I am both proud and ashamed of this country’s mixed reaction to recent incidents of gun violence, particularly the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., during which 17 students were killed.
I am proud that the U.S. education system can produce young men and women like the March for Our Lives organizers who care deeply about this nation and about each other. The eloquence and poise they exhibited during television interviews and while addressing crowds of hundreds of thousands of people is a testament to the strength of their collective character and highlights what is best about the United States.
I am also overwhelmed with disappointment by the reaction of those on the political right to these potent demonstrations of civic virtue. Vitriolic ad hominem attacks on those expressing differing views are indefensible and have no place in our public discourse.
It was my generation of the 1960s and ’70s that raised protests to an art form with marches for equal rights. The end of oppressive communist rule in Eastern Europe was precipitated by people taking to the streets in Berlin; Warsaw, Poland; and Budapest, Hungary. These protests were likely inspired by Americans advocating for liberty.
Given this precedent, I cannot understand the hostility of today’s conservatives — those who grew up in that era — to such expressions of basic American values. They applauded the protests that helped ensure the fall of the Berlin wall and the restoration of freedom in the Soviet bloc but reject those in our nation that call for an end to violence. They encourage marches for the “right to life” to protect the unborn but are unmoved by students who gather to plead for safety in their schools.
People have the absolute right to grieve at the senseless deaths of their family, friends and colleagues and call for changes to those laws and policies that allow this violence to persist. They should not have their motives questioned, nor should they be subject to public mockery when they raise their voices to reject this preventable loss of life. Deriding someone for doing so because of their youth or relatively comfortable backgrounds is not reasoned debate; it is schoolyard bullying. The childishness of those who mock the current wave of activists highlights which arguments are more mature.
In fact, listening to these students, I realize just how tone-deaf and myopic those who grew up in my era seem to have become. Perhaps it is because the schools we attended were relatively safe. We did not fear random violence by someone with easy access to military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. There were no metal detectors. We had fire drills: We did not practice shelter-in-place drills or experience “lockdowns.” Today’s generation is growing up in an environment that we seem incapable of comprehending and unwilling to contemplate.
Since I was a student, mass shootings on school campuses seem to have become the norm and have increased in lethality. In 1966, when I was 11 years old, Charles Whitman killed 14 people with a high-powered rifle while perched atop the Main Building tower at the University of Texas at Austin. The country was horrified at the carnage and grappled with failed attempts to explain the tragedy; such events were unprecedented and incomprehensible.
Since then, names such as Columbine, Sandy Hook and now Marjory Stoneman Douglas have entered our lexicon as reminders of senseless violence. With each mass shooting, we seem to become increasingly inured to the killing. Now instead of contemplating how the lives of the victims were prematurely cut short and how legislation can address root causes of gun violence, arguments immediately rage about the rights of anyone who speaks out on the topic. Those who dare to do so are derided by commentators in the right-wing media like Laura Ingraham, Bill O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson as manipulated, spoiled elitists who don’t appreciate that gun violence is simply the “price of freedom.”
These statements are indicative of a mindset that is at once closed and rigid in its premises. Those who once viewed protest as noble today quickly dismiss those who disagree with their beliefs as either naive or anti-American. This attitude feeds an automatic and unthinking reaction that enables a status quo of perpetually escalating violence.
This limited view of many right-wing conservatives can only be overcome by a genuine conversation about gun violence, not an exchange of talking points and hurled insults. This argument is not about who wins or gains a political advantage: It is about the basic right to live and to be heard.
These demonstrations, protests and marches are not the tantrums of callow children. They are the thoughtful expressions of the concerns of U.S. citizens, mature beyond their years.
We must listen to them.
Raymond Dillon graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1977. This is the final installment of A Hoya Looks Back.