HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Children keep paying the price for US fanaticism over guns
In the aftermath of yet another school shooting in the US last week, I contacted a few friends in America who work in journalism and data visualisation to help supply me with data on what the hell is going on with gun control in the country and other statistics like how many innocent lives have been lost, what the numbers are on school shootings, specifically and a mapping out of states where they potentially occur most. For example, are they the red states, where about 50 representatives in the senate are standing in the way of better gun control laws, or do they just occur anywhere, equally. Spread over the country like an epidemic.
What would the red dots on a digital map reveal? My American sources agreed that I would get some form of engaging and even perhaps gamified content on Monday, but this morning I woke up and realised it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter what the stats are. One is enough. It doesn’t matter how many mass shootings there have been - one is enough. It doesn’t matter how many bodies of children are being used as payment for the security of the rights for citizens of the country to bear arms without paying any attention to the rights of others. One body is more than enough. A picture doesn’t matter. Even if I drew it in crayons and described it in terms that a five-year-old would understand, it still won’t make a difference.
Right is right and wrong is wrong. Simple as. Your political leanings don’t matter. Your power doesn’t matter. Your influence to uphold the second amendment should go out the door. It doesn’t matter. Where is your humanity? Your compassion? Your moral fibre? Your guilt and your principles? Where is your sense of care and your responsibility to recognise what is frankly a black and white situation? There is no nuance or colour that needs to fill the gaps of the gun control conversation because there is only one correct answer, change it. And change it now. I don’t need to wait for a picture to paint a thousand words for something that just requires three: fix this problem.
Writers read more than they write. It’s an overwhelming and emotionally draining task on any given day. But when that reading involves a week of thousands and thousands of words on gun violence in the US, just as an example of the consumption of many crimes against humanity, it is more than overwhelming. It is demoralising, destructive and disturbing. Words and thoughts are oppression and freedom all at once. And the pen is flagpole that bends with the winds of no positive change, that leans on the side of despondency in the faulty systems of democracy, which we still cling on to so desperately in the name of hope or all that is fair and good. But in the words of Billy Jean King, pressure is a privilege, so to say something, to be able to say something is dispensation.
Before sitting down to gather these paragraphs in what I hope are an accessible format, I sat down, as I always do to think about this piece's structure.
What do I want a sentence or a word to emote? What do I want it to look like? What do I want the reader to see, to think, to take away? How will I move from one emotion, one intention, to another? What are the facts and what are the feelings? We pass over the structure of things before even telling the story, thousands of times. Sometimes this makes the writing easier, sometimes, still, the writing is not good at all. Most times fleshing out a story like this feels good. It doesn’t make us happy, but it feels good to add meat to the bones of a situation for someone out there to see or understand.
Before writing this, when I was still prepping it for next week, I spent hours stringing the format together. Scribbles of what should go where. What meaning and purpose does it have? Is this the time for it? In the case of this column, my answers are, perhaps it has no purpose, maybe there is no meaning in the madness, no point to writing it about it all, but I woke up feeling like it was definitely the time. And maybe time will change its meaning, and the meaning of incidents like this itself even though it’s not the type of story we ever, or I really ever, want to tell.
“There has been another mass shooting in the United States”, what an odd thing to say. What a discomforting thing to hear. And yet, so normalised. But still, it burns the skin and the soul every time it happens, or at least it should. Even if we’re used to the pain we feel for others, just like being burnt, the amount of keloids we have developed over scarred tissue will not protect us. The wound still stings and in most cases, a fresh scald should be more painful than the last. A transgression on one life is a transgression on us all. A single human rights violation is a violation on us all. And the flames matter, especially if they never, ever go out.
I left the systemic plan behind and wrote blind but aware. I didn’t think about where the feeling of the piece would go, because it is everywhere.
We cannot allow ourselves to get used to a fire whose embers will simply not be allowed to turn to dead ash. A fire fuelled by many, many innocent lives. In the case of the US mass shootings, that number is: four or more people, dead, with approximately 212 mass shootings this year alone. That leaves us with a minimum of 848 lives lost in 2022 due to mass killings, and raging gunmen at schools, places of worship and opening fire for no reason at black elderly citizens in Buffalo, New York just a couple of weeks before the Uvalde kid killing spree. It is May.
We talk of gurneys and stretchers and the pointlessness of trusting our institutions or even hugging our kids when all we have is the experience or potential of losing them to higher powers that will not do anything. And that’s not to say we shouldn’t hug our children or be deeply involved in the discourse of change. But what is the sense in it all when the actions are so hurtfully senseless. And that senselessness, for the writer, is matched by a healthy degree of haunting futility in saying something.
So with that in mind, I am not writing this column to discuss gun control, to ask that the Second Amendment be revised, a process that should have taken places and changes put into practice since its inception in 1791. I am writing it for the archive of memory. For the days when you and I and us and them have to revert to things said and things that should have been said about a time – that still exists – where we have to talk about people opening fire on the unarmed and innocent lives of way too many. Even though through all the insurmountable times we shake our heads, throw up our hands, shout, life will go on. The capitalist system in the US will continue to advertise consumption through happy ads. Radio DJs will still play joyous music. And personal ad websites will keep running for things like parts to a car that won’t run anymore or calling for customers of any kind – from the penis enlargement promiser, to the guaranteed “change who you are” life-coach. The world will keep turning, and us with it and we will pass this time, the information will die down eventually but the memory must not, even if we are designed to go on while the world falls apart.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: “What makes heroic? To face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope.” He was referring to depression and the rehabilitation of hope. But I think it applies here.
My only hopeful stance right now, my intention I suppose, is that the day will come where we look back, where America looks back and says: How did we allow our people to live like that? Or more significantly: How did we allow them to die like that?
For now, when it comes to facing a great suffering in the world on so many subjects, I have to ask, is our only option to let it burn?
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa. Follow her on Twitter.