The End of Innocence

Recently TIME magazine unveiled their latest cover. It features five carefully selected Parkland high school students posing ominously behind the word “ENOUGH.” TIME contributors assert that these students speak for “the school shooting generation” in their calls for massive gun control restrictions.

It is not my interest here to get into the latest rendition of the gun control debate, though the topic certainly warrants discussion. Rather, my interest is in the welfare of the Parkland students. In a seemingly unprecedented manner, the Parkland survivors have been not only the topic of endless media coverage on school shootings, but also participants in it.

The left and right alike have paraded these students to the public as bastions of their ideals and “the leaders America needs.” We’ve been so eager to defend our personal politics that we have forgotten just whom we are using: children—scarcely educated, heavily scarred, and unaccustomed to the pressure of the national stage.

This is not, of course, meant to discredit the students. They’ve confronted their grave tragedy with courage and resilience, and they deserve to be applauded for it. But we have gone too far.

We have placed a burden on them to define our national policy at an age when they can barely handle the burden of driving a car. We have made the assumption that because they share our political opinions, they have a full education. This is a mistake. We cannot pretend that the thousands of teenagers who walked out of school this spring all did so because they fully comprehend the issue of gun control. Many (if not most) of them were pressured to make a political expression about something they likely haven’t been able to think through fully or clearly.

The discourse among the students has already begun its descent into a Golding-esque battle of the clans, with students at the head of both tribes taking public shots at each other to the hysterical applause of the propaganda-loving fourth estate. In a time when these children ought to be coming together, supporting each other, and reflecting seriously on their experiences, we have encouraged them to firmly entrench themselves in political camps that publicly pit them against one another.

I reiterate: these are children. We are doing serious damage to them by putting them in the spotlight and demanding them to say something profound when they’ve scarcely had time to process what they’ve witnessed.

A recent interview with one of the Parkland students bordered on the deranged, profanely invoking images of children’s blood splattered on the faces of apathetic NRA members. In the same interview the student says their parents “don’t know how to use a f*cking democracy,” so their generation has to show them how. No one bothered to remind the student that America is a republic.

It is this sort of misinformation—this innocent lack of education—that we need to be conscious of in these students. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t believe most of the things I did when I was in high school, and when I look back I can only laugh at how little I truly knew and understood.

We’re preventing these students from having those sorts of maturing moments as they grow up.

To change their minds would be viewed as weakness, betrayal. So long as they are on the public platform, they have to maintain the character they were cast just hours after the massacre of their classmates. They’ll get into respectable colleges and publish books not because of their intelligence, but simply because they’re the famous Parkland students. They’ll be the object of endless scrutiny, and the mistakes that everybody makes as they become adults will become national scandals.

“But these students are different,” some have said. “That innocence was taken from them and they’ve matured already. They watched their classmates die, and now they know something about the issue and ought to have their say.”

The presumption in such an argument is that experiencing a tragedy turns someone into an authority on the subject. This is not only inherently false but also dangerous to the American mind. In a republic that touts the natural equality of all mankind, we are dependent on civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas to produce political progress.

To say that you cannot have an opinion on a topic “unless you’ve experienced it yourself” implies that we are incapable of understanding one another as human beings and that whole classes of people are excluded from comprehending the importance of issues like race, violence, rape, and abortion. It is not experience itself that yields growth in understanding. Rather, it is the reasoned reflection and discussion of ideas following an event—whether you’ve experienced it or not.

If we know what’s good for us—and good for them—then we as a nation need to stop exploiting the Parkland students for political gains. We need to give them adequate time, space, and privacy to deal with and reflect on their experiences so that they might emerge more thoughtful and better equipped to discuss these issues in the future and truly become “the leaders America needs.”

They need to be free to be wrong without public shame, to mourn with each other, and to heal. Let them have time to read, think, and debate openly with each other so that they might learn, but let them do it innocently and without public scrutiny. The end of innocence is not the experience of a tragedy but the surrender to predatory society. Let us not take their innocence from them.