The smoking elephant in the room | Derek Jennings | Indy Week
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The smoking elephant in the room 

"They say the city make a dark impression
The youth just lost and they want direction
But they don't get the police, they get the protection
And walk around with heat like Charlton Heston, man."

--Rapper Black Thought, of The Roots

In recent weeks, a series of shootings have smacked the nation across its face, focusing its notoriously short attention, once again, on the issues of school violence.

In Colorado, it was Columbine all over again, except with a vile twist. This time it was an adult who strolled into a huge school, armed to the teeth, seeking gratification from teenaged female hostages in addition to bloodshed. Right on the heels of that nightmare, another strapped sicko strode into a small Amish schoolhouse, bringing hell to that tiny religious enclave in the form of five dead little girls. Locally, a 19-year-old opened fire at Orange High School in August, attempting to kill the school's principal after killing his father. And just recently, near Greensboro, Guilford County sheriffs were on high alert after discovering e-mails threatening a Columbine-style massacre at Northwest High School.

In the wake of the recent wave of carnage, President George W. Bush, renowned moralist and global promoter of non-violence, quickly convened a summit on school safety. In parallel, right-wing talking heads quickly and deftly interspersed these shooting incidents with video footage of two girls in New Mexico brutally pummeling another girl on a school bus, casting all of these episodes as co-equal exhibits in a case against school violence and as occasion for yet another round of tirades against out-of-control youth. The president's summit, hailed by all who participated, provided much discussion on communication, "intelligence" (the same kind that has been serving us so well in Iraq), values and preparedness. Astoundingly, it mentioned nothing about guns.

Ah, guns, the smoking elephants in the room. Politicians adroitly avoid bringing them up in the school violence discourse for fear of stepping on Number 2 (the Second Amendment). Bringing the subject of guns up as more than just some odd coincidence (you ever notice that people just seem to get killed with those things?) is considered impolite, especially within earshot of the National Rifle Association, whose supporters get offended whenever someone mentions the relative infrequency of mass stabbings.

So the discussion invariably shifts to making schools "safer." But without addressing the issue of the proliferation of guns in our society, how do we accomplish that goal? Some schools already have metal detectors. What's next? What's even possible? Do anti-violence advocates piggyback on the school uniform movement and mandate blazers, slacks and skirts manufactured from plaid Kevlar? (And if we can do that, can we ship a few uni's over to Iraq, where our troops still don't have the protection that they need?)

Perhaps we'll follow the lead of our terrified airlines who declared all liquids contraband, and ban entire states of matter from our nation's schools. Most weapons, it must be noted, are quite solid. No shootings possible, if only liquids, gases and plasma are allowed on campus. But then that would still probably be construed as an affront to the only Amendment worth fighting for (we certainly don't have much use anymore for the First or the Fourth).

As evidenced by the non-discussion at the president's summit, the Second Amendment is apparently much more important than school safety, or even the other rights that have been trampled in the War On Terra. The way the founding fathers envisioned it, from what I gather, a suitably strapped populace ensured our national protection. And, really, I'm sure that if the United States were to be invaded tomorrow by a conventional army, the Bloods, Crips, Klan, Aryan Nation, Neo Nazis, semi-automatic deer hunters and sundry militia nuts out in the big square states practicing for a combination race war/United Nations takeover would happily set aside their differences and combine to form a well-regulated militia for the common defense.

The president and all others who attempt to leave guns out of a discussion of school safety prompted by two shocking school shootings consciously and unconscionably ignore that homicidal nut jobs with guns have become our suicide bombers. Folks, generally, don't hole up in schools with hostages, assorted armaments and ammo and expect to walk out alive. The aforementioned men pretty much had something snap in their lives, at which point they ceased wanting to live. But, unfortunately for their victims, they had another snap in which they decided to arm themselves and violently seek others to accompany them on the journey out of their misery.

There is nothing new under the sun. But we do have modern conveniences. People were every bit as crazy when I was growing up, but we just didn't have the same easy access to powerful killing machines back then that allowed us to more efficiently channel our rage and psychosis.

But what's the solution? There is no absolute safety in this world. And if it is a given that everyone is armed and will remain so, there is no amount of fortification or communications that will guarantee the safety of our children. The anthropological record is flush with remnants of past civilizations that thought they could ensure their safety by building walls around their perimeters, the ruins of their walls providing monument to their folly.

Even if modern schools were equipped with metal detectors and armed sentries manning gun turrets, like the old Polk Youth Correctional facility on Blue Ridge Road, that doesn't eliminate the threats. If the interiors of schools were absolutely airtight, what of the scores of students who mill about outside while waiting to get into these fortresses? Is it somehow less damaging to our national psyche if the next psycho has to settle for killing five kids outside of a school waiting to get through the security checkpoints, because he knew he couldn't make it through the metal detectors? Is that victory? And, if not, then what of the thousands of kids who will be perfectly safe at school but continue to be gunned down on the streets of their own neighborhoods? Where, may I ask, are the presidential summits for that?

A young man I know got into a shouting match with another student during the first week of middle school. No punches were thrown. No threats were made. Certainly, no weapons were involved. He was expelled, and hasn't been allowed to set foot on campus since. Why? Because the argument was gang-related. The boy had a previous strike against him, having been in some trouble a year or so ago. But he's a good kid and, from my interactions with him in another setting, displays a lot of really great character traits--considerably more so than a lot of his peers who are not expelled from school. I ran into him recently and asked him how he got mixed up with a gang in the first place, and he explained to me that the neighborhood he lived in three years ago was overrun with members of a particular set. He faced constant and real danger if he did not join. He was 11 at the time.

Can anyone reading this honestly say that they--with no parental support and no governmental or societal protections in sight--at 11 years old would have chosen a life of constant and unabated assaults or even death over signing on the dotted line with a gang? Yet in the name of safety of all of the kids in school, he has been kicked out, a punishment that couldn't be more of a push in the direction of gang life than if the principal and school board had driven him to the local 'hood recruitment office and bought him a bandana and a tattoo. I agree that values and communication are very important. But morals could not protect this child in his old neighborhood, nor would our social infrastructure safeguard him from the threats of violence guaranteed by guns. Unless a last ditch effort to get him into an out-of-state military boarding school pans out, this is tantamount to a death sentence for this child.

And we, as a society, are apparently more than OK with that--as long as he has the decency not to be killed on school grounds or kill anyone else on the premises of our institutions of learning. "Location, location, location," as they say in real estate. The options are pretty clear. Wild out and spray up the cafeteria at the local school, and it's a national tragedy worthy of high-level hand-wringing. Get bucked on the block and you're a semi-anonymous prequel to the nightly news and an awkward 10-second segue to more compelling stories, like "What will they deep-fry next at the State Fair?"

P.S. Prior to his summit of smoking elephants, the president's administration attempted to cut from the budget $347 million that had been earmarked for state school safety grants.

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