What Happens When We Let Hope Die?

A recent column by Leonard Pitts titled, “May the Parkland kids forgive us for failing them so miserably” reminded me why he’s always been one of my favorite writers. Here’s the part that really got me thinking:

Protest is an expression of belief in the possibility of change. Maybe the rest of us lost that belief somewhere along the way. Now these kids are reminding us, but that’s not their job. They should have been able to just be kids. That they weren’t — indeed, that they almost died — speaks to our failures. It is good that we support them now with our prayers, presence and treasure.

But that doesn’t mitigate the failure. This never should have become ordinary.

For many of us, the era of mass shootings began in 1999 with the horror of Columbine. I remember noticing that weeks later I still felt depressed. It rocked our world. But eventually we recovered and went on to live through Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Tucson, to name just a few. Every incident expanded the group of activists working to enact meaningful gun reforms. But nothing happened.

Then came the unspeakable tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Many of us thought that the slaughter of those children would finally break the logjam that was preventing us from doing something to stop the horror. But it didn’t. That is when hope died for a lot of us—when the possibility of change became almost inconceivable.

As mass shootings continued to occur, the “ordinary” began to creep in. Almost immediately the cynicism of being able to write the script became the most favored response. We all knew that Democrats would demand change for a couple of days while Republicans sent their “thoughts and prayers.” A few days later, the whole thing would be forgotten and we’d all move on.

That is what makes the march that will take place tomorrow so extraordinary. Hope has been revived. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that it is young people that have shaken us out of the inertia of hopelessness. They may have watched us fail, but they haven’t failed themselves. The students of Parkland haven’t been imbued with all of the warnings about how “we tried that before and it didn’t work.”

That is why Michelle and Barack Obama, as well as countless others, have recently pointed out that “throughout our history, young people like you have led the way in making America better.” It is not only because they bring passion and a sense of urgency to the cause. Young people come at change without all of the baggage of trial and error.

There is a lesson in that for the rest of us if we care to learn it. As Pitts wrote, “protest is an expression of belief in the possibility of change.” When we quit believing in the possibility, we quit trying and what was once horrific becomes ordinary. That is what happens when we let hope die. And yes, may the students of Parkland (and all of the other young people in this country) forgive us for letting that happen.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.