Open Forum: Turning off emotion

Posted: July 10, 2013

I recently finished reading the lengthy article by Eli Saslaw in the Washington Post (June 9) about the Barden family of Newtown, Conn. Mr. Saslaw spent many days with Mark and Jackie Barden and their two surviving children, Natalie and James. It would not be possible for any parent reading this article to not be emotionally affected by it. It would not be possible, that is, unless the reader had already decided that he/she would not be affected by such things.

Seven-year-old Daniel Barden was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. His father, mother, sister and brother have all had their lives changed forever. As a parent myself, I can imagine the pain that Mark and Jackie Barden feel every day. It would be similar pain and totally changed lives for the 20 other families whose young sons and daughters were shot dead that day.

Some readers of this essay have, by now, opened themselves to compassion and sadness for these families. Some other readers have probably already turned off their emotions. That is a shame on several levels. In a way it is un-American.

Think about how Americans always respond when tragedy strikes, including victims that they do not even know. Generous Americans send prayers, encouraging messages, and money. Many of them travel to New Orleans, Haiti, New Jersey, and other locales that have been hit by some disaster, natural or man-made. In recent months, this generous pattern was shown in response to Superstorm Sandy, the Newtown killings, and the Boston bombing.

When my wife and I have traveled to other countries, this American generosity is one of the positive characteristics citizens of other countries will cite about Americans. It is an aspect of our “national character” of which we should be proud.

My wife and I were recently out of the country for almost two weeks, and we were essentially out of contact with the “news” during that time. One of the first things we learned about when we returned was about the terrible tornadoes in Oklahoma — and the instant outpouring of money and support of the victims — both from people close by and from Americans across the country who care about other people.

Americans can be so good about responding to these kinds of specific needs, especially when the “stories” of the victims are brought home to them. But we are not nearly as good about responding to the more general needs of faceless people. And, as a country, we have completely abrogated our responsibilities when it comes to making our elected officials protect the vulnerable, correct injustices, and work from a long-range vision of what is best for the country and its citizens as a whole.

Instead, we have allowed — even encouraged — a social/political atmosphere in which the basic needs of entire classes of people can be legislated as being of less importance than the comfort, profit, or status of other classes of people. The results of this attitude shift are situations such as having 30 million-plus people without health insurance — but this is seen as being “alright” by very many people.

Or the fact that the earth’s temperature has risen enough that we are beset by ever-more frequent and dangerous weather events — but it would be “bad” for some businesses to change our basic approach to energy use and its generation. Or we have the recurring spectacles of little children, college students, congresspersons, and others being gunned down by automatic weapons as they attempt to go about their lives — but there is nothing that can be done because too many people count the gun lobby as being more important than the safety of their fellow human beings.

Who is doing the job of “taking care” of us? Must we continue to be left to take care of each other when tragedies strike?

When we returned from two weeks out of the country, my wife and I were discouraged — but not surprised — to see that nothing had changed while we were away. Republicans in Congress were still blocking the president’s appointments, refusing to work with Democrats, and they were still spending all their money and energy on small issues, rather than raising their eyes to the big picture and the common good.

The problems of the country could be fixed with broad-based solutions. What do our “elected representatives” do to earn their impressive salaries? Really, we could take a bite out of the deficit by having the whole group of them suspended without pay.

Kevin Kennedy is a resident  of Frederick County.