The Mall in Columbia is 5.3 miles from my house. Three young people died there last Saturday, January 25, 2014, at 11:15 AM in a murder/suicide. This morning I awakened to the news on my local National Public Radio station that legendary folk musician Pete Seeger died yesterday, January 27, of natural causes at age 94. What do these four deaths have in common? To me, there seemed to be a connection but I could not see it.
All morning I was haunted by this question but I did not have an answer until I went to The Mall in Columbia to see the site of the tragedy. The shop where the shooting took place has been closed since the mall reopened yesterday. It is completely boarded up with whitewashed plywood. Stenciled on the wall is a message that indicated the shop will be closed until further notice. Below the stenciled message someone had hung a sympathy card with a handwritten note scrawled inside. At the bottom of the wall this morning were flowers.
Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing? Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
As you continue to listen to this iconic Pete Seeger song, you will learn the answer. All the flowers are gone because they are being picked to adorn the graves of those fallen in war. Of course, at the time Peter, Paul, & Mary made this song famous the Vietnam War was looming ahead for the United States and the song eventually became a campaign song in anti-war protests. However, the song is just as appropriate today given the many wars that continue to take young lives throughout the world today. These include the undeclared war on our communities fueled by gun violence.
Today in Maryland there are at least three new families caught in a vortex of grief. One grieves the loss of a son with whom they had recently celebrated his two years of sobriety from drug addiction. A second grieves the loss of a daughter who leaves behind her own two-year-old son. The third grieves the loss of a child whom the police and the media do not count among the victims, and have, even worse, dehumanized into “the shooter.”
Our community grieves as well. Any illusion that we had about the safety and quality of life in Columbia, Maryland has been shattered. We have joined a sad and growing group of U.S. communities on the broken battlefield of senseless, preventable gun violence. The Mall in Columbia shooting does not meet the criteria for a “mass shooting” (at least four victims according to the FBI), but it feels like it to us. Ironically, had the young man who instigated the violence successfully exploded the two homemade bombs that were found in his backpack inside the shop’s fitting room, we would have far exceeded the FBI’s seemingly arbitrary threshold for a “mass.” But, then, it would not have been just a shooting anymore, it would have been a bombing, and the issue of gun violence would have been irrelevant, right? Gun violence, whether one dies or a “mass” die, is never irrelevant in our communities.
If Pete Seeger had lived another day to read that last statement (of course, I wildly flatter myself to even imagine that Pete Seeger might have ever read this blog), I think he would have agreed with it. I believe this because of one line, that seemed to eloquently sum the meaning of Pete Seeger’s life in the New York Times this morning: “For Mr. Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.”
Over the years I have come to see and embrace the power of community that Pete Seeger saw many years ago. He knew, and I am learning, that communities are extraordinarily powerful when they are finally moved to action. A few years ago we were reminded by a First Lady of the power a community has to raise a child. Today, we need communities to not only raise up a child, but to step up to protect those same children – all the children – in a way that prevents them from becoming either victims or “shooters.” In recent years we’ve begun to run low on flowers to cover the graves of our children dying as a result of preventable gun violence. It is preventable, if we have the will.
“Will” is a small word but a gigantic concept. Genuine human change always begins with human will. We change ourselves and our communities only if we can find the will to do so. Perhaps, in his or her own way, this is what the person was trying to say in this note left on the plywood wall at the mall: “We must be better. We can be better. We will be better.”
Pete Seeger once explained how he came to write “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and readily acknowledged, as any good songwriter, that the song has been changed over the years to reflect the times and the need. Therefore, I doubt he would object to one more change, especially if the song were to move our communities to find the will to finally do what it takes to end gun violence. With apologies and deep appreciation to Pete Seeger, may I offer the following?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing? Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago. Where have all the flowers gone? Parents picked them everyone. Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?
Where have all the parents gone, long time passing? Where have all the parents gone, long time ago. Where have all the parents gone? Buried children everyone. Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?
Where have all the children gone, long time passing? Where have all the children gone, long time ago. Where have all the children gone? Gone to graveyards everyone. Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?
My condolences to the family of Pete Seeger at his passing yesterday after such a long, full, remarkable life. My deepest condolences to the families of all three young people whose lives were ended much to soon at The Mall in Columbia last Saturday. May the inspiration of Mr. Seeger and the tragedy of too many of our children’s deaths from gun violence finally cause all of our communities to find the will to rise up and end this war.