Kurt Vonnegut began his antiwar classic Slaughterhouse Five with a description of a visit to his old war buddy’s home. As they sat at the kitchen table and told stories about the war, his friend’s wife Mary was openly hostile toward them. She banged the dishes and glared as they spoke. Finally, she came right out with her frustration. You were just babies, she said to Kurt and his friend. Yet you’ll write a book about the war and make it sound heroic. The whole thing will be glorified, and then more fresh-faced kids, just babies, will be sent to die in the next war. Vonnegut took Mary’s words to heart and assured her that if he ever did write a book about the war it would be called The Children’s Crusade. That came to be the subtitle to Slaughterhouse Five.
I couldn’t help but think of the subtitle as I walked along the fence line outside an East Cooper public school on Thursday. On the day of the National School Walkout, students and teachers there had decorated the fence with the names and ages of hundreds of victims of school shootings. I moved from one name to the next — Natalie Brooks, age 11, Paige Herring, age 12, Jesse Lewis, age 6, Mary Miller, age 7, Gina Montalto, age 14 — and thought to myself that they were just babies. The children memorialized on the fence were actually far younger than the teenagers sent to fight in Vonnegut’s war, yet they were living in a war zone all the same. What else should we call it when innocents are regularly gunned down at their desks? How else do we understand a country where school lockdowns are commonplace? What is there to say when children practice hiding from intruders who may come to murder them? Our country has become a war zone, and our schools are on the front lines. According to a New York Times analysis of the data, since Sandy Hook in 2012, more than 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings. Our lawmakers wring their hands, cash their NRA checks, and say there is nothing they can do. Meanwhile, Parkland kids lead the nation in speaking out and CCSD kids tie butterflies and names to the fence. It’s a new kind of children’s crusade.
At the same time our youth are out front speaking with courage and conviction, many adults have behaved reprehensibly. Our governor Henry McMaster takes the cake, making national news for calling the walkouts “shameful.” Rather than showing solidarity with students begging for their lives, McMaster blamed the victims and played politics, alluding to some vast conspiracy, which he could neither name nor prove. It was a great way of changing the subject away from the fact that our state government hasn’t done a single thing to address gun violence in recent years. We in the Lowcountry are still waiting for lawmakers in Columbia to close what is nationally-known as the “Charleston loophole” that allowed Dylann Roof to buy a gun even though he failed the background check.
Governor McMaster claimed that kids who walked out were being used “as a tool” by others. Yet he is the one who seems a reliable shill. While our students are doing something new by raising their voices, peacefully protesting, and becoming active and engaged citizens, McMaster and others are doing the same old thing. They speak of rights without responsibilities and highlight the part of the Second Amendment they like while skipping its clear mention of regulation. They also disregard the rights of the rest of us to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, each of which would surely include living free of the fear of being gunned down in our schools, workplaces, and houses of worship.
It brings us back to the kitchen where Vonnegut sat with Mary. The governor and others make the Second Amendment sound heroic. They glorify it, and then more fresh-faced kids, just babies, die in the war zone our country has become. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. The children are now leading us in a crusade, and all of us who believe not only in rights, but in the responsibilities that go along with those rights, can join them. It’s too late for McMaster and others who are bought and paid for by special interests. But it’s not too late for the rest of us. We remember the names on the fence.