I wonder if you have ever read our publication, Daily Maverick. If we say so ourselves, we believe this electronic daily has become one of the premier spaces for thoughtful discussion, debate, commentary, and investigative journalism in South Africa. Even if you have not yet read it, I hope someone – perhaps in the American Embassy – will make it their business to ensure you have an opportunity to see this letter.
When I heard excerpts from your television interview during your visit to South Korea, representing the country at the closing ceremonies of the winter Olympic games, my attention was drawn to your response to the question of whether or not arming teachers in schools might contribute to safer schools. I am sure you were asked this question both because of your responsibilities for women’s and youth issues as a presidential adviser as well as because of your role as a mother of young children.
By way of explanation, I am a retired American diplomat now living in South Africa. My wife and I raised two children while we served in the different nations in Africa and Asia, as well as several tours of duty in Washington as well. One of our daughters is an artist who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, just a few miles from your home. The other is based in Cape Town, where she is a musician and a composer.
Like all parents, my wife and I were always concerned for the success and safety of our children, no matter where we were living, and we worried even when we were serving in a place like Japan with its remarkably low level of public violence. (There was always the possibility of an earthquake.) Given our exposure to so many different circumstances, I can easily understand the concerns American parents may have about the possibility that harm might come to their children, seemingly without warning, from an angry, lone gunman, even if those in the US never had to worry about the possibilities of armed conflict.
When I heard your television interview, I was heartened over your sense of uncertainty about what might work best to forestall school shootings, and that it would be important to explore different ideas. Of course, your comments have come in the context of recommendations from some quarters that arming teachers would be the best way, going forward, and so I want to take this opportunity to offer some thoughts to you for your further consideration.
Let’s begin with your role as a policy adviser on women and youth issues for the administration. Any proposed changes in public policy – especially ones that will deeply affect people’s lives – need to be carefully and thoughtfully examined, rather than simply adopted in response to an off-the-cuff comment. The tragedies of Lakeland, Florida or in Las Vegas – just as with all those other examples, back as far as the case of the University of Texas shooter in 1966 who killed 17 people, using a high-powered rifle from his spot atop the campus clock tower – have all demonstrated the terrible impact one person can bring down upon innocent people when he is equipped with a high-powered rifle.
One of the most important questions in our present circumstances, of course, is whether all those high-powered assault rifles, those bump stock attachments that make weapons imitate fully automatic weapons, and large capacity ammunition clips should even be easily available to individuals. A second key issue is the thoroughness and detail of the background checks (including criminal records and diagnosed mental illnesses) that should be carried out – and what government institutions would be responsible for this. Allied to this is whether those background checks should also be required for purchasers at those so-called private and gun show sales where so many people now obtain their weapons.
Still another contentious issue is the minimum age required before anyone can purchase a firearm. Related, too, are the questions of what type of training must be completed before a firearm can be purchased legally; what type of licence should be required for owning a weapon, and what types of safe storage and security must be put in the home to keep these lethal weapons out of the hands of small children.
These are questions that are important for more than just schools and students, but the answers certainly can affect students grievously, as we have learnt to our sorrow far too often.
Beyond those questions, there are others specifically directed at schools and students. These include the ways schools can be made safer; who should be empowered to patrol such institutions; and how those guards are connected to other public order forces. Obviously some physical improvements to schools – such as reinforced window glass and access controls – will make schools harder to breach by a gunman, but the goal must be to avoid trying to turn the nation’s schools into fortified bunkers, or hardened strong points in the manner of federal office buildings such as embassies in troubled foreign countries, for example.
Further, many American schools – primary, secondary and tertiary – are spread across airy, open campuses. Perhaps your children now attend such a school. It would be extraordinarily expensive and difficult to reconfigure the thousands of such schools across the nation into facilities with very different physical structures in order to protect them against the future possibility of a gunman on the prowl.
Moreover, in urban neighbourhoods, many – perhaps most – schools already have limited entry arrangements, door metal detectors, and patrol guards who systematically watch the interiors of schools, as well as their outside grounds. Sadly, none of this has prevented the horrific school shootings Americans have witnessed over the years.
And so it seems that simply adding to the numbers of people armed for a shoot-out in the event of an incident-in-the-making will not make things safer. In the confusion and chaos of an incident, it is easy to imagine armed staffers adding to the devastation, rather than defeating it when they cannot distinguish easily who is who. (Professional soldiers in fact have a name for this. They call such casualties “friendly fire”.)
In thinking about this, I spoke with current and recently retired teachers about this, both abroad and in the US, and not one of them said they believed being armed would have made it more likely they would be of any help in an incident. They already have a full-time job that absorbs their attention fully, and pitting them against a presumably suicidal teenager or young adult is certainly not why they went into education in the first place, or why they do this for the relatively low pay they receive and the sometimes harsh public criticism meted out to them. And so all of this really takes us back to the need for much better regulation of weapons and of the people who gain access to them.
As a parent, you surely want the best possible protection for your own children, and by extension, for all students in schools. But the real question is not protection in the abstract, but how that protection is actually carried out, without being at the expense of all the values we look to schools to inculcate. Students should not begin to see their education as a scene from a Western film or cops and robbers television series.
Thus, a crucial challenge becomes how to protect all of the other rights guaranteed by law and the Constitution to hold in equilibrium the arguments for the Second Amendment with those other rights. Here is where your own personal circumstances should inform your role as an adviser to the president as you help see the best courses of action and then try to advise your superior.
There is yet another aspect that I want to offer in this letter to you. Policy must be informed by the lessons of ethics and morals we draw from our cultural heritage. In an effort to find the right way to look at this, I sought out rabbinical guidance about what the path you chose might say on the matter.
I was instructed to look first to the Torah, specifically the Book of Genesis, the account of Cain and Abel, where Cain cries out to God when he is asked where his brother is, and says “Am I my brother’s keeper?” as a fundamental statement of responsibility for one’s fellow human beings. But then I was pointed towards Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 16 for an answer to the question of “Dam Naki” – the shedding of the blood of innocents, something to be avoided and for those innocents to be protected instead.
Then, there is also a reference in Judges, in which a flawed judge-leader swears that the next person to appear before him would be put to death, only to find that next person was his own daughter! In drawing a lesson from this tragic moment, a rabbi explained to me, “My sense would be to suggest that part of the recklessness of the current situation is the endangerment of any who come close to this defiler’s fire.” What I draw from this teaching is that any measures considered for schools and society as a whole must be measured in light of how they might further endanger innocents, rather than simply creating the possibility for disabling an attacker or would-be attacker.
And so, what might you do from your own very influential position? First of all, I would hope you would urge your father to walk back from this dangerous idea that a major social problem can be fixed by the appointment of an “armed and dangerous” art or shop teacher, or even turning schools into armed camps and heavily fortified zones. By the same token, no one expects that the government will take steps to revoke the Second Amendment, even though common sense measures consistent with its original intent might be possible.
There is a better path, and that is to build upon the growing national consensus for all those other measures – a comprehensive background check system, tough limitations on certain kinds of weapons and accessories that have no real place in self-defence or sport hunting, and restrictions on age. Such a push would allow your father to be in tune with the nation’s feeling on the matter, no small thing for an elected official. There are already companies that have chosen to embrace some part of this message, as they have come to realise public opinion, due in no small part to the efforts survivors from the Lakeland high school, has had on the national psyche.
Now is the time when it may be possible for the president to bring the National Rifle Association along with this as well. While they have now carved out a space for themselves as maximum defenders of the most minimalist possible regulation of lethal weapons and severe attacks on anyone who disagrees with them, they must be reminded that the original purpose of the NRA was very different. Originally it was dedicated to citizen and member education about firearms and the proper use of them, as well as the careful training of people engaged in hunting, rather than as a group that keeps moving further and further to the far right on the country’s political continuum.
If, as your father has said recently, there are some very good people in the NRA, now must be the time for him to appeal to them on behalf of the entire nation to participate in new ways to deal with the damage from lethal weapons in the hands of a few in order to protect our children and their teachers. And, as your father knows, despite the group’s often remarked-upon public power, the NRA has but five million members. That means that well over 300-million Americans do not subscribe to its views, and those people count too.
As we have learnt in recent days, articulate teenagers from a high school in Florida can capture the national public discourse, help affect a real change in national attitudes, and make extraordinarily skilful use of social and broadcast media. There is a chance for a president to lead the nation on this, and in your several roles, you are perfectly placed to encourage the president to seize this moment. It will be a historic moment and one he (and you) will be proud to have part of during your time in the White House.
J. Brooks Spector DM
Photo: Ivanka Trump, daughter of the President of the United States Donald Trump (not pictured), reacts while attending the Men’s Snowboard Big Air finals at the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre during the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, 24 February 2018. EPA-EFE/YONHAP
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