Last evening I participated in a memorial walk to honor five, local journalists who had been killed the previous day by an angry man with a shotgun. The senseless violence and inexplicable grief of which I’d read in countless articles, had now come to my town, to me and my friends.
We stood – perhaps 1,000 people, silent, dumbfounded by the helplessness and fear that washed over us.
The beautiful summer’s evening with a butter-yellow moon bathing us in its golden light contrasted with the tears and hollow stares of mourners, young and old, from all walks of life, and varied ethnic backgrounds. Leaders from city government and religious organizations offered their thoughts. A slip-of-a-girl in her tartan kilt played “Amazing Grace” on her bagpipes; candles flickered in the warm breeze. Our mayor, Gavin Buckley spoke to the gathered mourners, “The senseless killings are not us; this is us.”
But, I couldn’t help thinking, “No, the killings and violence, as well as the empathy and regret are us. We are the man with the weapons aiming down into a crowd of concert-goers. We are the adolescent boys in long trench coats with guns as big as they are, shooting children cowering in corners. And we are the teachers shielding our students with our own bodies.”
Michael Jackson sang in my head, “I want you to know / I’m starting with the man in the mirror / I’m asking him to change his ways / If you want to make the world a better place / Take a look at yourself, and then make a change…”
What am I doing with my candle and tears? Am I protecting the children, making sure they are safe, so they need not fear the opening of their classroom door, or the bang of a chair falling in the hallway? Am I speaking out for the young people whose lives are over and those left behind to grieve for them?
I see myself mirrored in the gray-haired men and women shuffling along with me. We carry signs, candles, heavy hearts. What are we thinking? I remember the marches against the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights actions, bus rides and sit-ins and National Guardsmen arrayed against college students in bellbottoms, and Guardian Angels in red berets.
What has changed in my country, besides my graying hair? Have I spent 30 years in high school classrooms, teaching young people to recognize Macbeth’s all-consuming will to power, asking students to feel the gut-wrenching fear as Elie Wiesel, a small boy, marches to the concentration camp. What did my young journalists learn as we put together stories of high school proms and science projects? Do they fight today to protect the Fourth Estate?
Did I teach my students to recognize the fragility of all we hold dear – life itself, freedom from fear of intimidation, the rights to vote and to receive an education? Did I teach them to appreciate the sacrifices made by their forbearers?
What has my country come to after 50 years? Have I failed to make a difference? Could I have done more to insure that my students would mature into wise men and women capable of identifying truth from falsehood, integrity from duplicity, courage from intimidation?
I looked around me as we walked silently down Main Street. Young parents with small children in strollers, teens holding hands and leaning into one another for comfort. What will they do to protect and defend this nation? Do they weep and then return to their busy lives?
How ironic that we are preparing to celebrate Independence Day and all the immigrants who came here, to Maryland and beyond, to build a new and better life for themselves and their children. We celebrate the Constitution, “with liberty and justice for all,” but is there less justice? Are our liberties being eroded?
Those five, murdered journalists gave their lives writing for the Capital Gazette newspaper that traces its founding to 1727. Will we protect the free press, the franchise, the immigrant?
My candle sputtered. The wax burned my skin, and that slight discomfort stirred me. I recalled Mother Teresa’s wise counsel, “Not all of us do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
I will go on marching, signing petitions, making phone calls, and teaching, I hope, by example. I will make what small difference can in this dark time.
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
– Mother Teresa
Photo: Debra Book Barrows