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Speak Softly, Big Stick: for a Kinder, Saner Nation

On May 24, a lone gunman murdered at least 19 children and two adults (by the time you’re reading this, the number may have gone up, as several remain hospitalized) in a grade school in Uvalde, TX.

In a nation shellshocked by a two-years-and-counting pandemic crisis and now facing exorbitant gas and grocery prices amid supply shortages, most recently of baby formula, this latest kick in the gut is really testing the limits of how much more we can endure.

Theodore Roosevelt famously said “speak softly and carry a big stick,” which mainly pertained to foreign policy, but he advised it for “any crisis.” It’s applicable here as well, except too many Americans seem to have confused their prepositions.

The combatants on both sides of the gun control debate apparently have resigned themselves to a binary choice of “speak softly or carry a big stick” instead of “and.” One side clamors to ban firearms while the other counters that guns don’t kill, people kill.

Some insist the problem is mental health while others point to the ease of access to guns, particularly ones capable of firing upon multiple targets in seconds.

Neither of these is the problem – both are.

In a speech on the day of the shooting, President Biden implored that, once and for all, Americans need to stand up the gun lobby. He’s right. But that alone won’t fix the problem, though it’s a good start.

President Trump has insisted for years that in order to achieve border security, we needed to build a wall. Critics quipped that if we build a wall, those crossing illegally will just dig a tunnel or use a bigger ladder to climb over. Yes, some will, but many more would be thwarted. Similarly, enforcing laws that restrict sales of certain types of weapons, require all weapons to be registered, ban ghost guns (homemade ones), and mandate strict requirements for those keeping and storing guns at home regarding access by others, won’t eliminate the danger entirely, but will decrease it.

An even better solution – in addition to, not in place of – strict gun law enforcement is preventing potential mass shooters from wanting to kill in the first place. Sure, it’s not as easy to kill students by the dozen with a big rock as it is with an assault rifle, but it’s still very possible. What causes the desire to commit homicide in the first place and how do we prevent it?
Let’s take a look at some culprits:

NUTRITION: Face it, there’s a lot of toxic goop on supermarket shelves being clothed as food, which is banned in other countries precisely because it’s bad for you, and, yes, can mess with your brain. But here in the United States, another large influencer we need to stand up to, the food lobby, keeps the high fructose corn syrup flowing. A message that would go a long way to the hordes of Americans who consume this junk on a daily basis is: “this is not your father’s Coca Cola.” In other words, the Coke cans of the 60s and 70s were filled with massive amounts of sugar – also harmful in countless ways – but not nearly as bad as the processed and chemical alternatives. Yesterday’s generation got fat and developed tooth decay; today’s consumers won’t get off that easy. Drugs belong in this category as well, considering they too are poison for the body and the mind. That includes over-the-counter and prescription stuff too. Oh, there’s that other big industry, Big Pharma, which no one wants to take on either. Shhh.

ZERO SUM COMPETITION: Winning is great if you happen to be the winner. The exact opposite feeling is losing. After a big game, look at sports fans on both sides; talk about diametrically opposing emotions. I’m not saying we should continue the absurd practice of giving every kid a trophy, but we should teach our winners humility and sportsmanship and our losers that tomorrow is another day and that which does not kill you usually makes you stronger. Youth and beauty rise to the top of the pecking order, leaving behind the mocked, the bullied, and the ignored. That’s a dangerous breeding ground for would-be assailants.

BE KIND: The first President Bush spoke of establishing a kinder, gentler nation. Perhaps a better way to sell this idea is to seek a kinder, saner nation. Maybe if we show more compassion to the jilted lover, the rejected job applicant, and the batter who struck out to end the game, some of them wouldn’t take it out on the world later on.

As a historian, I see the world as a room that when it finally gets too hot, we turn down the heat and when it gets too cold, we turn it up. At some point, something’s going to be done to solve the problem of mass shootings in schools, supermarkets, and movie theaters. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet. Especially because our elected officials and their media messenger boys continue to line up behind only one particular solution instead of embracing both.

We need to double, triple, or maybe even quadruple President Clinton’s initiative of adding 100,000 new police officers in communities throughout the country. And we need to train them to speak softly, but to use that big stick when they have to.

There are numerous phenomena for which Americans truly need to establish zero tolerance. Turning on the news to learn that an 18-year-old bought two assault rifles and days later walked into an elementary school and opened fire on innocent children is one of them.


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