — the long and emotional slash in the earth — serves as a remembrance of war. And the folly and hubris of conflict.
A memorial in Washington would be about the failure of our society and government to protect its children. A symbol of the greater issue, of the war we didn’t fight and didn’t win.
I was anxious to hear what another former fine arts commissioner, Witold Rybczynski, would say about the power of such a memorial. He had just tweeted that speech by Emma Gonzalez with his own take: “Will Emma Gonzalez be our . . . Malala?” — a reference to Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani advocate for female education.
Rybczynski may be into the students’ message. But a memorial? Not so much.
“Personally, I do not support the current fashion for memorializing victims,” he said. “This seems like a knee-jerk response to any calamity.”
“I am sympathetic to the temporary memorials that relatives and friends of victims place after shootings, traffic accidents, AIDS and so on,” he said. “These fulfill an important immediate function, especially for those mourning, and their temporariness is part of their character.”
But a memorial? That’s not what he wants.
“What we need is more control of gun ownership, not memorials.”
It’s time to fix this. For real. We shouldn’t need marble to do the right thing.
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