A Deafening Silence


“I want to be a veterinarian, and I want to go to Princeton University,” a smiling 15-year-old girl told us when we were filming at KIPP: Believe, a high-performing charter school in New Orleans. Tell us more, we said. “I want to finish college because I want to have that pride in myself that, to know that I finished something, that I went somewhere and I finished it,” Christine Marcelin added.

Watching her speak, one senses that Christine has what it takes, and it’s easy to imagine her becoming a successful vet, or perhaps a doctor or business leader.

Her history teacher, Scarlett Feinberg, shared that view. “Christine always cared how other people were feeling, she put her team first always. She really cared that her friends were successful too, and she would talk to her classmates about being better. She embodied hope that we could be the change we want to see in New Orleans, and no matter how hard things were, she believed that we could all work together and make a difference. She was counting down the days to start high school because it was a step closer to college, getting her degree and beginning a career helping others.”

If you read that paragraph carefully, you noted that Ms. Feinberg spoke about Christine in the past tense. She won’t be going to Princeton, won’t be a veterinarian, and won’t have a long life dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans and helping others.

Christine Marcelin was brutally murdered a few days ago.

So was another KIPP: Believe student, 15-year-old Brandon Adams. The 8th grader was fatally shot a few days before Christine was killed. Brandon was a successful student, a good athlete and a student leader, according to published reports. The two 8th graders were dating.

The school held a vigil, which you can see here.

The speculation is that Brandon got into a playground scuffle a day or two before he was murdered and that the likely killers were the young men he argued with. They went gunning for him and then, perhaps fearing that he had told his girlfriend the names of the guys he had fought with, kidnapped and executed her, then dumped her body in a deserted part of the city.

Six other New Orleans students have been shot and killed this year.

Kids murdering kids is not unique to New Orleans. We’ve seen mass murders on college campuses in Virginia and California, and school killings since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 have become almost routine.

This is not happening because today’s kids are different. Adolescents are no more volatile, insecure, energetic and full of doubt than any previous generation. What’s different is that guns are available. We tolerate the proliferation of handguns because we won’t confront the radical minority known as the National Rifle Association, the NRA. Although the NRA apparently doesn’t even speak for the majority of gun owners, it has become one of the most powerful forces in American politics, powerful enough to scare politicians into silence or — more likely — acquiescence.

(Not all politicians are afraid. I live in a city whose mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has been forceful and courageous on this issue. He knows that the flood of guns endangers his police officers and his constituency, and he’s willing to speak out. But even when other mayors join with our Mayor, the Congress remains dominated by a collection of cowards.)

In terms of dealing with anger, everything has changed across just a matter of one or two generations.

Because of the NRA, we are courting anarchy. A growing number of states have laws that allow proto-fascist vigilantes to strap on a gun and go searching for trouble, knowing that, even if they kill someone, they can walk because the law allows them to ‘Stand Their Ground.’

The NRA’s mantra, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” is nonsense. People with access to guns kill people. The autobiography of charismatic educator Geoffrey Canada describes in vivid detail how things have changed. In fact, his brilliant title says it all: Fist Stick Knife Gun.

When I was a kid, we wrestled and maybe threw some punches when we were out of control mad. Today, we shoot someone.

But this column is not an assault on the wackos who run the NRA and people who believe that carrying a gun — anywhere and everywhere — makes everyone safer.

I want to know where all the leaders have gone. Where are the university presidents, once moral and ethical leaders of our nation? Remember Clark Kerr, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, James Bryant Conant, Fr. Timothy Healy, Bart Giamatti, Kingman Brewster and Robert Maynard Hutchins? The nation once looked to them for counsel, and they were willing to speak forcefully on the key moral issues of our time.

We are living in an age of economic inequality that is unprecedented, but have the Presidents of Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Chicago or Princeton spoken out? They must be aware that nearly 25% of our children are growing up in poverty and being denied a fair shot at what we used to call The American Dream, and yet they are silent.

Gun violence is tearing our urban centers apart, and the blood that’s most often shed seems to be that of promising young children. Why the deafening silence from our leading campuses?

I was on the campus of Notre Dame earlier this week and had the privilege of spending 30 minutes with Fr. Hesburgh, now nearly 95. ‘Father Ted’ happens to be one of my heroes, but this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to shake his hand. Though hampered by failing eyesight, he is as bright, strong and forceful as anyone I know, and I walked away from our meeting inspired by him — but depressed by the resounding silence of those occupying university presidential suites today.

Why the silence? One Notre Dame sociologist suggested that presidents are too busy raising money these days. They can’t risk offending the hedge fund managers they are counting on to write big checks.

If so, it’s a bitter irony. As government continues to withdraw its support from higher education, higher education is becoming more dependent upon the generosity of the very wealthy…and that makes it difficult for university presidents to speak out about the dangers of income inequality (and perhaps other controversial subjects as well). By not supporting higher education, government is, it turns out, buying its silence! It’s not pleasant to envision where this downward spiral leads.

Whenever you vote, think about Christine Marcelin, Brandon Adams, Trayvon Martin and the other young lives snuffed out because we haven’t cared enough to insist on building a civil society.

31 thoughts on “A Deafening Silence

  1. “People with access to guns kill people” OK that being said no underaged minor can legaly purchase a gun. If you deny people of proper age to purchase weapons to defend themselves from home invasions, burglaries and the such, criminals will still be able to get weapons. Outlaw guns and Outlaws will still have guns =/


    • The column does NOT argue for denying people the right to purchase weapons. Please read it again. But tell me why we make it easier to buy (and carry) a gun than to acquire a driver’s license. Does that make sense?

      A retired cop I know told me, just last night, that he has a permit to carry, valid in every state, but he never carries a gun because, he said, ‘guns cause trouble.’


      • Ok, so one police officer’s opinion means that thy all feel this way? What does being a police officer have to do with it? By the way, there is no permit available to anyone that is valid in all 50 states. That alone discredits your officer. By being a retired police officer, he is eligible to carry in all 50 states und a law signed by Preseident Clinton.

        Handguns were available 50 years ago. I would argue that children had easier access to thm them than they do now.mChildren were taught how to shoot at much earlier ages and even in school. But we didn’t have these sorts of incidents then. Why is that? Because children ARE different now. We all are. Society has contempt for law enforcement and this causes law enforcement to have contempt for society. It’s a cycle that build upon itself. Very few would dare backtalk an officer 50 years ago, but now it’s very common.

        Entitlement is the root cause of all of this. I am not talking about welfare. I am talking about the sense that I am owed something. We as a society (everyone) have this attitude. Few want to work for anything. Each generation gets worse and worse. As things come easier, the less value they have.


      • Jason, you seem to have missed the point entirely. This story is about young people who were willing to work to achieve their dreams, but their work came to nothing because of the sense of entitlement of a few privileged people in this country. These people recognize they have an unfair share of what our country has to offer and they want that protected by any means necessary. Their paranoia drives the political manipulations John writes about, which means more guns are available, which means more criminals can get their hands on them, which means more young people who just want to work and succeed – the promise of America – will be killed.


      • This is a tragedy on so many levels. I’m with you 100% on this, John. My father was a Korean war vet and a career police officer. He frequently commented on how guns were too widely and easily available.

        I’m even more concerned about what we as a national community–parents, churches, media, politicians, educators, all of us—have done or not done to create an atmosphere that makes violence and hatred attractive and permissible. We are too often, by bad example, teaching our children it’s perfectly okay to mistreat others in order to get ahead, even if it’s just get ahead in line or on the freeway. Our elected officials can’t even show common respect and courtesy when they speak to or about each other. We’ve spent the better part of the past generation telling our young people all that matters is making as much money as possible, and that the only reason to get an education is for a ticket to a high-paying career.

        It’s time for every one of us to do whatever we can within our own spheres of influence to change the tone and the direction of our society and our country—we can start by changing our own words.


    • Shame on you, Billy. Still mouthing the NRA’s garbage when the jury is way in: the NRA dystopia is as horrifying as the good people of America were afraid it would be. This radical and ultimately anti-American cabal has brought us “stand your ground” laws that legalize murder, guns in schools and churches and an increasingly dysfunctional civic society.

      I saw a high school friend’s father murdered with a handgun, had a friend’s son die playing Russian Roulette with his handgun, had a friend who was a US Attorney assassinated because he spoke out against the NRA and can tell at least five other stories of my personal loss because of the NRA and its idiocy. This is not an issue for those with the moral insight of children to play with.

      Thank you, John, for speaking up on this issue that is amongst the most important in our time yet one on which so many good people are mute, letting those who can’t think straight to win the day and destroy our great heritage of common sense.


  2. Lots and lots of issues in a powerful, poignant story. I think the most telling issue comes at the end of the piece, a loss of respect for individuals and for their lives, maybe for life itself. People (those that used to come from our leaders) need to stand up and give voice to those cannot speak for themselves. The people of poverty have developed their own society, maybe a throwback to the wild west when the fastest gun ruled.

    Honesty, morality are hard to come by these days. Or maybe foibles are just magnified more than they used to be. Money and the press (maybe the internet) play powerful roles in shaping views and prodding action.

    John, your voice will become ever more important as those of your generation give way to the sound byters of today that highlight these events rather than challenge the why.


  3. During workshops at my old alternative school for felons, and my neighborhood schools, the police often denied there was such a thing as a “wannabee.” Sure enough, I lost nearly fifty students to murder or to killing someone. But few of the murders were comitted by “hardcore” ganstas. Most were committed by the weaker and the more fearful kids who have been misidentified as “wannabees.”

    So, why did disputes result in more than a bloody nose?

    John, you nailed the problem.

    And following up on your comment, twice when intervening on the street, combatants asked if I was “carrying.” When I said no, their first response was to say bug off. But by proclaiming my lack of gun, I then had a lead-in fr proclaiming nonaggressive intentions and it worked.


  4. Who funds the NRA? Who are they actually representing? Would it turn out to be the same handful of Uber Rich Apres Moi Le Deluge who are behind the attack on public education and unions, the Tea Party, drill baby drill…? I don’t mean to suggest conspiracy, just that we have given away our democracy. Even though we still have the right to vote for people who could represent us, money enters into the picture at every turn. The program on This American Life recently about money in politics was chilling.


    • Exactly, Amy – well put. Everyone must listen to that This American Life episode. It’s all about money and the uber-rich buying the country.


    • Amy’s exactly right. It’s not just bad gun laws that killed these promising kids. It’s a constellation of causes, beginning and ending with wholesale sellout: to media, to corporate interests, to our basest instincts. We have sold out democracy–because we needed the cash. Christine and Brandon were “corollary damage.”


  5. Excellent piece, John. You articulate exactly what I have asked so many friends and never gotten an answer: Why are our moral leaders quiet as radical, irrational actors have taken over the discourse? It must be, as you say, all about the money. Citizens United will be our undoing.


  6. There are solutions to this. They are not rocket science. They are not immensely expensive. They do not even require new legislation.

    Somerville, Massachusetts, was Whitey Bulger’s city, the host of the Mafia of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The city earned that status when Ford closed its Edsel plant and left 4000 auto mechanics without job or career, and “the town” became the “chop shop” center of the East Coast. That stopped. Not all at once, but by 1990 or so there were remarkably few events like those you saw through Kipp: Believe. Around that time the school system – and the District Attorney and Community Development Corporation – created a program that trains student (peer) mediators (http://bit.ly/Jx55nx). In a word, it worked. Surely there are issues in a city divided almost equally between Yuppie, immigrant and long term working class, yet the core skill of young people is a highly regarded (by all people) mediation skill. It only involves 20 or 30 kids a year, but it has done that for nearly 20 years and thereby transformed one of the most dangerous into one of the safest cities in the Northeast.

    As they say, Do it. Do it now.


  7. The problem really is that NO ONE is willing to work “for the better alternative” in the terminology of author, Stephen Covey. Point me to ANY issue for which there is complete agreement as to a single approach to deal with it. Point to ANY issue where the majority supports one approach and the minority willingly agrees to work to optimize the success of the majority’s approach. Neither of the scenarios have successful examples!

    So, what do we have? I suggest we have multiple groups, each with an approach they champion AND GO “TO THE MATTRESSES” TO DEFEND. The consequences are that the groups grow further and further apart; eventually, everyone is frightened, stressed out, frustrated, … In comes the lobbyist, the venture philanthropist, the manipulator, …, who convinces the public that the snake oil is the solution. But of course, this simply rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic, reorders and edits the list of issues – AND THE PROCESS HAVING ZERO PROBABILITY OF SUCCESS IS REPEATED!

    I don’t care if the issue is guns, education equality, poverty, …; we as a population seeking working approaches to legitimate issues MUST MAKE A MOTIVATED, ENGAGED EFFORT to work together to find the BETTER ALTERNATIVE – an approach every party believes strongly is better than the one championed at the start of this collaboration, one they are thus willing to work to implement.

    I can sense the readers wondering what “snake oil” I’m trying to sell!!! But, not true of course, Stephen Covey has not only proposed such an approach, he has as I understand it, facilitated its use on numerous complicated, “messy” issues. AND FOR US, he has written his latest book, (“The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems”) for our use as a guide in our collaborative efforts. Until we decide to honestly engage, we will continually learn of the tragedies and missed opportunities such as those in this commentary.

    If the founding fathers (who represented many different positions and argued very strongly for them BUT sought the best for this cou try) of this country were to observe the current situation in this country, they would have to be so dejected. How could they not be??? Put up or fade into the margins. Paraphrasing the president in “The American President”, “this is the time for serious efforts and your fifteen minutes in the limelight are up!”


  8. Thank you Mr. Merrow for this article. I find the silence disheartening and extremely discouraging. There needs to be a voice for that 25% (and growing) of students that are denied a fair shot at so many opportunities. I do have a problem with those that turn their head at this population and proceed with their fundraising and buying into the problem at hand. Where does the turnaround begin? When will those in leadership roles begin making changes necessary? I can only hope soon. We certainly do not need any more Christine, Brandon, or Trayvon tragic endings. I do agree with Joe, there are steps WE can take now to help. Conflict resolution and peer mediation being implemented, starting when students are young and continuing would be a huge step!


    • Hello Truman, Thank you for the compliment. As far as clnreiag my thoughts and centering myself. there is no magic formula. I am passionate about what I do and consider myself an authority on the subjects I write about. My topics center around the products I sell and the need for them as well as all the crime I read about and see on the news daily. In summary If you are passionate about what you blog about and have knowledge of the subject matter content should come easily.To your success! and BE SAFE!


  9. This doesn’t seem like an NRA issue a larger one of civic discourse. John asks us to consider why people aren’t speaking out as forcefully about the need for gun regulation as for the right to bear arms? I think the link between adressing violence in our communities – whether through gun legislation or not – and education is a critical one. My heart absolutely breaks for those students and their families but also for our nation which has been robbed of 2 smart, articulate young people. I do think that young people are pretty much the same as they’ve ever been — it’s the tools or weapons in their own hands and in those around them that have changed.


  10. John,

    Thank you for this post. When I learned about this tragedy at the New Schools Summit, it broke my heart. One of our Envision students was shot 10 times in his back as he walked home from school this year. Thankfully, he survived but he will be paralyzed for the rest of his life. I had a similar reaction to yours – where is the outrage from our leaders and our community? We all need to speak out, rise up and stop the killing of our beautiful children.


    Bob Lenz
    Envision Schools


  11. I agree that the link between addressing violence in our communities and education is a critical one because our politicians will NOT speak out. Likewise they will not speak out about the link between violence, race, poverty and the failed war on drugs. Why not? Like you say John: follow the money. Pols will not talk about gun reform or drug reform or prison reform because it makes them look weak on crime and hence unelectable. No better to allow these senseless deaths, easy access to weapons, increasingly more lethal drugs and overflowing prisons. This leaves the rest of us to push changes in these laws so that our politicians are led to the changes they need to represent. John, you really need to see this new documentary “The House I live In” by filmmaker (and friend) Eugene Jarecki. It will make your blood boil. It is not out yet (won Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year) but I could probably figure out a screening for you if you are interested. Am working to get it shown at UCB and at high schools here in the east bay soon too. Here is a huff post article about it: http://tinyurl.com/82kugdj. Thanks for taking on these important issues John.


  12. Another way many of these laws are propagated is through ALEC. Their network of corporate interests and conservative lawmakers continue to push the agenda nationwide regardless of who might get hurt.


  13. From my WV home where folks have many guns (thankfully used mostly for hunting game) I agree that there’s way too much silence from leaders about the risks of easy access to guns. Thanks for posting this and for the report on Hesbaugh, one of my heroes also.


  14. John, your position on the lack of ethical leadership in higher ed. was eloquently presented in Harry Lewis’s book, Excellence without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, which was also published under a second subtitle: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? Sadly, five years after its publication, no one has taken a leadership role and heeded his warning-in higher ed or elsewhere-and every year more children die at the hands of their peers. There is no question that we are in crisis and that our nation’s children are being sacrificed. How is it that politics overshadows everything -even common sense?!


  15. John–Thank you for this column. We need to stay aware of the horrible damage that guns do. We who are willing to be aware of the potential horror of guns need to bolster the politicians who are of like mind so they can speak out and still be re-elected. Can anyone supply a list of the anti-gun Congress persons?


  16. It’s a crushing reality that so much hope is destroyed at the armed hands of hatred of one genesis or another. Until there is a shared value among our leaders and, hence, in our culture, more esteemed than profit and rights can be inextricably coupled with responsibilities, each of us has to be charged with doing what we can within our own spheres (as you are) to lead privately and publicly through myriad vehicles and contexts. As you and many have chosen, education, i.e. working with the young in a culture where adults have abdicated, is still the most promising path to pursue. Thank you, John.


  17. John, news of this sort will always be disturbing to the core; as a father and teacher, I remain vigilant to teach ALL of my children about character and empathy. Sadly (and scary,) is that I find this to be becoming more and more rare as parents, educators, coaches, etc. etc. continue to facilitate – if not PROMOTE – a cutthroat, hyper competitive environment without realizing that the young people attempting to function in that environment are lacking compassion or, at the very least, empathy. Education, athleticism…actually any type of ability is a moot point, at best, without character and confidence. I see it every single day in my job as a teacher and near home as a parent/coach, these kids are too ignorant to discern between constructive criticism and “disrespect,” have too much of an inferiority complex to process either, and too little impulse control to prevent storied like this from happening. Children forced to perform like “adults,” led by increasingly adolescent adults + access to lethal force =lack of guidance and compassion, and that’s why Christine was not allowed to live her dream, and those who loved her will be haunted forever by her senseless murder.She won’t be the last until we wake the hell up and start treating our children like not only a job, but the MOST IMPORTANT job we have.


  18. Interesting read–both the blog post and the subsequent reader comments. Most interesting is how quickly people disengaged from the overarching assertion in the post (that University Presidents are not speaking out on issues like gun control) and moved right into 2nd Amendment. My challenge is for all of the readers to step back from that argument–and then, even Mr. Merrow, to step back from the issue of gun control in schools in general–and look at what the underlying issue really is. This article is about a few young people who visciously gunned down two fellow youths for what is undoubtedly a dumb reason. The access to the guns is not what concerns me, although I agree with the majority of readers that the ease with which people are able to acquire guns illegally is frightening, to say the least. But rather what scares me most….what resonates with me and shakes me to my core…is how little these young people valued their lives, and the lives of others. Is that not the underlying issue? That these young people had/have such little regard for even their own lives, that they would not hesitate to do something to throw it all away? As evidenced in the brutal murder of Derrion Albert in Chicago, whether or not these kids are using guns is not the major issue. Derrion Albert was beaten with fists and items lying nearby. What law do you enact to change that? A plywood law? Until leaders decide that it is time to band together to not just improve the odds, but to CHANGE them altogether….we will continue to fail the young people we all say we care about. A fragmented attempt at helping young people that is tantamount to thinking that 100 band aids will help to heal a gunshot wound. If we do not address the underlying issues, if we do not start to speak out about THAT…well, then it doesn’t matter what else we do. It won’t matter that gun laws are changed or that bullying policies go into effect. A fragmented approach will yield fragmented results, and that you can be sure of.


    • I do not disagree with anything you say here. Violence, violence as a solution, et cetera are issues. We need to take lots of steps to give young people hope, something they can believe in.


  19. John,

    I can’t imagine anyone stopping their “read” after three paragraphs. It was riveting and oh so to the point. My heart breaks so often and the useless loss of life in one of the so-called “civilized” countries in this world. How can we allow this idiocy to continue–how do we find those willing to speak out and how do we get that message to those who have the power to bring about change, but at too afraid or too complacent, or too well-paid to make hard decisions to bring about change? I think each of us needs to speak up, needs to continue to pressure our legislators and to be part of those groups that have organized to fight back. Thank you for challenging all of us to think more about these issues and to hurt for those who suffer.


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