I have been riding a wave of joy here in this island Paradise of Aitutaki Cook Islands, but something tragic pierced my joy. In a vicious act of violence in my birth country, the US, a nineteen year old slaughtered fourteen students, two coaches and a teacher and injured fourteen others, in a Florida high school. Then I learned about the violence that erupted here in the Cook Islands community over the last two weekends with a knife and broken bottles, and my grief deepened. There is a temptation to give into helpless sadness and hopeless anger about events like this.
We might vaguely wonder, what can be done to prevent it? What in the world can any individual do about it? And then I saw a video of one of the students who survived the massacre – Emma Gonzalez, a year 10 student at the Parkland, Florida school. She is one of many students eloquently speaking out, calling for gun control in the United States. It’s not enough to send “thoughts and prayers,” she said. There comes a time to act. She paraphrased the words of Indian leader Mohatma Ghandi, saying “We need to ‘be the change we wish to see in the world.’” Students and others are organizing a huge demonstration and school walk out for March 14th calling it, “March for Our Lives” and have a massive plan (#never again) for reaching government to change the gun laws. Oprah and other celebrities are using their wealth to help support the movement. Countries such as Australia, Britain and Japan that introduced tight gun control laws have dramatically reduced not only homicide but suicide, and mass shootings have been zero ever since new legislation was passed. In my opinion, the United States has every reason to follow their example, especially when it comes to weapons of war.
A New York Times columnist wrote, “Don’t succumb to despair. It prevents change.” Irish statesman, Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The rare acts of violence that shake the Cook Islands community are often related to alcohol intoxication, jealousy, and depression. The root of jealousy is poor self-esteem, which breeds a kind of helpless rage. When alcohol inebriates the brain, one loses his mind and his morals. So, what can we do, even here in this tiny country?
- We can increase the self-esteem of our children. Call them by their true names – kindness, peacefulness, excellence, enthusiasm, self-discipline. Help them cultivate the fruits of the spirit. Children who see themselves as caring, helpful and faithful have no need to resort to bullying or violence.
- Set boundaries on your own child’s drinking. Enforce a curfew, and know where they are when they go out.
- In the past, churches here offered alcohol-free alternative evenings and transport. Teens need to gather, hear music, enjoy themselves in a safe environment.
- Eliminate casual violence in our homes, and talk things out, giving reasonable consequences instead of a physical punishment. Children imitate us, so we need to be role models of restraint.
- Speak truth to power. Hold government to account. Share your ideas with your representatives.
- When alcohol is involved in a fight, ideally the perpetrators would be required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for at least six months. If they miss a meeting, they go to jail.
I asked various islanders their thoughts about why violence happens and what the solutions might be. The most profound response was from a Year 11 student at Araura College, who said, “People that get drunk and act violently have no passion in life, no purpose. They need a dream.” She said the nineteen year old Florida shooter, now an orphan, was devastated after his adoptive parents died. “He lost his dreams, and he took out vengeance for it on others. The victims had dreams, and now they will never fulfill them.” The virtue that blossoms as young people discover their talents and envision a meaningful future, is idealism — the capacity to dream big dreams and then act as if they are possible. We all need to do whatever we can to nurture those dreams of a bright future, to replace violence with virtues.