The Children Are No Longer Our Future

Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

Whitney Houston’s 1985 cover of “Greatest Love of All” is part of the soundtrack to my own childhood: “I believe the children are our future / Teach them well and let them lead the way.” I was 4 when the song first hit the radio, and growing up, the lyrics echoed from the adult mouths around me — we were the future. It’s one of the ways that we welcome children into the body politic. One of the ways that we demonstrate our own human will for self-preservation. We invest everything we can into a world where children grow into adulthood, build families of their own, make a contribution to society, and keep our life cycle going.

We have officially reached the end of that future.

Nineteen children and two teachers were killed by an 18-year-old wielding a high-powered weapon in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday. This killing comes just ten days after a different 18-year-old killed ten Black people in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket. Nine days after an armed 68-year-old man entered the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in California, killing one congregant and wounding five others. These tragedies are shocking, and they aren’t. The pugilist stonewalling of the GOP coupled with the anemic political imagination of the Democratic party indicate that nothing will be done to curtail the gratuitous access to guns that makes these mass atrocities possible.

So instead we’re left with the unfathomable grief from families trying to hold themselves together, their lives having been ripped asunder. Enraged cries from the public. Hand-wringing and empty outrage from politicians on the left. This will all be met with obfuscation, gaslighting, and fearmongering on the right. We’re left without action.

There will be, for these families, no justice. Because our country has decided that the future of America lies with its guns and not its children.

This is what the end of the future looks like just under a decade after it happened the first time, in Newtown, Connecticut. The adults have now, as then, abdicated responsibility to solve the problem. Nobody believes children are the future anymore. They cannot believe it, while having the power to do everything, and choosing to do nothing.

It bears noting that the killers in both Buffalo and Uvalde were themselves children just one year ago. This is always what the future looked like for them. They were born after the 1999 Columbine shootings. A world where shooting children acts as a salve for one’s own depression, isolation, or alienation is the only world these young men have ever known.

I am struck by the life span of the victims and perpetrators here. Ruth Whitfield, a victim in Buffalo, was 86 years old. Born before World War II, she precedes even the boomer generation. Other Buffalo victims were boomers, Gen-Xers, and millennials. Eva Mireles, one of two teachers killed in Uvalde, was 44, a Gen-Xer. The oldest Columbine survivors, millennials, are over 40. The Parkland survivors and the youngest Newtown survivors are Gen-Zers. Uvalde’s youngest victims, Gen Alpha. The refusal to, as President Biden said on Tuesday evening, “stand up to the gun lobby” is a multigenerational failure.

Clearly our country has decided that the future of America lies with its guns and not its children. The famed Black feminist writer Toni Cade Bambara once wrote, “Children are eternally valid, are eternally the reason for right action.” Bambara’s wish was clearly not of this world. When dead American children cannot compel action, in a society that is obsessed with “parental rights” and forced birth, ostensibly for the sake of the children, the end is near.

Francis Fukuyama’s declaration in the early ’90s that the fall of the Soviet Union meant we had reached “the end of history,” the linear narrative of Western democratic progress having reached its apex, was the kind of pompous presumption the U.S. is known for. As the election of Donald Trump, the January 6 insurrection, and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine made obvious, we are all living in the aftermath of the 20th-century lie that the work of protecting democracy was complete. Progress is not linear. Democracies must be sustained through good government, truth telling, and peaceful protest. The belief in a viable future for all must be too.

But Toni Morrison argued in 1996, in a talk titled “The Future of Time,” that “time, it seems, has no future.” She averred, “It is abundantly clear that in the political realm, the future is already catastrophe.” Rather than being concerned with the children, our society had become obsessed with “our children,” a dangerous kind of myopia rooted in ownership and a grab for power. We can see this in the fight by white parents to not have schools teach “critical race theory” to their children, while completely disregarding what such a stance might mean for all the children. Those who are holding us hostage as we peer down the barrels of their guns cannot see a future beyond one or two generations, and those generations are limited to those with whom they share a bloodline or a cultural or racial identity. Thus it becomes appropriate to use their guns to protect their children while the children get slaughtered at will.

This cultural myopia, this fear of the future, is dangerous. Morrison prophesied, “The loudest voices are urging those already living in dread of the future to speak of culture in military terms — as a cause for and expression of war. We are being asked to reduce the creativity and complexity of our ordinary lives to cultural slaughter; we are being asked to regard public education with hysteria and dismantle rather than protect it; we are being seduced into accepting truncated, short-term, CEO versions of our wholly human future. No wonder our imagination stumbles beyond 2030 — when we may be regarded as monsters to the generations that follow us.”

Morrison gave this talk 26 years ago, before Columbine, Newtown, Charleston, Parkland, Buffalo, and Uvalde. It should pummel us with its prescience today. I know that at this moment we are all searching for solutions. But here’s the thing: We’ve known the solutions for a very long time. We must find the political will to restrict public access to guns. We must ban assault weapons. In my ideal world, we would repeal the Second Amendment, and barring that, we would raise the gun ownership age to 21, restrict access to ammunition, and force every household to legally register every gun they own, subject to legal enforcement if they failed to do so.

But our issue isn’t politics, despite the fact that political solutions could help. The issue is what our political posturing is meant to hide — a cancerous set of beliefs deep within the soul of the American body politic, that power is god and that all of us should worship at its very white altars. Until that changes, there will be no hope for the future.

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The Children Are No Longer Our Future