On a glass-bright New England Friday morning, I drove the two minutes from home to the local primary school, parked my car at the end of a long line of earlier birds, and passed up the sidewalk for a more direct route to the building across frost-covered recreation fields; I didn't want to be late for the holiday concert. This is my younger son's last year in elementary school, so I knew the event was the final link in a years-long chain of December school rituals.
Inside the garlanded school gymnasium, it all went according to plan. I sat in the same section of folding chairs as usual, greeted other parents I've known since our children were babies in daycare together, and scanned the bleachers mounted for the occasion until I located my son and several of his friends. The music teacher was ready to conduct; the piano player sat smiling, her fingertips on the keys. And indeed, once the children started to sing, the parents were all gratified to absorb just what they had come for: pure voices, a few giggles, the beauty of youth.
But before the children struck up their first tune at 9 a.m., the school principal came forward to make announcements. Mostly he extended thanks to the many people who had worked hard to make the holiday concert possible. But the first order of business, this year as in the past, was to explain what we all needed to do if an emergency occurred. How to evacuate, where to go. What the principal said was akin to the regular safety speech recited on every airplane -- standard procedure -- but the phrases never fail to chill me. I don't like even the suggestion of trouble intruding on the moment. There's no room for danger in a well-lighted gym, filled with cheerful adults and ten-year-olds sporting Santa hats.
On Friday, where I live the school morning unfolded happily. But despite the myriad protections of care, education, money and love -- the forces we call on to guard our days -- there was nothing to guarantee us against disaster. Not as long as guns are part of our lives. It would be a simple affair, any day, here as elsewhere, to walk in the school doors, pull out a firearm and start shooting.
Catastrophe took Newtown, Conn., just as the concert in my town was letting out. Nothing and no one can repair the holes torn in those families' lives. Our compassion is universal and heartfelt, our condolences deeply sincere. But our outrage must be greater. There will be experts to review detailed accounts of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora and Oak Creek. There will be historians and scholars to interpret the Constitution's Second Amendment. But simple citizens and parents are plenty wise enough to feel that the lives lost are irretrievable, and to know that the reason for the loss is inexcusable.
A society free of gun violence is not a pretty fantasy, it's a realizable goal. In fact, there are places where it's a realized goal. Disregarding the templates of such countries as Canada, the UK and France on this score bespeaks willful ignorance, hardbitten obstructionism or hopeless resignation. Who wants to choose among those three? The world is collectively aghast at how the United States legislates, or doesn't, the sales and possession of firearms. And while the U.S. continues to enjoy a reputation as a land of freedom and opportunity, no one among the industrialized nations envies us our record on guns.
But for all the horror that onlookers in other countries feel, that is not our prmary concern; it's we who are on the front lines. Without choosing, accepting, or acquiescing to the risk of random obliteration, we live it. By definition, each of us is in the crosshairs, no matter how sunny the morning or well scrubbed and pleasant the school. We need to take ourselves out of range.