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The shadow of a gunman

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I wasn’t born in the shadow of 9/11. Nor did I grow under the weight of the Iraq war. But both of those events marked my youth with fear and distrust. I was born into the echoes of the Holocaust. I was raised under the pale of 101 California Street.

Very few people remember 101 California. I was only three. And, in theory, I don’t remember. I don’t remember my mother getting a phone call from my father telling her that a man had come into his office and started shooting. I don’t remember him saying, “I’m alive,” and then hanging up the phone to go wait in a bar across the street to see who else had survived and who wasn’t coming out of 101 California ever again. But I remember growing up with an unexplainable fear. Of my mother dying. Of my father not coming home. Of the faceless angry white men who, feeling like the world had wronged them, used guns and gas to kill those they blamed for their pain. 

When my mother finally told me about 101, when I googled the news articles written in the San Francisco Chronicle, scanned the Wikipedia page, it explained some of the weight. Some of the tension that filled our home like gas. Some of the explosive anger that lurked always, just below the surface. And then I learned about my grandparents, about how they had fled, survived and returned to a country only to realize that they were the only Jews left and no one wanted them back. And so I understood why I was afraid, why he was afraid, why there was always this fog of despair. 

We talk a lot in this country about freedom. Freedom to speak. Freedom to own. Freedom to choose. We value freedom so much that freedom to kill seems to be above freedom to live. The right to bear arms is not about the right of protection it is about the right to kill. To have at one’s disposal the means to confront personal wrongs you feel, to take your alienation and anger and use it to silence someone else forever. The connection between Columbine and Sandy Hook and Incel murderers and the KKK seems to be a clear one. Angry white men using their “god given right to bear arms” to take away someone else’s right to live. Their fear or anger is all the reason they need to turn hate into death. And I am so tired of it. 

The Holocaust arose for many complex and complicated reasons but at its core was an angry white man who found an Other to blame for his suffering, for the affronts to his pride, and used violence to silence them. The plague of school shootings that have scarred and marked our generation feels the same. The rise of Neo-Nazis both in America and abroad is familiar. Nothing about hate is new. Nothing about the murder of scapegoats is unique. But it doesn’t have to be. There are ways to stop it and fight it. And the first way is to argue that my right to be alive is greater than someone else’s right to own the means to kill me. I don’t see how a country that values guns above schoolchildren can ever be just or ever be free. In automatic weapons, in guns, there is only a tool for destruction and hate. 

We all feel powerless sometimes, especially now. But the cycle of violence and death will only end when we decide to value human life above the means of death. Our culture needs a hard reset; our society needs to be powered down and powered back up with a new operating system. One that takes away the glorification and availability of guns and that no longer allows the police to kill. We need to see white male anger and feed it something other than violence. I want us to choose to make a world in which my niece and nephew and, maybe one day my children, don’t grow up under shadows. Where their homes aren’t filled with an unspoken mist of fear. A world in which they know that their lives and the lives of all of their peers matter more than the freedom to hate. 

Contact Jen Ehrlich at jene91 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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