My daughter came home from school alive today.
This was my thought on Thursday, January 19, when, despite a threat of gun violence scrawled on the wall of a bathroom in my sixth-grader's school, my daughter returned home safely after a day at school.
In a just world, such a sentence would never form in my mind to begin with, but this is America---land of Columbine and Sandy Hook Robb Elementary School---and in America, the parents of school-age children cannot simply assume that their children will not be murdered at school by a crazed gunman.
The threat was specific. Someone, almost certainly an 11- or 12-year-old student, had written, "Be Ready, January 19" on the wall, next to a drawing of a gun. The superintendent emailed the parents on Wednesday, January 18, to inform us of the threat. He wanted parents to know that he was doing everything possible to keep our children safe. They were taking all necessary precautions, he said. When I dropped her off at school on Thursday, he was standing there at the front entrance with two Marietta City police officers.
The threat of school shootings is always in the back of my mind, like a demon lurking in the shadows, but that week, I was forced to look it squarely in the face, and it stared back at me, unblinking and inscrutable.
After I dropped her off, I drove to my job. I work at a liberal arts college in Gwinnett County where I teach writing. I spent the day trying not to look at my phone, trying not to picture every grainy video clip I've seen of a school shooter calmly walking through the building with his long gun in hand, trying unsuccessfully to blot out everything I already know about mass shootings in schools---the thirteen horrifying attacks since the Stockton shooting in 1989, each one its own singularity of horror. I knew that if I looked at my phone, I would want to text my daughter, my wife, or the principal's office. None of these actions would have been helpful, so I restrained myself. We made the choice to send her to school, I reassured myself. So live with the decision.
The Terror was with me that day, silent, staring, unrelenting. Real terror, the kind I felt in the week after 9/11, advancing in waves and then retreating again into its subterranean cavern.
While on a break between classes, I did pick up my phone. I was searching for a news story about the threat but couldn't find one. Instead, I stumbled across an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about DeKalb County prosecutors charging protestors in the "Defend the Atlanta Forest" movement with "domestic terrorism." I read the article, trying to picture the scene in my mind: The protestors had ensconced and fortified themselves in trees, following the playbook of Earth First "tree-sitters" from the 1980s. They were part of a movement that is protesting the bulldozing of an 87-acre forest in Atlanta to make way for a police training center. The police arrived to dislodge them from their makeshift treehouses, firing tear gas at them. The protestors fought back, throwing bottles down at the police. And now they are now being charged with domestic terrorism.
I was disgusted reading this article because while I was feeling real terror on January 19, lawyers were bending the meaning of the word to prosecute a handful of people for occupying trees. Who among us, if we're being honest, is terrified by a handful of protestors barricading themselves in treetops? These are not the real purveyors of terror among us. No, that distinction must be reserved for that anonymous tribe of alienated, isolated, disturbed young men who, for reasons we don't quite understand, will separate themselves from society and then plan and carry out violent attacks on schools.
Some will want to dismiss my feelings, say that I am overreacting. It was just some graffiti on the wall, and besides, this is just a fact of life now. You sent your kid to school. You couldn't have been THAT afraid.
Yes, I sent my kid to school. My wife and I made a calculated, thoughtful decision. We discussed it with our daughter, who did not seem afraid to go under the circumstances. I drove her to school as I do every morning. I watched her walk into that building. I drove away.
But The Terror was still there. Terror does not respect your rational mind. It is not moved by arguments or evidence. It plants itself in the shadows of your mind and refuses to budge. This is why terrorism is such an effective strategy. For very little cost, the terrorist can sow existential dread in minds of millions of people. The Terror is raw power.
I think the young men who step out of the shadows of our dysfunctional society to commit these horrific acts also understand the power they are tapping into, the same way the political terrorist does. Many of the perpetrators of school shootings were themselves inspired by stories of other school shootings. They studied them, rehearsing them in their minds. Many of them had been violated or traumatized, and they reveled in violent fantasies about restoring their own power through extreme violence.
Some will read this essay and immediately want to deliver a sermon about gun control. Please refrain yourselves. Others will think it appropriate to suggest that teachers should be trained to carry guns in school, to protect against school shooters, more "good guys with guns." Please don't. There are no easy answers that can be rolled out in a Facebook post, and frankly, I've heard it all before, the partisan finger-pointing and the same tired slogans. School shootings have generated a familiar societal ritual, the "thoughts and prayers," the recycling of the same handful of arguments and policy proposals that are dead on arrival, the eventual return to a queasy sense of normalcy. I prefer instead to fully contemplate The Terror, to acknowledge the damage that it has done, to me and to our society. To admit that it is there, in the shadows, and that I am sometimes overwhelmed by it.
We shouldn't be hard on ourselves for not knowing how to solve our school shooting epidemic. The Terror is inscrutable. It hides its real motives. It will make a suicide pact and then end you and everyone else in its field of fire. It blots out love and compassion like a total eclipse of the sun. It will follow a single blazing thought to the grave. Such blind rage is not easily explained or eradicated once it has taken root, as it has in the many anonymous spaces in our society.
My daughter came home from school alive today. Someday, I will hopefully live in a society where such a thought would never even form in my mind.