Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Marinette Shooting and the Culture of Fear

The headline last night -- "Armed student reportedly holding high school classroom hostage in Wisconsin" -- took my breath away. I live in Wisconsin. And I still desperately want to believe that things like that don't happen in Wisconsin.

But they do. As you now know, a 15-year-old male student held about two dozen students and a teacher hostage for almost five hours yesterday in Marinette, Wisconsin, a town of about 11,000 on the Wisconsin/Michigan border. The student fired shots in the classroom, but ultimately released all of the hostages. No one was injured, except the gunman, who shot himself when law enforcement officers stormed the classroom. The student died today.

No one was injured...seems like such a false and fake thing to say, doesn't it? The entire town was injured. Every single child in that room will be affected for a long, long time. Parents' hearts stopped last night as they waited to see what would happen. And somewhere in Marinette, a family is dealing with the worst possible grief tonight.

Tonight, his family is simultaneously grieving his death while trying to make sense of his actions -- while the world clamors to know what they knew when. They're dealing with grief and guilt and misunderstanding and hatred. They're wondering if they did enough, if they said something wrong, if somehow they could have prevented the whole fiasco. They'd do anything, I'm sure, to turn the clock back to tomorrow morning.

Most of us would, I think. Most of us would like to turn the clock back to pre-1999, pre-Columbine. Or maybe even pre-1997, pre-Paducah.

My oldest son was born in 1997. He has never known a world where students didn't shoot one another in school. Think about that. School shootings have, in some way, always been a part of my boys' world.

So has terrorism. My oldest son was not quite 3 when the Twin Towers fell; his brother was only 1. We were watching Sesame Street when we heard the news.

And while all of that has seemed far, far away, last night's situation thrust reality in my face. Violence is everywhere. Anger is everywhere. Depression is everywhere.

Fear is everywhere.

Our children are growing up in the culture of fear.

After one of these events, we talk about the human costs, the kids that die and the kids that kill. We talk about gun control and anti-bullying measures and resolve to make things better. But do we talk about the cumulative effects of fear? Do we talk -- at all -- about what it's like for today's kids to grow up in a world where violence may show up on their doorstep at any minute?

I realize that violence is a reality for far too many kids today. I realize that an insecure environment is nothing new for children in many parts of the world and even here in the USA. It's just that no one feels safe anymore. Not even residents of Middle-of-Nowhere, Wisconsin.

On some level, our children have come to expect random, extreme violence as part of life. In their world, it's entirely possible that the grandma in front of them at the airport is concealing a bomb in her brassiere, or that a class will end abruptly in a spray of gunfire.

What does that knowledge do to a developing brain? Will our children suffer from an inability to connect, to trust?

I don't know the answers. But I do know that succumbing to the fear will only make things worse. The only way -- the ONLY way -- out of this mess is to connect, to redevelop human connections.

When my children ask about Marinette, I will answer their questions. I will continue, however, to nurture their belief in the human spirit. I will continually point out all the wonderful and amazing people in this world who are working to make this world a better place. Just last night, I got an email from a neighbor who is organizing a fundraiser for a local couple who was recently diagnosed with cancer. (Yes, couple. Both husband and wife are staring at months of treatment and mounting medical bills.) A small-town fundraiser might not seem like much, but it's an example of people caring, people connecting. It's tangible proof that much good remains here in the world, despite the scary headlines.

I don't want my boys -- or yours -- to get lost in the culture of fear. Let's nurture their connections instead.


  1. This breaks my heart. I was living in NYC when the towers fell; I watched it from 4th and Broadway. My dad survived, but the man he sent to a meeting in his place did not. We will never forget it.

    I also remember being taken aside by my school when Columbine happened. The teachers were visibly shaken, and some were crying. My school was the sort of preppy private school where stuff like that never happens.

    I don't really have the option of sending my son to a private school, and I am terrified of the public school system. He's only 2, but it already weighs heavily on me.


  2. I want to thank you for this reminder to reinforce the good in this world rather than clinging to the bad. It is so easy to fall into that culture of fear, and although I want my boys to be aware of world events and be careful, I also do not want them to grow up in fear. So, thank you, for reminding me about this!

  3. On that note, last Friday a freshman in Onalaska was found with a 9mm and ammo at school. And an 8th grade student in La Crosse showed a pocket knife and threatened a girl when she was going to tell a different girl that he liked her.

  4. I often hear older people (like me) say, “Today’s public school experience isn’t much different from the one I lived in the 60’s or 70’s.” If their comment is about teaching methods, I agree. However, as your excellent post illustrates, the public school experience—in fact, the American experience—is clearly different and anyone who doubts the fact has yet to discover TV or the WWW, and still believes Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon was a staged event in the Arizona desert. Life IS different.

    It’s good to know there are special parents who talk with their children and “nurture their belief in the human spirit.” The body can be sick and the mind confused, but the human spirit remains our reservoir of strength in all situations, especially the challenging ones. Exceptional blog!