On Thursday night, December 13, my wife Jeanie and I were privileged to be at the White House and listen to President Obama recall the "miraculous flame" that "brought hope and... sustained the faithful" as he and First Lady Michelle Obama joined leaders of the Jewish community to celebrate the festival of Hanukkah.
When the president spoke about the Jewish people's "everlasting hope that light will overcome the darkness, that goodness will overcome evil, and that faith can accomplish miracles," I could not help but reflect on my own improbable journey that had brought me from the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany where I was born, the son of parents who had survived the horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen only three years before, to this memorable candle lighting ceremony in the White House.
Less than 24 hours later, President Obama spoke to the nation with tears in his eyes about the shooting of 20 children and six staff members of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The murdered children, he said, "are our children. And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
Once again, we had been confronted with darkness, with evil, and with the somber realization that faith can only accomplish miracles if it is accomplished by decisive action, our action. "Can we say," President Obama asked on Sunday, December 16, at the moving interfaith prayer vigil in Newtown, "that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?" His answer to this most basic and yet most searing question captured the imperative confronting us as a nation. "We can't tolerate this anymore," he declared,
"These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. . . . If there's even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that's visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try."
The problem, of course, is that the National Rifle Association categorically rejects any legislation or regulation that might keep assault and semiautomatic weapons out of the hands of deranged killers. In a December 21 press conference and a Meet the Press interview yesterday, NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre refused even to consider any limitation whatsoever on unrestricted access to assault weapons or high capacity ammunition.
LaPierre is so far outside the mainstream that Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, hardly a mainstay of liberal thinking, referred to him on the front page of Saturday's issue as a "Gun Nut" and "NRA loon." The same day's New York Daily News called him the "craziest man on earth."
And yet the NRA's clout is such that distressingly few Republicans have been willing to deviate from its gospel. Appearing on Meet the Press immediately after LaPierre, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was evidently unwilling to say even a single word that might invoke the NRA's displeasure and instead seemed most concerned about his own continued ability to purchase yet another AR-15 semi-automatic -- he already owns at least one. His NRA-dominated colleagues on the Republican side of the Congressional aisle also appear to be marching in lockstep.
In contrast, a number of pro-gun Democratic U.S. Senators have spoken out loudly and unambiguously. Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he had been "summoned" by his conscience in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings to change his position, and that he would support legislation banning assault weapons and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. "The power of the weapon," he said, "the number of bullets that hit each child, that was so, to me, just so chilling, it haunts me. It should haunt every public official."
Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) believes that "there are an awful lot of folks who, like myself, who've got an A rating from the NRA that are willing to say, 'Enough.' We've got to find a way that you can responsibly own firearms in the country but put appropriate restrictions on some of those tools of ... mass killings." Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.VA), who describes himself as "an A-rated, lifelong member of the National Rifle Association and a proud defender of the Second Amendment," wrote in the Washington Post that,
"I support a sensible, comprehensive process that can lead to reasonable solutions regarding mass violence. I will weigh the evidence for any proposals put before me, including ways to address high-capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons, improve mental health treatment, and transform a culture that glorifies violence."
Which is not to say that there are not some principled Republican conservatives like MSNBC's Joe Scarborough who told his Morning Joe audience in an eloquent, heartfelt monologue last Monday that,
Entertainment moguls don't have an absolute right to glorify murder while spreading mayhem in young minds across America. And our Bill of Rights does not guarantee gun manufacturers the absolute right to sell military-style, high-caliber, semi-automatic combat assault rifles with high-capacity magazines to whoever the hell they want. It is time for Congress to put children before deadly dogmas. It's time for politicians to start focusing more on protecting our schoolyards than putting together their next fundraiser.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has called for gun control to be part of a "large, national discussion" together with mental health issues, substance abuse, and the desensitizing depiction of violence by the media and in video games. And U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns, a gun-owning conservative who was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush, called for far-reaching legislation in a Los Angeles Times op-ed:
Bring back the assault weapons ban, and bring it back with some teeth this time. Ban the manufacture, importation, sale, transfer and possession of both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Don't let people who already have them keep them. Don't let ones that have already been manufactured stay on the market. I don't care whether it's called gun control or a gun ban. I'm for it . . . . There is just no reason civilians need to own assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Gun enthusiasts can still have their venison chili, shoot for sport and competition, and make a home invader flee for his life without pretending they are a part of the SEAL team that took out Osama bin Laden.
But Scarborough, Christie and Burns are clearly the exceptions. The always contemptible Rush Limbaugh descended to a new low even for him when he actually scoffed in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. "I just got two emails," he brayed on his radio program on December 18. "I have three nieces. . . . You know what they say? 'Dear Uncle Rush: With all that's going on, do you think you should buy more guns?' Everybody else's daughters are saying, 'Get rid of your guns.' My nieces are asking me if I have enough! Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh."
I began this article with a contemplation of my own family history. My five-and-a-half year old brother, my mother's son, was murdered in an Auschwitz gas chamber. More than a million Jewish children, including all the children in my parents' respective families, were killed by the Germans and their collaborators during the Holocaust. Thousands upon thousands of them were machine gunned to death by SS men at killing sites such as Babi Yar in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and Ponary near Vilnius in Lithuania.
At the Newtown vigil, President Obama read out the names of the 20 Sandy Hook Elementary School children whom our society had been unable protect:
"Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Allison. God has called them all home."
Add to them six-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, who was killed last July in the Aurora, Colo, movie theater. And then there were six-year-old Arye Sandler, three-year-old Gabriel Sandler and eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego, who were gunned down last March by an Islamist terrorist in Toulouse, France, together with Arye and Gabriel's father, Rabbi Jonathan Sandler. And let us not forget the 20 children killed by Palestinian terrorists on May 15, 1974, in the northern Israeli town of Ma'alot. And the seven children murdered on August 9, 2001, in the Sbarro pizza restaurant suicide bombing in Jerusalem. And my brother, Benjamin, and all the Jewish, Sinti and Roma children butchered by the Nazis. And the children killed by terrorists in Northern Ireland, by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and in the genocides in Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia and elsewhere. The list of the children whom civilized society has failed is endless. We will never be able to list all their names.
Our "first task," President Obama said poignantly, is "caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged." Vice President Joe Biden, whom the president named to head an interagency gun violence task force, observed that, "even if we can only save one life, we have to take action." They are both, of course, absolutely right.
We cannot change the past. We cannot bring back to life a single murdered child. But all of us, regardless of party affiliation or political orientation, can and must do everything in our collective power to stop the carnage of our children in the future. That future must begin now, and meaningful, effective gun control has to be at the top of our list of priorities. Otherwise the anger we voiced and the tears we shed after the Newtown massacre will be bereft of meaning.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.