Out of the Zoo: When Historians Ask “Why”

 

march for our lives

Some friends and I participated in a “March for our lives” in Kalamazoo back in March 2018.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about her gun violence and her current research paper.  –JF

I don’t think I’m alone in saying I prefer not to think about my middle school years. I had braces, acne, and wore virtually the same outfit every day of the week. A self-proclaimed tomboy with a secret girly side, a goody-two-shoes who still wanted to be seen as “cool,” I still had a lot of things to figure out. I guess there were some good things that happened to me in middle school too– I got to learn history from Mr. Bussies, one of my favorite teachers of all time, and started what would become a six year track and field career. But all this being said, there’s no denying that middle school was a dark time.

At any rate, my middle school years were also dark for another, more serious reason. I was in seventh grade when a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut sent the nation reeling. I had always been pretty aware of current events growing up–I would hear about major hurricanes and earthquakes as they occurred, and I even knew about the movie theater shooting that took place in Colorado earlier that year–but I had never heard about anything like this. I remember my family turning on the news to find it plastered with reports of twenty-seven lives lost, flashing images of an elementary school surrounded by flashing police lights and a maze of crime scene tape. The next day in my current events class we learned more about the tragedy and discussed it together. All I remember thinking was why? Why would someone kill so many innocent people? Why could something like this happen? Why an elementary school of all places? 

Fast forward half a century into 2018. Yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, shocked and outraged students, teachers, and lawmakers around the country. Students organized walk outs and marches and cried out for reform. Even then, six years later, we still asked why. Why would someone do this? Why did it happen again? Why are we still fighting this battle?

As it turns out, we’ve been fighting this battle for much longer than I originally thought. I came across the topic of school violence yet again when mulling over potential subjects for my Historical Methods (HIST 258) research paper this semester. After nixing a few ideas for the essay, I thought it might be beneficial for me, a future teacher, to research something related to education. After a few minutes of brainstorming and Google searching, I discovered that one of the first major incidents of school violence not only took place in Michigan, my home state, but it occurred nearly a century ago, in 1927. This tragedy, a bombing at Bath Consolidated School, claimed 44 lives–as much as Sandy Hook and Parkland combined.

I’ve only just begun researching the Bath tragedy. Even so I find myself asking the same question I did back in 2018 and 2012: Why? However as I continue to study the tragedy, and as I learn more about the discipline of history, I am reminded there is rarely a simple answer to such a question. There is rarely a simple answer to any historical question for that matter. People don’t often fit into the neat little boxes we try to cram them into–even mass murderers, especially mass murderers, are far more complex than that. We try to decipher causes, try to put ourselves in century-old shoes, but our undertaking always turns out to be more ambitious than we planned. That’s why studying history is so hard sometimes. When we ask why, we tend to want a simple, neat answer that we can easily turn into some groundbreaking discovery or concise thesis statement. But what we have to learn to accept is the fact that the past is messy. People are messy. So it is up to us to decide whether or not we want to dive right into the mess.

Out of the Zoo: “Leave Them Scratching Their Heads”

Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman speaks at the Messiah College Humanities Symposium

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about what she learned from a recent lecture on campus.  Enjoy! –JF

If you were on Messiah’s campus last Thursday, you may have had the privilege to hear Marian Wright Edelman give the keynote address for Messiah’s 2019 humanities symposium titled “Toward the Common Good: Ending Child Poverty in the U.S.” A graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund and has worked tirelessly on behalf of disadvantaged children for many years. She held nothing back Thursday and quickly called her South-Central Pennsylvania audience to action. She repeatedly emphasized that we cannot be satisfied until all of America’s children are lifted out of poverty. Kids only get one childhood, Edelman explained, so we need to be moving with a sense of urgency.

So how do we do that? To put it in a few words, Edelman said good change is done in scuttwork, in the menial but manageable tasks necessary to meet pressing needs. We must be persistent, and cannot be afraid to be a little pushy in our pursuit of meaningful reform. We don’t have to be “big dogs,” to use Edelman’s term, gnawing off the heads of our nation’s problems, but instead we can be “fleas” who keep policymakers scratching until they’ve had enough.

History is painted with buzzing fleas who, in pursuit of a worthwhile cause, pestered and pushed dreams into realities. Suffragettes were fleas who bit and tormented until they got to vote. They marched, lobbied, wrote and rallied until it was easier for the government to comply with their wishes than to keep resisting their efforts.

The Civil Rights movement was full of fleas, too. One flea planted herself in a bus seat, and when she was forced to move others decided to walk to work in protest. Some fleas sat down at lunch counters even though they knew they wouldn’t be served. Nine more young fleas from Arkansas went to a school where they weren’t wanted. More than 200,000 fleas marched up to the Lincoln Memorial on a hot August day in 1963 to listen to Martin Luther King call for change.

Since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year a new swarm of fleas has emerged in the public eye. These fleas, fed up with recurring gun violence in American schools and seeking to make learning a safe endeavor for everyone, started a movement of their own.

Real change is rarely done by the “big dogs” who try to single-handedly tear down injustice, no matter how strong they are or how eloquently they speak; real change is done by the fleas who persist, band together, and don’t go away. Anyone can be a flea, Edelman urged her audience; if we follow the need with a united front, even the smallest of actions can lead to great change.

Marilynne Robinson on Guns

robinson_examinedlife_ba_img

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author believes that carrying a gun is “an immoral act.”  Eric Allen Been interviews Robinson at Vox.  Here is a taste:

Eric Allen Been

It’s probably some magical thinking here, but I’m starting to get the feeling that we’re finally hitting a breaking point when it comes to guns in this country.

Marilynne Robinson

It’s uplifting to see how articulate these young people are. They are so incisive in their thinking and passion. All we’ve been hearing about is how schools are failing and the rest of it. But I don’t think we’ve ever had young people that were more beautiful specimens of ideals and insightfulness. It’s beautiful.

Eric Allen Been

What are your thoughts about the [National Rifle Association’s] proposal, which Trump endorsed, to have armed teachers in school?

Marilynne Robinson

Normalizing the idea that we should all go around capable of a lethal act at any moment is completely corrupt and crazy. I wouldn’t carry a gun. The reason I wouldn’t carry a gun is because it is an immoral act walking around imagining you’re going to kill someone. It’s a recipe for a completely deranged society. It’s grotesque.

I acknowledge the intimate difficulties that seem to be involved in this thing, but if guns were banned, it would not hurt my feelings. But that’s impossible to imagine. As a practical matter, they will be around forever, probably in enormous numbers. But if they weren’t, I’d be happy.

Read the entire interview here.

The National Rifle Association’s Turn From Its Own History

Image: US-POLITICS-CONCERVATIVES

Historian Neil J. Young reminds us that the NRA did not always behave like a gun “cult.”

Here is a taste of his Huffington Post piece “The NRA Wasn’t Always A Front For Gun Makers.”

…But the NRA’s delusion exposes not only its moral rot, but also its continual turn from its own history. Begun as an organization devoted to education and safety, it’s only in the last 50 years that the NRA has instead dedicated itself to preserving the very circumstances that most endanger Americans’ lives today, especially the nation’s schoolchildren.

In 1871, the NRA was founded by William Church, a lawyer, and George Wingate, a former newspaper reporter. Wingate explained his new organization’s purpose as working to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.”

To that end, the NRA operated mostly as a sporting club and hunting association for its first 100 years. It put a heavy emphasis on gun safety education and training, especially for young people. Church and Wingate had been inspired to create their organization in part from their experience as soldiers during the Civil War, where they had been appalled by the poor marksmanship skills of their fellow fighters. Guns were dangerous, especially in untrained hands, the two men understood. The NRA organized safety clinics and target-shooting competitions to teach young men (and later women) proper gun use and the obligations of responsible firearm ownership.

Read the rest here.

The Founding Fathers and Gun Laws

CornellI have been waiting for Fordham University historian Saul Cornell to weigh-in on guns and the Second Amendment in the wake of the Parkland shooting.  In this piece at “The Conversation” he suggests “five types of gun laws the Founding Fathers loved.”

They are:

  1. Registration
  2. Public Carry
  3. Stand-your-ground laws
  4. Safe storage laws
  5. Loyalty oaths

See how Cornell develops these thoughts here.

And then go read his A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.  Cornell is the National Rifle Association’s worst nightmare.

 

Evangelical Leaders: Gun Control=Pro-Life

Schenk

Evangelical gun control advocate Rob Schenck

Frankly, I can’t keep up with all the “petitions” and “statements” released by evangelicals in the age of Trump.  But this one caught my attention.  Sixteen evangelical leaders have signed the following statement:

As faithful churchgoers and leaders in the evangelical Christian community, we are heartbroken and deeply concerned about the gun violence that continues to plague our nation. 

Day after day, week after week, we are witnessing one deadly shooting after the other. None of us are safe, even in the safe havens of our churches and schools. 100,000 Americans will be shot this year; more than 30,000 will die, including many children. 

As we mourn for our brothers and sisters who have died, we pray fervently for their friends and family who grieve. We also accept and declare that it is time to couple our thoughts and prayers with action. Our actions might look different for each one of us, depending on how gun violence has uniquely affected us and those we love, be it mass shootings, suicide by gun, domestic abuse, gang violence, or other gun-related acts of violence. We ask all Christian leaders to join together as brothers and sisters in Christ to become part of the solution.

We acknowledge our Biblical responsibility to protect life by lovingly guiding those who are suffering from severe mental illnesses to the appropriate professional resources, by urging America’s lawmakers to pass common-sense gun laws, and by encouraging gun owners to take precautions against the risks associated with allowing firearms in their homes when children are present or when a family member is dealing with crisis.

With this petition, we call on our fellow Christian believers, church leaders, and pastors across the country to declare that we will decisively respond to this problem with both prayer and action

Signers include Rob Schenk, Max Lucado, Joel Hunter, Lynne Hybels, and former court evangelical A.R. Bernard,

“Is there any act of depravity to which the less respectable right-wing media cannot imagine a connection for George Soros?”

Soros

George Soros

Kevin Williamson is fed-up with his fellow conservatives. Here is a taste of his piece at The National Review:

First it was the Holocaust, now Parkland — is there any act of depravity to which the less respectable right-wing media cannot imagine a connection for George Soros?

David Clarke, the sheriff of Fox News, insisted that the Florida students’ reaction to the shooting “has GEORGE SOROS’ FINGERPRINTS all over it,” idiotic capitalization in the original and, one assumes, in his soul. The idiots at Gateway Pundit suggested that one of the student survivors was a fraud because — get this — he’d been interviewed on television before about an unrelated incident. Dinesh D’Souza joined in to mock the students as patsies.

To be fair, D’Souza doesn’t think George Soros is behind Parkland — he thinks George Soros was behind the Holocaust.

About that, a few thoughts.

There are many reasons to dislike George Soros. The slander that he was a Nazi is not one of them.

Read the rest here.

“Incomprehensible and we can’t let it pass by”

This is what court evangelical Johnnie Moore said on Fox News yesterday.  And no, he wasn’t referring to the shooting in Parkland.  He was referring to Joy Behar’s remarks about Mike Pence.  While the nation’s attention is riveted on this shooting and we are trying to figure out what to do next to curb gun violence, court evangelical Moore, who describes himself as a “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” is on Fox News talking about the words of a B-list comedian on a daytime talk show.  Is this how Moore and Fox News distract attention from the real moral issue facing the country this weekend?

Why doesn’t Moore come out and say that the Florida shooting was “incomprehensible and we can’t let it pass by”?

Why have the court evangelicals been so silent beyond “thoughts and prayers?”

Should We Repeal the Second Amendment?

Guns

Flickr photo via Creative Commons

I would support an effort to repeal.  Historian Michael Oberg makes a case at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.  Here is a taste:

No matter what arguments the advocates of gun control deploy — that the phrase “well regulated” implies some ability on the part of government to limit gun rights; that the verb construction to “bear arms” has been used almost always to describe a military use for weapons; that the Constitution is a “living” document that ought to be interpreted in the light of changing circumstances; and that the Founding Fathers could never have considered that the sort of violence acted out in Las Vegas or Orlando or Newtown a justifiable example of  bearing arms — the advocates of “gun rights” will always have their tendentious reading of the Second Amendment to defend their position.            So let’s repeal the Second Amendment. It is dated, lethal, and morally abhorrent. The Constitution is not a sacred text. It is a framework for government, the product of dozens of compromises. The men who framed the document envisioned that it would be changed. They made the process difficult and time-consuming, but it has happened.

The Second Amendment emerged out of a context unique to a new nation. When it was ratified, America’s leaders relied upon the militia for local defense, to punish Indians, and control slaves, and in a nation separated from its imperial rivals by the Atlantic, the militias were barely adequate to that task. But the conditions from which the Second Amendment emerged obviously no longer apply.

Repealing the Second Amendment would deprive no one of their guns, but it would empower the Congress and state legislatures to do something effectively to end the slaughter….

Read the rest here.

Pro-Life and Pro-Gun: Part Two

Shooting At High School In Parkland, Florida Injures Multiple People

The members of the House of Representatives who get the most money from the NRA are listed below.  Their current anti-abortion voting score from National Right to Life is in parentheses next to their names.  Find the list of Senators here.

French Hill of Arkansas (100%)

Ken Buck of Colorado (100%)

David Young of Iowa (100%)

Mike Simpson of Idaho (100%)

Greg Gianforte of Montana (100%)

Don Young of Arkansas (100%)

Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania (100%)

Bruce Poliquin of Maine (87%)

Pete Sessions of Texas (100%)

Barbara Comstock of Virginia (87%)

Trump Follows the Presidential Script in the Wake of the Florida School Shootings

Trump
I was happy to contribute to Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

Trump’s speech mimics a long American tradition of using religion to address a national tragedy.

“We expect our president to address evil and calm fears in this way,” said John Fea, a professor of history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “There is nothing in the United States Constitution that says the president must do this, but we still expect it from the man or woman who holds the office.”

Trump’s speech on Thursday closely followed a familiar presidential script, according to Daniel K. Williams, a professor of history at the University of West Georgia. The speech showed how Trump, who is unlike his predecessors in so many ways, conformed.

After the Charlottesville protests last year, Williams said, many Americans expected a speech to follow these categories, but Trump got into trouble for not delivering one and instead suggesting that there was blame on “both sides.”

Trump used the word “evil” in his speeches last year after the mass shootings at a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., and during a concert in Las Vegas.

Read the entire piece here.

Here are some additional thoughts about Trump’s speech today:

This is a typical speech from a POTUS in the wake of a tragedy, but let’s remember that Trump is not a typical president.  His words here must be considered in the context of other speeches and the policies he defends.  A few quick points:
  1. The reference to prayer is pretty standard fare for presidential speeches in the wake of tragedy, but in Trump’s case it seems like pandering to his evangelical base.  As an evangelical, I believe in prayer.  It is necessary in times like this.  But as many are saying on social media (and have said in the wake of other shootings), prayers aren’t enough.  We need to take action on guns.  Even the court evangelicals believe that the purpose of government is to protect its citizens.  Yet don’t expect them to condemn the pro-NRA politicians any time soon.  The court evangelicals need the NRA lobby to help them get the right candidates, with the right views on abortion and religious liberty, into office.
  2. Trump’s reading off the teleprompter makes him sound like he lacks emotion and empathy.  I am reminded of when Obama started to cry in the wake of Sandy Hook.
  3. Trump says: “Answer hate with love, answer cruelty with kindness.”  I am thinking about this phrase in light of Trump’s immigration and “America first” policy.  I thought the same thing when he said “we must embrace a culture…that embraces the dignity of life.”  The same could be said of his call to create “deep and meaningful human connections.”  Trump can’t really mean this.  His policies and policy programs have cultivated division and disunity.  This is empty rhetoric, not the words of presidential leadership.