When Children Expect to Die
“The Shaming of America.”
That was the headline screaming out of the cover of The Economist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The phrase has stuck with me since then. I was in law school at Howard University in Washington D.C. when the levees broke. I watched in horror as New Orleans began to flood. I switched my television off and got back into the books thinking, if it had to happen anywhere, it’s best it happen America. They’ll take care of their people.
America will take care of her people.
I knew it wasn’t true. The study of law is an in-depth history lesson focused on close-readings of particular documents, and I was being instructed at a historically Black university. My professors didn’t downplay the uncomfortable parts of America’s history. I knew it wasn’t true that America took care of her people. Nevertheless, I believed that in the face of such a catastrophic event, that when America was confronted with all that human suffering being broadcast live on cable news, the nation’s better angels would prevail.
I turned my television on again a few days later and was horrified to see the conditions the mostly Black and poor residents of New Orleans were being forced to endure. I was scandalized by the incompetent federal response, by the “Heck of a job, Brownie” bungling.
In the aftermath of Katrina, there was violence, there was chaos, there was a mass exodus. People who had lost everything were called refugees in their own country. The President’s mother, a former First Lady, said of some of those downtrodden, traumatized people who’d made their way to Houston, “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas… And so many of the people in the [Houston Astrodome], you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”
How could anyone think, much less say out loud in earshot of other human beings, that living in a baseball stadium after having lost everything was “working very well” for hurricane evacuees? I’d never heard a member of a President’s family say anything so casually, so cruelly about the survivors of a devastating natural disaster.
A young, pre-Sunken Place Kanye West nervously shouted what many of us were thinking during the relief telethon: “George Bush does not care about Black people.” But it’s not just George Bush, is it, I thought. There was a comprehensiveness about the careless disregard being shown that spoke to a much deeper pathology.
Hurricane Katrina was a watershed moment. America’s mask slipped, and many of us saw truly for the first time how broken the country was.
Sandy Hook was another such moment.
If George Bush, if America didn’t care about poor, Black people, surely it did about young, White six and seven year-olds in an affluent Connecticut suburb. Surely that massacre of innocents would be enough to move the needle on gun control.
And since then, the country has seemed to be on a death march. Mass shooting after mass shooting. School shooting after school shooting. Angry White men and boys lighting people up left and right. They’re armed with weapons of war. And their fellow gun fetishists are willing to have the blood of other people’s children purchase their right to bear arms and writhe in their pathetic Johnny Rambo fantasies about fighting back against a tyrannical government.
The tyranny of extrajudicial police killings and for-profit mass incarceration never pings their radar. Nor does the rounding up of immigrant children who are being separated from their parents and interned in concentration camps. They see laws that would prevent their dead-eyed Nazi second cousin from purchasing an arsenal of weapons as vast government overreach. But ICE agents demanding to see people’s papers in bus stations is par for the course to them. The only tyranny they see is being told they can’t do whatever they want.
I’m not throwing out the word Nazi to be sensational. The perpetrator of the Parkland massacre had swastikas etched into his magazines. The perpetrator of the Charleston massacre targeted a church that was an important institution in the African American freedom struggle, and the attack was intended to start a race war.
There are White supremacist beliefs driving many of these mass shootings. They are acts of terrorism carried out by disaffected White men and boys and who have been radicalized online. But, in the immediate aftermath of their horrible crimes, instead of harrowing reports of their debased internet communities and scathing critiques of their evil belief systems, we’re served up sympathetic profiles about how quiet, unassuming, and misunderstood they are.
These violent men, unsurprisingly, often have histories of abuse or violence against women. There’s a nasty strain of misogyny underlying this phenomenon as well.
There’s also a calm covering up of the root causes by those in power. There’s an unwillingness to foreground the discussion of the online radicalization of dangerous and violent White men. There’s an unwillingness to challenge their boundless sense of entitlement. There’s an unwillingness to revoke the benefit of the doubt they receive in nearly every circumstance. There’s an unwillingness to strongarm them the way any other group would be under similar circumstances (these mass killers are nearly always taken alive). America won’t even take their deadly toys away from them.
America won’t call them what they are: White supremacist domestic terrorists.
And we know why. The label “terrorist” has been weaponized to indict the entire ethnic group of the perpetrator and shine a light into corners of its culture it doesn’t want illuminated. What follows is collective accusation and collective punishment. This is the fear: that the machine will turn against its engineer.
White America, it’s OK. You can call them terrorists. The label won’t stick to the rest of you like it would to the rest of us.
White racial resentment has been fueling terrorism in America since its inception. It’s never been beaten back, not really. It just changes outfits and hairstyles and turns up sneering. Each generation has had to confront it.
“I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here too.”
So, here we are. Again. This time at Santa Fe High School, watching children evacuate their school after witnessing ten of their classmates be shot to death by another classmate, a classmate who posted pictures of a trench coat adorned with Nazi regalia (no red flags, though!), and who appears to have targeted a girl he’d been harassing with unwanted romantic advances.*
The media shoved cameras into the surviving students’ tear-streaked faces and demanded they recount their near-death experiences. It should have been bedlam, shrieking chaos. But there was a strange calm on the campus in Santa Fe. A calm that came from having been reconciled to the outcome.
CNN aired an interview with a survivor who said, her voice shaking yet resigned, “I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here too.” She went to school prepared to have been gunned down.
Later that day, there was another school shooting after the graduation ceremony at Mt. Zion High School in Clayton County, Georgia.
Watching massacre after massacre and the nation’s inability to address the problem doesn’t leave me wondering if America is broken. It leaves me wondering if it is teetering on the edge of becoming a failed state. Its politics have been gridlocked into dysfunction for a generation. All its wealth is being extracted and moved offshore. Its financial markets are a giant casino, whose winnings are hoarded by the super-wealthy and whose losses are socialized. Its drinking water is being poisoned. Its law enforcement officers murder its citizens with impunity. It imprisons more of its people than any other nation on Earth. It is engaged in perpetual war. Its President is an uncouth, grifting carnival barker. Fascism is in ascent.
And its children go to school expecting to die at the hands of classmates.
Is this a great nation?
America is collapsing in front of our eyes, and its failure to confront White supremacy is the primary reason. I don’t hold out much hope that it will be able to make enough inroads in time to stop its decline. Not when one half of the country thinks common sense gun control and better police training will solve matters, and the other half thinks getting Colin Kaepernick to cut his magnificent afro and stand for the anthem will somehow help make their lives and America great again.
Both sides aren’t the same, but they buy into the mythology of American exceptionalism in equal measure.
America has made itself into a symbol — its own graven image. And symbolic action and sloganeering seem to be the only solutions it can offer up for its deep and abiding problems. It is a nation unable to grapple with reality. It is constitutionally unable to tell the truth about itself.
America: Wake up! Your children go to school expecting to die.
*An earlier version of this story referred to the perpetrator of the Santa Fe school shooting as having “targeted a girl who rejected his advances.” This language has been edited to read “targeted a girl he’d been harrassing with unwanted romantic advances.”