– Eli Levin
Today started slowly, with a six-hour drive all the way from Dodge City. During our lunch stop at Subway, we had our first activity of the day; a framing discussion surrounding the issue of climate change, in preparation for our meeting tomorrow with a member of the conservative right, with whom we will be discussing the issues of marriage equality, abortion, and climate change. It was interesting to see everyone’s perspectives and ideas surrounding the issue of climate change. Especially in the midst of this “new abnormal” weather, which many are attributing specifically to climate change, it was intriguing to consider the opinions and beliefs of my peers. While there was relatively little debate over the science of climate change, there was a strong focus on our collective human responsibility to this world, the role of corporations in this crisis, and the ways to save our planet without causing intolerable short-term damage to the economy and jobs market.
After lunch, we finished our trek into the mile-high city of Denver. There we met with Tom Mauser, the father of Daniel Mauser, a victim of the 1999 shooting at Columbine. In the 24 years since that horrific tragedy, Mr. Mauser has become a leader and spokesman for the group Ceasefire Colorado, which continues to push for gun control on a state and national level. He explained the policies he pushes for, including but not limited to universal background checks, red flag laws, raising the minimum firearm purchase age from 18 to 21, banning the purchase of assault-style weapons, and implementing a national-level firearms registration database. He also spoke about common arguments given by the opposition and explained the flaws and logical fallacies inherent to many of the arguments pushed by the gun lobby. As someone who has dealt with gun violence several times in the past year, and is pushing for many of the same policies as Mr. Mauser, I found his presentation helpful and educational, but also incredibly emotional. The thing that made the greatest emotional impact on me was when he was discussing the aftermath of losing his son Daniel, he talked about going through his son’s things and finding an old pair of shoes, and then he realized that he wore the same size shoe as his son. In the act of great symbolism, he literally followed in his son’s footsteps and began wearing the shoes when he spoke and testified. Five years later, he finally received the items that Daniel had during that fateful day, and he told us that he only truly cared about retrieving one thing, the shoes. As it turns out, the unassuming shoes that he had presented in today were the shoes that Daniel wore on the day he lost his life. It was a moment of great symbolism and one that connected with me deeply.
Our next stop was just up the hill, a memorial to the victims of Columbine, a heart-wrenching tribute to 13 innocent people who were just going to school and not doing anything wrong, something they paid for with their lives. While I found the memorials to each victim touching, what really connected was the wall of quotes taken from survivors and parents. I have heard these sentiments many times, including after tragedy in my own community, but that doesn’t make them any less gut-wrenching or grief-filled.
We then encountered one of the greatest tonal shifts imaginable, from the horrors of gun violence, we moved to the celebration of our country’s independence. For almost all of my peers, this was indeed a jarring tonal shift. For myself, less so. Unfortunately, the horrors of gun violence are forever tied to Independence Day for me. One year ago from the day this journal was published, a deranged lunatic opened fire on a July 4th parade in my home community of Highland Park, Illinois. Seven people died, and 48 more were injured. A year later, I still grieve that tragedy, and its ramifications haunt me. One of the central mottos of this journey, is that it’s not real until it happened to you, and it happened to me and my community. For many years, it has been apparent to me that July 4th has been a tribute not to our independence but to American exceptionalism. I believe that American exceptionalism is a lie, and we are a deeply flawed country in need of change. Yet we are exceptional in one way; we’re the only country in the world where children go to school scared because they know that it might be the last time they see their parents. We are the only country where parents and teachers must prepare for the next school shooting. As the fireworks bloomed in the sky this evening, I thought not of the glory of this great nation but of its fall from grace. We are no longer the shining city on the hill, no longer the light of hope and democracy in the world. When you step back and realize that mass tragedy is a normalized daily occurrence in this country, it becomes much harder to sing the Star-Spangled Banner with pride, and the daily gridlock in Washington fueled by an unwillingness for change becomes more tragic. To most of my peers, this evening was an opportunity to do something fun after a long and fairly grim day. For me, the griminess continued, exemplified not by tragedy but by the continued lie we tell ourselves of American greatness. Until the children of our country stop dying daily, Independence Day, the day of American exceptionalism, is but ironic hypocrisy. Happy Fourth of July.