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A Deafening Silence

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"I want to be a veterinarian, and I want to go to Princeton University," a smiling 15-year-old girl told us when we were filming at KIPP: Believe, a high-performing charter school in New Orleans. Tell us more, we said. "I want to finish college because I want to have that pride in myself that, to know that I finished something, that I went somewhere and I finished it," Christine Marcelin added.

Watching her speak, one senses that Christine has what it takes, and it's easy to imagine her becoming a successful vet, or perhaps a doctor or business leader.

Her history teacher, Scarlett Feinberg, shared that view:

Christine always cared how other people were feeling, she put her team first always. She really cared that her friends were successful too, and she would talk to her classmates about being better. She embodied hope that we could be the change we want to see in New Orleans, and no matter how hard things were, she believed that we could all work together and make a difference. She was counting down the days to start high school because it was a step closer to college, getting her degree and beginning a career helping others.

If you read that paragraph carefully, you noted that Ms. Feinberg spoke about Christine in the past tense. She won't be going to Princeton, won't be a veterinarian and won't have a long life dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans and helping others.

Christine Marcelin was brutally murdered a few days ago.

So was another KIPP: Believe student, 15-year-old Brandon Adams. The 8th grader was fatally shot a few days before Christine was killed. Brandon was a successful student, a good athlete and a student leader, according to published reports. The two 8th graders were dating.

The school held a vigil, which you can see here.

The speculation is that Brandon got into a playground scuffle a day or two before he was murdered and that the likely killers were the young men he argued with. They went gunning for him and then, perhaps fearing that he had told his girlfriend the names of the guys he had fought with, kidnapped and executed her, then dumped her body in a deserted part of the city.

Six other New Orleans students have been shot and killed this year.

Kids murdering kids is not unique to New Orleans. We've seen mass murders on college campuses in Virginia and California, and school killings since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 have become almost routine.

This is not happening because today's kids are different. Adolescents are no more volatile, insecure, energetic and full of doubt than any previous generation. What's different is that guns are available. We tolerate the proliferation of handguns because we won't confront the radical minority known as the National Rifle Association, the NRA. Although the NRA apparently doesn't even speak for the majority of gun owners, it has become one of the most powerful forces in American politics, powerful enough to scare politicians into silence or -- more likely -- acquiescence.

(Not all politicians are afraid. I live in a city whose mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has been forceful and courageous on this issue. He knows that the flood of guns endangers his police officers and his constituency, and he's willing to speak out. But even when other mayors join with our mayor, the Congress remains dominated by a collection of cowards.)

Because of the NRA, we are courting anarchy. A growing number of states have laws that allow proto-fascist vigilantes to strap on a gun and go searching for trouble, knowing that, even if they kill someone, they can walk because the law allows them to 'Stand Their Ground.'

The NRA's mantra, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people," is nonsense. People with access to guns kill people. The autobiography of charismatic educator Geoffrey Canada describes in vivid detail how things have changed. In fact, his brilliant title says it all: Fist Stick Knife Gun.

When I was a kid, we wrestled and maybe threw some punches when we were out of control mad. Today, we shoot someone.

But this column is not an assault on the wackos who run the NRA and people who believe that carrying a gun -- anywhere and everywhere -- makes everyone safer.

I want to know where all the leaders have gone. Where are the university presidents, once moral and ethical leaders of our nation? Remember Clark Kerr, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, James Bryant Conant, Fr. Timothy Healy, Bart Giamatti, Kingman Brewster and Robert Maynard Hutchins? The nation once looked to them for counsel, and they were willing to speak forcefully on the key moral issues of our time.

We are living in an age of economic inequality that is unprecedented, but have the presidents of Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Chicago or Princeton spoken out? They must be aware that nearly 25% of our children are growing up in poverty and being denied a fair shot at what we used to call The American Dream, and yet they are silent.

Gun violence is tearing our urban centers apart, and the blood that's most often shed seems to be that of promising young children. Why the deafening silence from our leading campuses?

I was on the campus of Notre Dame earlier this week and had the privilege of spending 30 minutes with Fr. Hesburgh, now nearly 95. 'Father Tim' happens to be one of my heroes, but this was the first time I'd had the opportunity to shake his hand. Though hampered by failing eyesight, he is as bright, strong and forceful as anyone I know, and I walked away from our meeting inspired by him -- but depressed by the resounding silence of those occupying university presidential suites today.

Why the silence? One Notre Dame sociologist suggested that presidents are too busy raising money these days. They can't risk offending the hedge fund managers they are counting on to write big checks.

If so, it's a bitter irony. As government continues to withdraw its support from higher education, higher education is becoming more dependent upon the generosity of the very wealthy... and that makes it difficult for university presidents to speak out about the dangers of income inequality (and perhaps other controversial subjects as well). By not supporting higher education, government is, it turns out, buying its silence! It's not pleasant to envision where this downward spiral leads.

Whenever you vote, think about Christine Marcelin, Brandon Adams, Trayvon Martin and the other young lives snuffed out because we haven't cared enough to insist on building a civil society.

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