Sunday, February 18, 2018

Americans Don't Care About Their Children

The continued gun violence visited upon America's schools and school children, along with the abject failure of the adults who run the country to do anything about it, leads me to one inescapable conclusion: In the United States of America, we don't care about our children. When I say "our children" here, I am referring to children in general, not individual children. As the grieving parents in Florida today will attest, we all care about our own children. What we do not seem to care about is all the other children.

I am hardly the first person to make this observation. In her 1992 New York Times essay, Everybody's Somebody's Baby, noted author Barbara Kingsolver was struck by the difference in how children were received in Spain as compared to the United States. She observes that

Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it's not their own they don't want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it. In the United States, where people like to think that anyone can grow up to be President, we parents are left very much on our own when it comes to the little Presidents-in-training. Our social programs for children are the hands-down worst in the industrialized world, but apparently that is just what we want. In an Arizona newspaper, I remember seeing a letter from a reader incensed by the possibility of a school budget override. "I don't have kids," he declared, "so why should I have to pay to educate other people's offspring?" The budget increase was voted down, the school district progressed from deficient to dismal and one is inclined to ask that smug non-father just whose offspring he expects to doctor the maladies of his old age.

In a recent editorial in the MINNPOST, Susan Perry, who writes on public health issues, cited the following statistics.
  • a baby born in the United States has a 76 percent greater risk of dying before their first birthday than one born in other wealthy, democratic countries.
  • a child aged 1 to 19 in the United States has a 57 greater risk of dying before adulthood than elsewhere in the developed world.
  • UNICEF has ranked the US 26 out of 29 developed countries (higher than only Lithuania, Latvia and Romania) with respect to overall child health and safety.
If we cared about our children in this country, school children would not be reporting to under-staffed, under-resourced, rat-infested, moldy, dilapidated school buildings in every urban area in the country. If we cared about our children, those children would not be walking to school through gang infested neighborhoods, fearing for their lives and the lives of their brothers and sisters. All we have been able to muster for these children is the non-choice of school choice, which unleashes usually ineffective, often unscrupulous, frequently disruptive "education-like" schemes on our neediest school children.

When America cares about a problem, the problem gets fixed. We entered World War II unprepared to wage the war that we found ourselves fighting and with a navy that had been crippled by the attack on Pearl Harbor, but we rallied, sacrificed, worked hard at home and abroad and prevailed. When smoking was finally and irrefutably identified as a killer, we took action that has greatly reduced the use of tobacco in the country. When Martin Luther King, Jr. forced us to come face to face with our pernicious racism, we took action, imperfect action perhaps, action that continues to be needed, but action that at least ended the most egregious aspects of Jim Crow, however haltingly, in the country.

The only way to explain the lack of action on gun violence in the schools is that we value our right to bear arms more than we value our children. Politicians seem to be unable to even have a conversation about bringing gun proliferation under control. Our founding fathers, I am sure, did not mean for the second amendment to require that we were to remain impotent in protecting our children from guns in the hands of society's disaffected. Surely. "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" means freedom from fear of being shot in your own classroom. Surely the right to bear arms is a limited right, just as every other right enumerated in the Bill of Rights is limited by the simple fact that the unfettered exercise of that right could endanger others. So we have no right to cry, "Fire!" in a crowded theater and no right to refuse to wear a seat belt and we have even decided to give up the right to smoke in public places. Surely we can all do without the right to carry an AR-15 around with us. 

Small minds look at these types of issues and respond with a wall building mentality. Illegal immigration? Build a wall. Armed, mentally-ill gunmen in the school corridors? Turn the school into an armed camp. We would be better off by far to reject the wall-builders and embrace the bridge builders. Surely we can find a bridge between the second amendment and truly valuing the lives of our school children.

Don't just cry for the children of Parkland, Florida. Do something. Start building bridges. One thing you can do is join me at the National Day of Action Against Gun Violence on April 20 (The anniversary of the Columbine shooting). You can sign up here.