The Blank Page

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 16, 2018 / 1 Adar 5778


Summary: Rabbi Kosak reflects on the school shooting in Parkland, Florida and provides an action plan to address these horrifically recurring massacres.

What I wanted to do was send out a blank message this week. I wanted people to open the Oasis Songs link and see nothing but white, and know that like you, I’m speechless once again. Maybe just two words in large font at the top: Parkland, Florida.

And then emptiness.

Because when tragedies occur, we need to allow ourselves moments of not-doing, not-solving, not hollering-in-outrage. Just sit in the absolute “there is nothing to say that hasn’t been said and I am powerless in front of what already was.”

But our age doesn’t really understand silent screams. And at some level, school shootings are the very opposite phenomena. They are the most audible scream. Maybe before the point when a gunman picks up arms, maybe in the long months or years that lead up to their heinous and devastating acts, maybe in that stretch of time they are screaming silently in ways that no one can hear. Maybe we don’t stop to listen. Actually, I have no uncertainty on that. We don’t and we can’t listen in a sufficiently deep and real way to all the pain and alienation in the world. We can’t respond to the vastness of suffering and rage that leads a seventeen year old to murder one person for each of his years. There’s just too much of it coming at us in our wired-all-the-time world.

Or maybe we just don’t want to listen that way.

By now, we all know the routine. If at this point we aren’t inured to the periodic slaughter of our precious children, we soon will be. We will listen to the pundits and the activists shouting for change over the next couple of weeks, and then slowly, the silence of indifference will overpower any kernels of societal will to take action. We will forget, because we have to. In the absence of hope, amnesia is the only rational response.

Each time one of these school shootings occur, I also reevaluate my thinking. I refuse to forget, however, because I am not hopeless. I believe we can end this scourge. Here’s where I’m at:

1. Gun control won’t stop school shootings for a long time. With 350 million guns in circulation, those who want to get their hands on guns will be able to for decades if not a century. And still, we need to treat guns like a public health issue and regulate, restrict and vet their usage and ownership. We need to incorporate advanced safety features and a host of other “intelligent” technologies into our weapons. We need to do all of this yesterday. Everyone of us benefit from productive actions that previous generations took on our behalf. We need to pay back this debt to future generations. But here’s a link to some data as to why guns are the main culprit.

2. Addressing mental health issues won’t stop school shootings. Most people with mental health issues aren’t violent. Most people whose mental health issues cause them to be violent don’t gather guns and shoot other people, and even fewer do in schools. Lots of people are able to cover up their mental illness for long periods of time, so they’ll escape detection. And although we may not like to admit it, you don’t need to be mentally ill to murder people. You just need to have sufficient rage and feel unheard for too long. That’s all it will take. Nonetheless, we need to provide more resources to help those who are wrestling with mental illness, both those who are violent and those who are not. It’s what a decent society does.

3. Today’s Wall Street Journal had an editorial arguing that the only or best way to reduce mass shootings is to have more people armed. They then provided a couple of case studies where an armed bystander put an end to the attack. I don’t understand the metrics behind this approach. We already have 350 million guns in circulation. How many more do we need so that everyone is armed? What could be done to ensure that innocent bystanders aren’t killed in such friendly fire? How does a society determine which data they will utilize when embarking on such a dangerous venture? What meaningful evidence do we have that more armed people results in reduced societal harm? And if this argument is correct, why do so many countries with far lower rates of gun ownership not have the same or greater issues with mass shootings? Or does this approach of more armed people only work for a country that is already armed to the teeth?

4. If our national descent into polarized tribes continues unabated, the sort of rage and alienation that can lead to mass shootings is only liking to increase. We need a new civics that seeks common ground and a common narrative. That’s hard to achieve in an age where few people on the left or right actually believe in America anymore. What I mean is that we seem too cynical to imagine a vision and a purpose for our country that all can ascribe to. It is easier to blame those who think differently. Moreover, a new civics will take as many generations to gain a foothold as  meaningful gun control would. Yet we owe this to our children’s children also.

5. We have to develop new communal organizations and institutions where we can encounter one another and forge bonds that transcend narrow ideologies and beliefs. Clearly, Kiwi and Rotary Clubs aren’t compelling service organizations. So let’s create structures for our time that achieve what those older models did in their own era.

6. We need to strengthen our schools’ defenses. I can’t say that it is a good thing when a society needs to barricade and hunker down in its educational institutions. In fact, it’s a very bad thing even as it is a very necessary thing. We need metal detectors and we need equipment that can “smell” explosive materials like gunpowder. This also won’t eliminate shootings; I know this from personal experience. Hebrew University had a very hardened campus, and still the terrorists got explosives into the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria there. But we ought to do what we can to make it harder for potential shooters.

7. Our goal can’t be no school shootings or no mass shootings. Is that something I want? Of course. But whenever we turn to absolutes we doom ourselves to all sorts of failures. Especially when we wade into the culture wars–and guns are a deep part of this divide–using an absolute as a goal post means those against the efforts will be able to point out how misguided the effort is.

What we need are sensible and achievable goals. How many shootings a year do we have? How many victims are killed on average? Let’s aim to reduce the incidence rate by 5% a year, let’s track it, and let’s celebrate when we achieve such small victories. After all, those wouldn’t be small victories–they would be saved lives.

We know our political class currently have little incentive to embark on such a multi-pronged approach. This is not a statement of blame. Legislation doesn’t regularly address broad-scope, decades-long solutions to social ills. At best, laws can only pursue a few of these correctives. It’s going to take all of us taking action on the grass roots level while encouraging our legislators to make the fixes they can.

In the meantime, let yourself be a blank page. Feel the enormity of what happened. Sit shivah with it. Grieve. Then, having mourned properly, I hope that those dismal feelings won’t paralyze you, but motivate you.

May it be a sabbath of peace for all of us,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

Here’s some questions for your shabbat table talk. Look at the above ideas. Come up with your own. Then ask yourself:

  1. What will I do to make the world safer?
  2. How will I measure if my approach is successful?
  3. In what ways will I reevaluate if my initial attempts don’t meet my stated goal?