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We Have Failed To Protect Our Kids; We Have Never Been Civil

Incivility runs through the history of this country, founded on stolen land, built with the labor of stolen lives. The document that governs our lives effectively denied more than half of the population the right to vote.

Allison Dinner/Agence France-Presse // New York Times,

There is a cultural obsession nowadays with civility, with the idea that if everyone is mannered enough, any impasse or difference of opinion can be bridged. But these are desperately uncivil times. And there is nothing more uncivilized than the political establishment’s inurement to the constancy of mass shootings in the United States: 60 deaths in Las Vegas, 49 deaths in Orlando, 26 deaths at Sandy Hook, 13 deaths in Columbine, 10 deaths in Buffalo. Adults, schoolchildren, concertgoers, nightclub revelers, grocery shoppers, teachers.

The scale of death in Uvalde, Texas, is unfathomable. At least 19 children and two teachers are dead. These staggering numbers will not change one single thing.

Time and again we are told, both implicitly and explicitly, that all we can do is endure this constancy of violence. All we can do is hope these bullets don’t hit our children or us. Or our families. Or our friends and neighbors. And if we dare to protest, if we dare to express our rage, if we dare to say enough, we are lectured about the importance of civility. We are told to stay calm and vote as an outlet for our anger.

Incivility runs through the history of this country, founded on stolen land, built with the labor of stolen lives. The document that governs our lives effectively denied more than half of the population the right to vote. It counted only three-fifths of the enslaved population when determining representation. If you want to talk about incivility, let us be clear about how deep those roots reach.

The United States has become ungovernable not because of political differences or protest or a lack of civility but because this is a country unwilling to protect and care for its citizens — its women, its racial minorities and especially its children.

When politicians talk about civility and public discourse, what they’re really saying is that they would prefer for people to remain silent in the face of injustice. They want marginalized people to accept that the conditions of oppression are unalterable facts of life. They want to luxuriate in the power they hold, where they never have to compromise, never have to confront their consciences or lack thereof, never have to face the consequences of their inaction.

Gun violence is one of the problems with which they need not concern themselves because they believe these calamities will never affect them or their families. Instead, these politicians talk about protecting our Second Amendment rights — and they have reimagined the Second Amendment as something that will accommodate whatever the gun lobby wants, rather than what the Constitution actually says. With a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, the continued reinvention of the Second Amendment will likely flourish, unchecked.

When asked for solutions, Republicans talk about arming teachers and training them to defend their classrooms. We hear about how good guys with guns will valiantly stop mass shootings, even though there have been good guys with guns at several mass shootings and they have not prevented these tragedies.

These politicians offer platitudes and prayers and Bible verses. But they do not care to do what must be done to stop the next gun massacre or the average of 321 people shot a day in the United States — including 42 murders and 65 suicides. It is critical that we state this truth clearly and repeatedly and loudly. That we don’t let them hide behind empty rhetoric. That they know we see through their lies. They must know that we know who they truly are.

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They called for civility again and again, as they did during protests after Black people were shot or killed by the police in Ferguson and Kenosha and Minneapolis and Louisville. They called for civility when a draft of a Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade leaked this month. The draft decision tells people of childbearing age that they have no bodily autonomy. It is barbaric.

In the wake of the leak, there were lawful, peaceful protests outside some of the justices’ homes. Journalists and politicians proceeded to fall all over themselves to condemn these protests as incivility — as if the protests were the problem. The Washington Post editorial board wrote that justices have a right to private lives, that public protests should never breach certain boundaries.

They call for civility, but the definition of civility is malleable and ever-changing. Civility is whatever enables them to wield power without question or challenge.

In March of last year, Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut reintroduced the Background Check Expansion Act. The bill is common-sense legislation mandating federal background checks for all firearm purchases, including private sales and transfers. Nothing has happened with this bill. The vast majority of voters support background checks, but Republicans in Congress are preventing the bare minimum of gun legislation.

Their obstruction is vile malfeasance. These are not people who value life, no matter what they say. They value power and control. This too we must state clearly and loudly and repeatedly.

There have been at least 213 mass shootings in the first 145 days of 2022. The politicians on both sides of the aisle who have enabled this convey no real sense of understanding or caring about the incivility of children practicing active-shooter drills and wearing bulletproof backpacks to school. They care nothing, it seems, about children being instructed to throw things at a gunman who might enter their classroom. They care about nothing but their own political interests.

On Tuesday morning, at least 19 children’s parents woke them up and helped them brush their teeth, fed them breakfast, made sure they had their little backpacks packed. They held their children’s small hands as they walked or drove them to school. Those children were alive when their parents waved to them and handed them their lunches and kissed their cheeks. Their lives were precious, and they mattered.

The greatest of American disgraces is knowing that no amount of rage or protest or devastation or loss will change anything about this country’s relationship to guns or life. Nothing will change about a craven political system where policy is sold to the highest bidder. Language is inadequate for expressing this lack of civility.

[Roxane Gay (@RGay) is a contributing Opinion writer for The New York Times. She is the author of the books “Ayiti,” “An Untamed State,” “Bad Feminist,” “Difficult Women” and “Hunger,” among others. She writes a newsletter, The Audacity, and she hosts the podcast “The Roxane Gay Agenda.” @RGay]