The way ahead was unclear—choked with willow and alder and tightly-packed spruce trees. We planned to cross this once-glaciated valley on foot, but our map of this remote Alaskan river was fifty years old—and we kept meeting the river and dense undergrowth where we should have found open land.
It was a dirty trick we fell into—to believe a bad map was better than no map. How could we have known the map held so many lies that would drive us into the freezing river? The entire valley had changed in only half a lifetime.
We looked for a hill or knoll from which to observe this place. But glacial rivers are jealous masters that cut down any feature that stands above them. We seemed doomed to wander and thrash in the undergrowth, not entirely sure of a better way across the valley.
Only now, days from the nearest village, did we remember the truism: bad information is worse than no information. We soon discovered that our direct observation of the land, no matter how limited, yielded vastly better intelligence than our outdated map. We observed mountain peaks, which let us find ourselves on the map. Triangulation.
Then, as we pushed back the willow and alder, we found a birch tree. Tall. Taller than other trees. I tied a loop of webbing between my feet and shimmied thirty feet up the branchless trunk—Polynesian style. I had no preconceived idea of where a clear path would be; I went up to remember what we had seen the day before: a way across the valley.
I pulled the pen and map from my pocket. I noted possible routes and came down. We pushed through the undergrowth until we came to a clearing—a mile-long gravel bar that reached nearly to the other side of the valley. We arrived at the other side that afternoon.
Sometimes I feel like I’m in that valley again. Choked. Cut off. Suffocated. But then I turn off the radio or the television or the news feed, and I feel like I’m going up that cottonwood tree. My mind clears. I have hope again that we’ll find a way across.
– – –
A gunman opened fire at a Florida high school two weeks ago. He was known to some of his victims. Information about the shooter and his methods has appeared in the crystal-clear lens of hindsight. Yet, as a nation, we are once again thrashing in the undergrowth—arguing over causality and correlation, divided on political and ideological lines. We know where we are—we’ve been here before—but we have no way forward, no clear path into the open, no solution.
Rewind two hundred fifty years. 1764. A teacher and nine students were murdered in Greencastle, Pennsylvania. The teacher was shot. The students were killed in other ways. Other school shootings occurred over the next two hundred years. Then, in 1966, a lone gunman killed seventeen people at the University of Texas-Austin. Seventeen—the same number killed fifty years later at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
Fifty years. Two hundred fifty years. Are we closer to a solution? Have we applied two hundred fifty years of institutional knowledge and collective experience to find a solution?
Perhaps we have forgotten what my friend and I forgot before we lost our way in the Alaskan wilderness: that bad information is worse than no information. Today we’re inundated with bad information, from possibly the worst source: the media.
News outlets are no longer broadcasting the trends of current sentiment. They intend to influence those trends. They don’t report on what is happening. They report on what one group wants to happen. Consider a couple examples. Political polls from these outlets have been exercises in wishful thinking. These include opinion polls on the expected outcome of the most recent presidential election (most polls were wrong); polls on politicians’ approval ratings (high approvals haven’t ensured election, and low approvals haven’t ensured defeat); and polls on nationalist sentiments around the world (European news outlets conducted polls that showed Britons voting against Brexit, yet they didn’t).
The media projects their far-left and far-right bias—a distorted map—girded by the pretext of genuine concern for their viewers. The danger of the distorted map is that we don’t recognize our peril until we’re lost in the glacial valley of uncivil and unproductive discourse. We know our location on the map, but we can’t find our way out. We’re lost.
Here are some of the obstructions—just highly-charged words—blocking our way out of the school-shooting forest: liberal, conservative, gun show, gun-free zone, background check, concealed-carry, semi-automatic, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, waiting period, bump stock, mental illness, full-auto, red state, blue state, high-capacity magazine, assault rifle, AR-15, handgun, police response, progressive, second amendment, free speech, safe space, NRA, good guy with a gun, bad guy with a gun.
The list goes on. News commentators distract us with these words that block our way, our view. My issue is more important than yours. Mine is more meaningful than yours. Mine’s relevant; yours isn’t.
Civil dialogue has been replaced with vitriol, contempt, confusion, anger, impatience, intolerance. Bad information is the henchman of the media, and he has carried out his assignment. We’re lost.
– – –
Can we climb up the cottonwood tree for a moment, get above the undergrowth? Can we step away from the most recent shooting (but never forget what happened)? Can we consider a human element—one way across the valley—that can prevent another shooting? Can we disengage from the emotional investment in our own charged issue—high-capacity magazines or mental evaluations or second amendment rights or age restrictions—and recognize a way forward? These charged issues have merit. All of them. I’m just asking if we can set them aside for a little while, if we can leave them on the ground while we go up the cottonwood tree and have a look around.
If you answered no to those questions, please stop reading. If you answered yes, then I’d like us to revisit a twenty-year timeline—backwards—and watch for a pattern. The timeline starts at 2:20 on the afternoon of Wednesday, February 14, 2018, one minute before Nikolas Cruz enters the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
We’re both standing on the side of Pine Island Road when an Uber driver shows up. The passenger gets out. It’s Cruz. We’re walking backwards on this timeline, so we know what is about to happen. Here’s the question: what should we do?
One minute before the shooting starts—2:20 p.m. Wednesday, February 14, 2018
I’ll go first. Broward County Sheriff’s deputies and Coral Springs police are still several minutes away. A phone call won’t deter Cruz. I’m stopping him right now, taking away his guns, and then I’m calling 911.
What would you do?
One hour before—1:20 p.m. Wednesday, February 14, 2018
I’ll go first again. I really wish you were here. Cruz is gathering his guns now. I try to hold a conversation with him, ask him how he’s feeling. I look for ways to bring his anger or hate or fear down to manageable levels. We’re only an hour away, so I am calling 911. And if this doesn’t deter him, then I’ll stop him and take away his guns. The cops are showing up either way.
What would you do in this hour?
One day before—Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Cruz mentions that he’s going out to buy ammunition. He shares his plans with me. I wait for him to leave the house and I call 911. Then I go out and see if he wants to get lunch instead. I’ll buy. If he agrees, I’ll text 911 and let them know where we are. If not, I’ll follow him and keep the 911 dispatcher updated on our whereabouts. Cruz doesn’t have his guns on him, so there’s no need for me to restrain him. Law enforcement should do that soon enough.
What are you doing on the day before the shooting?
One year before—February 2017
On the phone with Cruz. He mentions that he plans to kill Mexicans. He also talks about shooting up the school. He bought an AK-47 the other day. Legally. He bought another gun a few months ago. Illegally. I ask him what he has against Mexicans. He hangs up. I call the Broward County Sheriff’s office and the FBI to report Cruz’s behavior.
What would you do one year out?
Nikolas Cruz will be fifteen this year. He owns no guns, but has been buying and selling knives. I pick him up and we go out for lunch. While we’re merging onto University Drive, someone cuts us off. Cruz rolls down his window and gives the other guy the “bird” over the top of my car. The other guy swerves and accelerates and lays on the horn. When I realize what Cruz has done, I slow down and pull off. I tell him that people are going to cut him off when he’s driving. I ask him to not flip people off even if they cut us off. No one wins, I tell him. Everyone loses. I remind him of an earlier conversation we had about non-complementary responses. He nods but doesn’t say anything. We go to lunch and I purposely let a group go in front of us to order. They are speaking Spanish. A family. They offer to let us go ahead, but I tell them we’re still deciding what to eat. One of the sons, about Cruz’s age, thanks us. I strike up a conversation with the father—in Spanish and then English. After we order and sit down, I tell Cruz that the man is originally from Cuba and that he owns the carwash I go to.
Cruz looks over at the family. He’s quiet, maybe despondent, so I ask how things are going at school. He says he gets bullied just about every day. I ask him if he ever bullies others. Sometimes. I ask him to stop bullying and he says he’ll stop. I ask him who his friends are. He talks about a couple guys that he’s sold knives to. I offer to take them all to lunch next week. He agrees. As we’re leaving the restaurant he nods to the Cuban family. He acknowledges them. He softens a little. They tell us to have a nice day.
As I’m driving him home, I ask him to meet with the school counselor the next day. He agrees to meet—to talk about the bullying and about how classes are going.
While I’m driving home, I think about what Cruz is going to do in five years. He doesn’t own any guns yet. I call a friend to share my concerns and see if he has any suggestions. He tells me to keep spending time with Cruz. Be his friend. Model good behavior. Show him how to respond with patience to others’ aggression.
Five years out. What are your thoughts?
Cruz will be ten this year. He’s been playing a lot of video games. I join him one afternoon. It turns out these are MMOGs—massively multiplayer online games. He wears a headset and talks to other players around the world. The game we’re playing is a re-creation of a well-known World War II battle. Cruz is an Allied sniper in Eindhoven. He takes a four hundred-yard shot and the camera follows the bullet downrange. Blood spatters on the screen. A German soldier collapses. Cruz laughs and then taunts another player logged in from Idaho. The two of them disparage each other. The Idaho player was the German soldier. He’ll now have to wait four minutes before he “respawns” and starts playing again.
I mention something about the history of Eindhoven, about the real battle that took place there. This distracts Cruz for a moment. He didn’t know about the real battle. I tell him there’s a movie about it, that we should watch it.
I tell him that a lot of men died in that battle—on both sides. They left wives and children behind. They didn’t get up after a four-minute wait. They died. I’m not sure he understands yet what a gun can do—that people die and never come back.
I invite him to shoot hoops. The sun is out and he’s more talkative. We make plans to rent the movie and then go skateboarding tomorrow. I’m trying to get him outside and away from the MMOGs. As I’m riding my bike home, I’m thinking of how to convey an idea to Cruz—the idea that actions have consequences, and that thoughts and words have consequences too.
What are your thoughts? What are you doing with Cruz today, ten years out?
Cruz will be five this year. We catch a snake in his backyard. He wants to kill it. I tell him it’s just a garter snake, and we should feed it a grasshopper. We keep the snake in a box for a couple days. It doesn’t eat anything, so we let it go.
What’s are you doing with Cruz this year?
Cruz will be born on September 24 this year. I’m determined to be a good friend to him. I’m worried that he’ll watch parents, friends, teachers, coaches—others—respond with anger and intolerance to each other. The media normalizes this behavior. The characters in TV shows respond that way. Coaches yell at each other. Parents of opposing team members scream profanities at each other and at the coaches. Movies glorify bullying and hostility. Even commercials tell us that it’s better to keep your snacks for yourself and not share—the other guy can get his own. No one shares. The antagonism is subtle. Beer commercials show men denigrating women. Clothing commercials reveal women belittling other women. No one is kind. People take advantage of each other. I’m worried Cruz will think this is acceptable. I’m determined to be a good friend to him. To show him otherwise. To swim against the current.
– – –
I really wish you were here for this conversation. What have your thoughts been? What have you been doing for the last twenty years as we’ve walked backwards on this timeline?
Did you notice the pattern developing as we moved farther away from 2:20 p.m.? The more we removed ourselves from the time of the shooting, the less relevant the gun became and the more relevant Cruz became.
At the moment Cruz stepped out of the Uber, we had to take the gun away. Did you see another option at that moment? I didn’t. I was worried about the gun.
An hour before, we would still take the gun away. On the day before, however, the gun would become less important to a solution. We would still take it away, to be sure, but the conversation would look very different on the day before than it would in the minute before. And our approach would change significantly five years before, when Cruz didn’t own a gun. Our responses ten and fifteen years before wouldn’t account for a gun either. At twenty years before, we wouldn’t even know who Cruz was, but we would have established a culture to welcome him and to help him learn patience and tolerance, with himself and others. I hope we would have.
The pattern that developed (and there are others) is the inverse relationship between the criticality of the gun and the criticality of Cruz’s behavior, how he grew, what shaped his attitude. At one point, far enough back on the timeline, there was no gun, only Cruz. At one time in every perpetrator’s life, there are no guns. There are only the perpetrator’s thoughts and feelings and impressions and attitudes. At one time, the perpetrator wasn’t a perpetrator.
News outlets have no memory of that time.
We witness violence in video games, hear it in lyrics, see it on the screen. We’re surrounded by a virtual violent world, and because it’s virtual, we’ve dissociated consequences from violence. We shoot people and then wait for them to respawn, so we can shoot them again. We hear the lyrics of how one person justifies murdering another, and the justification, oddly, begins to be reasonable. We see people murdering each other on the screen, and then we see them accepting awards and cheering each other on. There are no consequences for this violence in the virtual world. That is, there are no real consequences in the virtual world.
– – –
Turn off the radio or the television or the news feed, and let’s look around from our vantage point in the cottonwood tree. Let’s find a way out of the quandary of school shootings. For that matter, let’s tackle the larger problem of violence in general.
I’ll go first again. But I am curious to know what you think. And not just curious. What you think and feel is meaningful here, and more than meaningful. It is necessary. Our way across this valley is through dialogue, through dialectics, through sharing and listening.
I’m not going to address guns or high-capacity magazines or mental evaluations or the pros and cons of the second amendment and gun control. I’ll address those topics with my two senators and representative at here: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members. I invite you to do the same.
Instead, I want to examine what we know from direct observation of our culture, and specifically the genesis of violence. I want to examine what I know and what you know, what I have observed and what you have observed in people, in our culture, in places more influential than the White House or the halls of Congress.
I’ll start again, at a place we all come from. Home. Not a house. Not an apartment. Not a cardboard box on the street. Home. Where our family is—whatever that family may look like. More traditional, less traditional, intact, broken, breaking, healing, mainstream, marginalized. Home is the beginning, the genesis, of peace or violence. This is where we start teaching our children how to respond to aggressive behavior. In the home. We have to model this behavior for them. We have to practice non-complementary responses to aggression—responses that don’t complement or reflect the aggression. All the time. Everywhere. Early.
This is one path across the valley. There are others. But this one has shown promise for a hundred-thousand years, maybe a million or more. Long before we carried guns.
A few examples of this path:
When a child yells at a parent, the parent has to deescalate the confrontation. A parent that yells back is enabling violence. Do parents lose their patience sometimes? Sure. But an incident isn’t a culture—unless we repeat it many times. We have to be careful.
When someone intentionally cuts me off in traffic or doesn’t let me merge, why would I respond in kind? Why would I complement that behavior? If I do, I have just enabled aggression and I have risked violence. If I have passengers, I have a greater responsibility to model appropriate behavior for them.
When a customer ahead of me in line is fiddling with change or credit cards or distracted on a cell phone, and is consuming my time, I need to think about what he or she might need. Snide remarks and unkind comments are not on that list. Even a strained facial expression, however subtle, implies aggression. That customer may be having a bad day, he may have lost his job, she may have just learned heartbreaking news about a brother or sister or friend. That person’s focus may be elsewhere. I have to let it remain there. That may be the most important place where he or she can be in that moment.
There are a hundred other places to practice non-complementary responses. If I yell at someone who is yelling at me, honk at the driver honking at me, disregard the person disregarding me, then I’m reinforcing a culture where I take no responsibility for my choices. The extreme outcome of this reinforced behavior is that a person—me or you or a high schooler—may escalate a confrontation, progressing from an unkind word, to shouting, to pushing, to hitting, to fighting. To shooting. The media has normalized this behavior. But this normalization, this acceptance, is only half of the bad map they furnish. The other half is to cheer us on when we behave this way, until we lose our way altogether.
Turn off the droning voice of the media, and let’s remember where our culture’s begins. It isn’t in the capitols or in the news rooms or in the advertising agencies. Our culture starts somewhere more fundamental, more potent, organically, from the very foundation. Our culture starts in our own homes. A long-term solution begins with our children, our families, our friends, our communities. It spreads even to those we may not count as friends. Yet.
The solution begins when we defuse aggressive behavior and deescalate heated dialogue. It begins when we tune out the loudest cheerleaders of our aggression: the media. The solution resolves under the lens of our own direct observation, our own experience. The way becomes clear when we go up the cottonwood tree.