A Duty-Dance with Death

In 1945, the Allies’ Valentine’s Day gift to the German people was the firebombing of Dresden – four massive bombing raids between 13 and 15 February that destroyed that lovely old city. Dresden had no military value. Dresden had no strategic value. We wiped it out anyway. The firestorm may have killed thirty thousand civilians – but no one really knows – and Kurt Vonnegut was there. After his mother’s suicide he had enlisted. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was captured by the Germans. They sent him off to work in a slaughterhouse in Dresden. He was there. He survived the firestorm by taking refuge in a meat locker three stories underground – “It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around. When we came up the city was gone. They burnt the whole damn town down.” Vonnegut and other American prisoners were then put to work excavating bodies from the rubble. He called that a “terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt.”

That was a formative experience. That led to his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death – a nonlinear postmodern science fiction morality tale. In it, Billy Pilgrim, a blandly passive pacifist of sorts, becomes “unstuck in time” – he starts out in that slaughterhouse in Dresden, and ends there, but in between he’s captured by an alien space ship and taken to a planet light-years from Earth called Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians see in four dimensions, simultaneously observing all points in the space-time continuum. They have a fatalistic worldview. Death means nothing. When a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past. People die, but “so it goes” – which everyone was saying after they read that book.

Some people still say that when everything goes wrong. Kurt Vonnegut spent his last years sitting quietly on a bench in a park not far from the UN in Manhattan – where he lived – probably wondering why his daughter had once married Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera – but so it goes.

He knew the limits of trying to controls things – “During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”

Every respectable artist in the country wasn’t going to end that war. The Children’s Crusade at the time – all the young people in the streets – wasn’t going to end that war. The Children’s Crusade in his book’s title was ironic. No Children’s Crusade was going to make a damned bit of difference. So it goes.

But times change – on this Valentine’s Day no one bombed Dresden, but a troubled young man with an AK-47 burst into a Florida high school and opened fire. Seventeen died. That was pretty horrible, but Republicans in Congress said something like “so it goes.” They always do. They offered their “thoughts and prayers” – but this wasn’t a gun problem, or it was too early to talk about guns. They wanted more facts. Perhaps they were waiting for a higher body count from all the school shootings – some higher threshold that would show the “facts” of this problem. No one knew what they were waiting for. The president said a few things about mental health issues – but he wasn’t going to talk about guns either. They were waiting for this to pass, for something else to be the big story of the day. The nation would soon say “so it goes” and move on. That’s what always happens.

They didn’t expect a Children’s Crusade, but they got one:

Dozens of teenage students lay down on the pavement in front of the White House on Monday to demand presidential action on gun control after 17 people were killed in a school shooting in Florida.

Parent and educators joined the gathering, where protesters held their arms crossed at their chests. Two activists covered themselves with an American flag while another held a sign asking: “Am I next?”

“It’s really important to express our anger and the importance of finally trying to make a change and having gun control in America,” said Ella Fesler, a 16-year-old high school student from Alexandria, Virginia.

She added: “Every day when I say ‘bye’ to my parents, I do acknowledge the fact that I could never see my parents again.”

Meanwhile the White House said Donald Trump was supporting an effort to improve background checks on gun buyers.

That wasn’t much:

The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said Trump had been in talks with the Republican senator John Cornyn and the Democratic senator Chris Murphy about a bill that aimed to strengthen how state and federal governments report crimes that could ban people from buying a firearm.

“The president spoke to Senator Cornyn on Friday about the bipartisan bill he and Senator Murphy introduced to improve federal compliance with criminal background check legislation,” Sanders said. “While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system.”

The bipartisan Cornyn-Murphy bill, announced last November after the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs in Cornyn’s home state of Texas, falls well short of what many activists want, but offers Congress a chance to say it is not doing nothing.

It seeks to ensure that federal and state authorities accurately report relevant information, including criminal history, to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

That will improve internal information-flow in the government. That solves little, but Trump is who he is:

The US president has been criticized for his tepid response to the shooting and his past vigorous backing of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Trump has a history of shifting his positions in response to events or advice. Before he entered the political fray in earnest, he expressed support for a ban on assault weapons and “a slightly longer waiting period” to purchase a gun. But during his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump ran as an unabashedly pro-gun candidate, warning the NRA: “The only way to save our second amendment is to vote for a person that you all know named Donald Trump.”

Trump has since overturned a Barack Obama-era regulation restricting certain people from buying guns. Critics said this made it easier for people with mental illness to access to weapons, increasing the threat to themselves or others.

After last year’s massacre in Las Vegas, the president said he was potentially open to banning bump stocks, an accessory used to more rapidly fire rounds, but there has been no notable action by the White House since.

That won’t do:

One week ago they were high schoolers like anywhere in the country, studying for their end-of-year exams, preparing for baseball practice, for drama club, and the myriad other activities that typical teenagers like to embrace.

But as another week begins in Parkland, Florida, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school are adjusting to life in a different and unexpected role. They find themselves the flag bearers of a powerful new push for gun control laws, and are determined to be the generation that finally breaks the cycle.

It was not a position that any of these young people envisioned for themselves until last Wednesday, when Nikolas Cruz, an expelled former classmate, returned to the campus with an AR-15 assault rifle and ended the lives of 14 of their friends, and three adult teachers.

In the words of Cameron Kasky, an 11th-grader and one of the founders of the rapidly-growing #neveragain movement: “It was 17 shots right to the heart of this community.”

This Duty-Dance with Death is about duty:

Amid the candlelit vigils, church services and the first funerals of the victims, Kasky and his friends quickly found their voice. Stoneman Douglas students angrily denounced inaction by politicians in Washington at an emotional gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday.

By lunchtime on Sunday they had announced plans for a March 24th March for Our Lives rally in Washington DC and cities nationwide. And by mid-afternoon they had achieved what appeared to be a significant first victory, a concession by President Trump, who did not speak publicly about the shooting for 20 hours, to meet with high school students and teachers on Wednesday for what the White House described as “a listening session”.

Vonnegut was wrong about what can be done about awful things:

The students insist they can sense a tidal wave of momentum behind them, largely fueled by social media using the #neveragain and #marchforourlives hashtags, which has left politicians floundering.

“They are hiding behind their own little castles of NRA money and they have no idea what to do,” said Kasky, 17, who spoke to the Guardian with several fellow students at a park close to Stoneman Douglas high school on Sunday.

“I can smell the fear from Rubio, [Florida governor Rick] Scott and Trump right now, and they are not ready to take us on. I understand that because we’re strong, and I wouldn’t want to either.

“But you’re either with us, or you’re against us. We’re making a badge of shame for anyone accepting money from the NRA. It’s not red versus blue, Republican versus Democrat, it’s us versus those who are trying to kill us and don’t care about our lives. We’re the kids, you’re the adults, and you’re acting like the kids.”

Someone has to be the adult here:

His friend Alex Wind, who has helped organize a trip to Tallahassee on Tuesday for 100 Stoneman Douglas students to meet state legislators, said the memory of his friends was the group’s driving force.

“There’s grieving obviously, but we’re breathing and coping through our voices, not through our tears,” he said. “Now is the time for action, for power and strength.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican, Democrat, green party, libertarian… if you receive money from the NRA we will not vote for you, that’s how things will go down. It’s absurd to receive $30 million from the NRA and not do anything about gun control. Action needs to be taken, whether that action is voting them out of office or whether it’s them embracing the movement. “We can talk about Russia and everything else in the news, but this right now is the biggest issue in our country. Fourteen children and three adults lost their lives. How many more need to die?”

And there’s this:

According to Alfonso Calderon, a 16-year-old junior, the Parkland shooting could be the catalyst for change because of who the victims and survivors were. “This time it’s going to be different because for once, instead of grieving, we got straight to the point,” he said. “A student was already talking to Fox News about how gun laws need to be changed directly after the shooting.”

Something is up:

On Sunday, they fanned out across the morning talk shows to rip into the Trump administration and politicians including Florida senator Marco Rubio for accepting money from the National Rifle Association.

And there’s more:

Trump has suggested the FBI wasn’t able to prevent the shooting because it was spending too much time on the Russia investigation. He also blamed the Democratic Party for not passing gun-control legislation when it controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House.

“That’s disgusting,” one student said in response to Trump’s comments. “You’re supposed to bring this nation together, not divide us. How dare you. Children are dying, and their blood is on your hands because of that.”

Shortly after the president’s comments, Aly Sheehy, a senior at the high school, hit back at Trump.

She tweeted: “17 of my classmates are gone. That’s 17 futures, 17 children, and 17 friends stolen. But you’re right. It always has to be about you. How silly of me to forget.”

And this:

Morgan Williams, another student, tweeted: “Oh my god. 17 OF MY CLASSMATES AND FRIENDS ARE GONE AND YOU HAVE THE AUDACITY TO MAKE THIS ABOUT RUSSIA???!! HAVE A DAMN HEART. You can keep all of your fake and meaningless ‘thoughts and prayers.'”

Sarah Lerner, a teacher at the high school, also weighed in.

“There IS collusion, you clown,” Lerner tweeted. “Get your head out of your ass & do something about what happened AT MY SCHOOL. This is the REAL NEWS. You came to Florida & didn’t talk to me, my students or my coworkers. You had a photo op & played golf. YOU are a disgrace to MY country.”

This is not going to pass:

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, refuse to be props for Trump’s agenda.

On Monday, survivors of last week’s deadly shooting Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg told CNN’s “New Day” they will not be attending Trump’s “listening session” this week.

“I believe we’ve been invited, but neither of us is going,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, who made national news for her barn burner of a speech at a gun control rally this weekend, said they have a prior town hall meeting with Jake Tapper.

And that was some speech:

“If the president wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a terrible tragedy, and how it should never have happened, and maintain telling us that nothing is going to be done about it, I’m going to happily ask him I’m going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association.”

Gonzalez then called attention to the $30 million spent by the NRA in support of Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and how that translates onto each life lost to gun violence.

“That comes out to being $5800. Is that how much these people are worth to you, Trump?” She asked.

“To every politician who has taken donations from the NRA: Shame on you!”

And now it’s this:

“If they accept this blood money, they are against the children. They are against the people who are dying,” she said. “There’s no other way to put it at this point. You’re either funding the killers, or you’re standing with the children – the children who have no money. We don’t have jobs. So we can’t pay for your campaign. We would hope that you have the decent morality to support us at this point.”

“If you can’t get elected without taking money from child murderers,” added Hogg, “why are you running?”

Something is changing, and Josh Marshall offers this:

The public campaign against drunken driving is the operative case in point about the transvaluation of values, driven by and undergirded by changed laws but not equal to them, which is the only way forward for true change.

Numerous laws changed and that changed the equation for drunken driving. But the true change came from a radically different understanding of the social acceptability of the behavior itself. It is now seen as shameful, awful, and selfish.

That may be what these kids are up to:

The gun problem requires laws, restrictions, reshaping the framework of legal and civil liability to bend the curve away from the current culture of massacre. But what makes all those things impossible, for now, is the political decision that nothing is more important than the completely untrammeled right to have any gun with any amount of ammunition anytime anywhere.

Do you really need an AR-15? For some people, it’s just fun to fire off an AR-15. I begrudge no one that fun. You’re at the range. It’s just cool. I get it. But maybe, because it’s also the weapon of choice for virtually every school massacre, to have that fun you need to do a background check not just for institutionalization or felony records but something a bit more thorough, to know you’re not someone with all the markers of a mass shooter. Or maybe you can have it and fire it as often as you want but you need to leave it in a locker at the range. These changes would be a bit of a pain for enthusiasts. But changing mores about drunken driving also made social drinking a bit more difficult. You have to think through how you’re getting home if you’re going to go out and have more than a couple drinks. Does your spouse or partner not drink? Do you have a designated driver? We’ve decided this pain is more than worth it. The ability to drink in any way or to any extent at any time is not an absolute value.

That might apply here:

The specific reforms are beside the point for these purposes. The point is the need for and public agreement to some balancing, some inconveniences and impediments to total freedom to do anything with guns up to the doorstep of a felony or a massacre. Until we do this, not only do we not have any of even the most basic reforms which could begin to make it a little harder to commit massacres, we also collectively send a signal as a society. Guns are not only potentially fatal as tools. They are all powerful totems. They are untouchable. They reduce adults who promise to spare no exertion to protect the country from various public or domestic threats to be reduced to the gibberish and nonsense of “thoughts and prayers.” Nothing is a deeper testament to the cultural power and invincibility of the gun in our society. And it is that power which is at the heart of the massacre spectacle – the desire and all-consuming need and drive to destroy lives including your own indiscriminately in a final burst of total power. Our collective impotence not only sharpens that weapon, that symbol for the perpetrators of the actual massacres…

Until we recognize that the collective message of the power and singular importance of guns is at the heart of the gun massacre scourge, we’ll never be rid of it.

The kids want to change that. They might change that. Perhaps they’re already changing that – but something else might be going on here. Go back to the late sixties, not to Kurt Vonnegut but to Marshall McLuhan. The medium is the message. Donald Trump is the Twitter President. His tweets, often full of nonsense, had a raw immediacy and thus an absolute authenticity. Those tweets made him seem to be the only “real” candidate out there, for better or worse. He blew everyone away. But he may have met his match. These kids, excoriating him, and all the other NRA Republicans, are the Twitter Generation. They can do the same thing, and do it better. Their raw immediacy and thus their absolute authenticity trump his. They’re using his one unique weapon against him, and winning. That’s this Children’s Crusade, this Duty-Dance with Death – and these kids don’t read Vonnegut. So it goes? No. it doesn’t.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to A Duty-Dance with Death

  1. Mark Brown says:

    I always interpreted Vonnegut’s “Children’s Crusade” as referencing the fact that the war was fought by way-too-young men–children, really. The most potent part of the book is the introduction. In it, Vonnegut visits a fellow soldier to discuss their experiences. His friend’s wife is really upset with his visit. She fears the book is going to be another ode to bravery, patriotism and the glory of the good cause. And she points out, as in Viet Nam (and every war) that it’s the children who must fight it.
    The anti-war protesters, mostly very young people, ended Viet Nam. Let’s hope they can end this too.

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