When on December 14, 2012 a terrorist shot dead 26 people, including 20 children, at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, many in the US were shaken to the core. It was not the first shooting, nor was it the first time children were targeted by a shooter who had easy access to assault weapons. At that time, there was a sense that perhaps something would change. I remember listening to the radio that evening coming back from work. I felt immense and painful sadness, a burning rage and a feeling of dark emptiness. But I also had a slight hope that it would wake up the country and force the lawmakers to change course.
Nothing happened. Between conflicted thoughts, hollow prayers and partisan bickering many more died in countless mass shootings. When nine and a half years later, another similar incident happened in Texas, and young children were massacred, the national response reflected a greater degree of hopelessness. While the tremendous sadness is still there, and the pain is felt by millions, few believe if anything would change.
Opinion surveys in the country and data from various polling firms show that majority of people in the US want to reform the gun laws and majority are in favour of an assault weapon ban. Yet, nothing has changed, or is likely to change. It is not hard to look at the data — nationally and globally — and see that these mass shootings and massacres do not happen anywhere else except the US. Yet, a group of lawmakers, using procedural rules, ensure that even basic research about gun-related violence would never be funded by the government.
It is possible that some lawmakers are ideologically opposed to any reform in the gun laws and are blind to any data that is presented to them. It is however more likely that many recognise the evil, and are playing with fire, but choose to remain silent for their own personal interests. The system is gridlocked in part because these lawmakers are worried about losing their funding (in tens of millions of dollars) from the gun lobby, or are worried about losing their seats to candidates who may be even more conservative. Or worse — losing their seats to the opposing party. The irony is that during high profile rallies by these lawmakers who support unfettered access to firearms, or during parts of the conventions by the National Rifle Association, guns are banned.
The silence — in the face of evil, driven by selfish interests — is causing misery across the land. While this silence is now a permanent part of the US political fabric, we see incarnations of it everywhere. In Myanmar, international agencies knew for years what was going on against the Rohingya, yet they stayed silent lest they would invite the wrath of the government and lose their ability to carry out their aid programmes. In their mind, speaking up meant forgoing the opportunity to bring prosperity to the poor. Ultimately, the Rohingya suffered unimaginably, and the aid agencies were kicked out anyway. Myanmar is not the only place where this has happened.
It is the same silence that is wrapped in the cloak of national self-interest. Countries — including ours — choose to look the other way when nations with whom they enjoy strong economic ties bomb unarmed civilians, attack journalists, incarcerate ethnic minorities or send them to reeducation camps. We stay silent because it is not in our interest at that moment — not because we do not know what is right.
The sense of self-preservation is innate, and so is the desire to succeed. Yet, when it becomes clear that silence only emboldens the aggressor, or harms the innocent, it is no longer a virtue. It is pure evil.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 30th, 2022.