Alaina Kleinbeck: Thoughts, prayers and condolences are not enough

Overhead photo of fast-moving, blurred crowd

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The author, who was present at a 2002 mass shooting at Los Angeles International Airport, says faith leaders must not only console their communities after gun violence but also hold them responsible for making a change in our society.

On July 4, 2002, I was headed to China with a group of college students to teach in an English language summer program. As we stood in line to check our bags of teaching supplies and clothing for two months, we heard two sets of loud pops and bangs in quick succession. I looked at my friends; we insisted to one another that it must have been -- it had to have been -- fireworks.

Then people started screaming and running. I had never understood the expression “screaming bloody murder” until I heard those screams. They are a qualitatively different kind of scream. I hope you never hear them.

I remember dropping behind my bag. We were deep in the terminal, far from the front exit. We held hands and mumbled prayers. I thought about my mom. I couldn’t die. My mom had already buried a child, and doing it again might kill her.

Chaos ensued. People from the shops on an upper-level terrace started screaming and running. Guards, armed with large rifles, yelled, “What did you see? What did you see?”

We hadn’t seen anything; we’d only heard the shots and the screams. I just wanted to call my mom and tell her I was alive, but I’d left my cellphone at home, because it would not have worked in China. Another woman in our group shoved her phone in my hand, and I called my mom. “Mom, I’m fine. I don’t know what happened. Turn on CNN. You’ll know more than me. But I’m OK. We’re fine. I love you. I didn’t see anything; I’m going to be OK. I love you.”

It was 2002, and CNN was the fastest way to get breaking news. It was 2002, and this was the first Independence Day in a post-9/11 United States. It was 2002, and three people died that day at Los Angeles International Airport: an airline employee, a passenger and the man who brought a coat full of weapons into the terminal with the intent to kill.

These details seem sickeningly quaint in 2017.

Many hours later, after the airport was swept for bombs and evidence, we climbed onto an airplane and flew to China. I don’t remember taking time as a group to deeply grieve and process what had happened. In those days, people didn’t talk about trauma from violence the way we do now, and we were optimistic college students embarking on an adventure. I’m sure we talked about it some, but once we landed in China, our full attention turned to the culture shock, the responsibility of teaching and the new rhythm of our daily lives.

The shooting was long enough ago that my memories of it often feel like someone else’s -- but they aren’t. I am reminded of this in viscerally painful ways each time a mass shooting occurs.

I’ve made that phone call to my mom.

I know how your heart drops like an anvil into your gut.

I know how your feet freeze and your knees give out.

When you have made that phone call to your mom, conversations about gun legislation, responsibility for gun violence and protecting the right to bear arms aren’t theoretical. They are about your very life and the lives of your loved ones.

When you’ve heard the screaming of bloody murder, common arguments such as “guns are just a tool; guns don’t kill people; people kill people” lose their high and holy place in the conversation about gun control in our country. They become synonymous with “not giving an expletive.”

When you’ve experienced one of these mass shooting events, you know that added weaponry will not make you safer. You know that you never want anyone to experience a shooting or lose a loved one in such senseless violence. You know that the way excessive gun production, deregulated gun sales and unbridled gun ownership are excused doesn’t hold up in the chaos of violent death.

The Josh Abbott Band performed Oct. 1 at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, hours before a gunman opened fire on the crowd, killing more than 50 and injuring more than 500. In the aftermath, Caleb Keeter, the band’s lead guitarist, made headlines for his change of heart surrounding the conversations on gun control.

“I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life,” he wrote on Twitter. “Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was. We actually have members of our crew with [Concealed Handgun Licenses], and legal firearms on the bus. They were useless.”

We talk about systemic and institutional responsibility for many societal ills -- racism, sexism, poverty, drug use. We call for institutional and individual responsibility and action. It is past time for us to take this two-pronged approach to gun violence in the United States.

Gun manufacturers, gun vendors, gun lobbyists and casual gun owners who do nothing to advocate for or who actively work against responsible and stringent gun legislation are protecting and reinforcing the very parts of our society that make this violence possible. It is the definition of hypocrisy for elected officials who receive campaign contributions from gun advocacy groups and preside over the ongoing deregulation of the firearm industry to then send thoughts and prayers to victims of another mass shooting.

The sin of gun violence stains my memories. It stains too many families who have lost their children, siblings, spouses and friends. It stains our communities when we roll over in ambivalence and helplessness yet again.

Our thoughts, prayers and condolences are not enough. We cannot wipe our consciences clean with a few empty words.

Faith leaders cannot console our communities while not also holding them responsible for making a change in our society. Our communities are filled with people like me who cannot be consoled with empty prayers, because the stain is too deep. When our very lives are on the line, we must end our fear-ridden excuse making and become the embodiment of our prayers, as the Masai prayer “You Have Our Faith with Our Bodies” urges us to do:

We fear nothing when with you,
safe to stretch out and help others,
those troubled in faith,
those troubled in body.

Father, help us to do with our bodies what we proclaim,
that our faith be known to you
and to others,
and be effective in all the world.