Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where's the Media When You Need Them?

Rabbi Yehudah, the compiler of the Mishna, is quoted as saying, "Much have I learned from my teachers, and from my colleagues more, and from my students the most of all." That is an observation that I believe would resonate with most teachers - no matter what we seek to teach, our students will inevitably have something to share with us that is of even greater value - an insight, an interpretation, an alternative viewpoint worthy of examining.

This past Monday, I met with  my seniors at their retirement community, where we shmooze on a weekly basis. Of course, this week the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, was foremost in their minds, so we spent a good deal of time talking about violence in America and the issues of gun control and mental health resources. No one will be surprised to learn that while there was much agreement in some areas, there was heated debate in others.

One gentleman repeatedly offered a more historical overview than the rest of us - rather than talk about gun violence in the last decade or two, he spoke across the decades and around the world and said that there was nothing unique about the killing of 20 young children in Connecticut. "It's the media that was there right away, covering the event and constantly talking about it." I asked whether that wasn't really a good thing - were we supposed to ignore that it had happened?  Wasn't violence in this country really an issue? He agreed, but insisted that killings have always happened, and until a lot changes, things will continue to happen.

I've been thinking about his references to the media, that evil element of a free society. So much blame has been heaped on the media, for intruding into the lives of celebrities and of those confronting their 15 minutes because of a tragedy in their lives. And while all of that may be true, when it comes to violence, I think the media can play a role it has not understood for its importance.

I don't know about your local newspapers, but the Los Angeles Times regularly runs the obituaries of service men and women who die in combat. Photos accompany the obituaries, and the headlines regularly report the age of the fallen service member, usually way, way too young. While these obituaries are meant, I believe, to bring honor to our fallen, and that's appropriate, they also keep our country's forgotten wars in the public eye. Remember Afghanistan? The family of this fallen soldier or Marine will not forget it, the paper seems to be saying, and neither should we.

In the hours and days following Newtown, some of the outrage against the proliferation of weapons in this country (three hundred million guns? In a nation of three hundred million people? I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know who own guns. So somebody must have an arsenal in their basement) pointed to the fact, similar to what my senior gentleman pointed out, that hundreds of children are killed by gunfire every year. Hundreds. Drive-by shootings. Some child finding a gun and thinking it a toy, shooting it, at themselves or a playmate. Some drunken family member coming home and in a rage starting to shoot. Hundreds and hundreds of children's lives are lost every single year, and no one is consistently outraged.

Certainly, local chapters of the Million Mom March are working to promote sensible gun regulations, but I don't think enough attention is being paid to the youngest victims of our gun culture. Why? I'm not sure. Are these children not important enough? Are they by dint of their neighborhood or the color of their skin not worth the attention? Are they disposable?

What would happen if every time - every single time - a child dies because of a gun, his or her picture and a short biography would appear in the local press? What if the public were not allowed to forget that a young life has been lost because of some twisted understanding of the Constitution? The newspapers tell us that the tide seems to be turning in this country, that it took the sacrifice of 20 young lives to wake up Congress and force them to turn from self-serving lobbyists to the obligation to protect our children. But the real debate has yet to be joined. We don't know today what the outcome will be, or even when the debate will begin. We still have, after all, that pesky fiscal cliff to deal with.

We must not allow the fervor to reform gun legislation and, again as my senior pointed out, to enforce those regulations already on the books - we must not allow that fervor to die. Because we've been stirred  before, and then the fervor goes away with the next crisis to face us.

We must not allow the sacrifice of the 20 children of Newtown (and the adults who tried so valiantly to protect them) to be wasted. And perhaps publishing a picture and a biography of every child whose life is taken by a gun in the local press will be a step in keeping our focus where it should be - on our future.

Thank you, Bernie, for making me think.

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