Tomgram: Frida Berrigan, Growing Up With the Threat of Pervasive Violence

Posted by Frida Berrigan at 4:41pm, April 15, 2018.
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It’s been a terrible year for gun makers. The venerable Remington filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy after its sales fell 27.5% in the first nine months of Donald Trump’s presidency. (Its officials had expected a 2016 Hillary Clinton victory to ensure a burst of gun purchases.) And Remington wasn’t alone. Sales have been ragged across the industry. Gun company stocks have slipped, profits have fallen, price wars are breaking out, and corporate debt is on the rise. January 2018 was the worst January for gun purchases since 2012. (A mere2,030,530 firearm background checks were logged that month, down by 500,000 from the same month in 2016!) It was the “Trump slump” in action.

The good old days for the gun makers — you know, the ones when a Kenyan Muslim was in the White House and a mass of Democratic congressional flamethrowers was preparing to shut the spigot on gun purchases in America forever with draconian laws — are long past. The National Rifle Association reigns; Republicans control Congress; Trump rules; gun control laws are something to be found in a galaxy far, far away; and all is safe, sound, and well in the world.

Or put another way, what’s often referred to as “fear-based” gun buying is no longer buoying the industry. One sign of this: in the past, mass shooting incidents (and the media brouhahas around them) were surefire gun-purchase inducers. Those background checks (a good measure of gun sales), for instance, rose 50% after Sandy Hook, 43% after the San Bernardino killings, and 40% after the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre. But after last October’s Las Vegas slaughter in which 58 died and hundreds were wounded, they sank by 13% compared to October 2016. And even the recent Parkland school killings and the gun debate and youthful protests that followed didn’t seem to help sales (at least not until quite recently).

So, fear and guns. After President Obama was elected and the Democrats took Congress, gun production tripled in this country (and imports doubled), while, according to recent studies, white men who fit a certain profile — “anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market, and beset by racial fears” — stockpiled guns in record numbers. The gun, as one study reported, feels to them like “a force for order in a chaotic world,” though such owners are significantly more likely to use a gun in their home to kill or wound themselves or someone in their family than a burglar, intruder, or anyone else.

Think about a country filled with guns in numbers that should stagger the imagination, weapons that often have the power to rend flesh in ways that fit war, not the home. Then imagine the fears that have run rampart in this country in recent years and read the thoughts of TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan, as a mother, as the child of famed pacifists who protested violence and weaponry of every sort, and as a relatively sane soul in a country deeply on edge with itself. Tom

Gunning Down the Easter Bunny 
The Weaponization of Everyday Life 
By Frida Berrigan

Guns. In a country with more than 300 million of them, a country that’s recently been swept up in a round of protests over the endless killing sprees they permit, you’d think I might have had more experience with them.

As it happens, I’ve held a gun only once in my life. I even fired it. I was in perhaps tenth grade and enamored with an Eagle Scout who loved war reenactments. On weekends, he and his friends camped out, took off their watches to get into the spirit of the War of 1812, and dressed in homemade muslin underclothes and itchy uniforms. I was there just one weekend. Somehow my pacifist parents signed off on letting their daughter spend the day with war reenactors. Someone lent me a period gown, brown and itchy and ill-fitting. We women and girls spent an hour twisting black gunpowder into newspaper scraps. I joked that the newspaper was anachronistic — the previous week’s Baltimore Sun — but no one laughed.

A man came by with a long gun, an antique, resting on the shoulder of his jerkin to collect our “bullets” and he must have read the gun terror written on my face.

“Wanna give it a try?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, stumbling to my feet, pushing my gown out of the way, and trying to act like I didn’t have broken-rifle patches, symbols of the pacifist War Resisters League, all over my real clothes. I felt a surge of adrenaline as I took the heavy weapon in my way-too-small hands. He showed me how to wrestle it into position, aim it, and fire. There were no bullets, just one of my twists of powder, but it made a terrifying noise. I shrieked and came close to dropping the weapon.

And there it was: the beginning, middle, and end of my love affair with guns — less than a minute long. Still, my hands seemed to tingle for the rest of the afternoon and the smell of gunpowder lingered in my hair for days.

Got Guns?

One in four Americans now owns a gun or lives in a household with guns. So how strange that, on that day in the late 1980s, I saw a real gun for the first and last time. I grew up in inner city Baltimore. I’ve worked at soup kitchens and homeless shelters all over the East Coast and stayed at dozens of Catholic Worker Houses around the country — Providence, Camden, Syracuse, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles — every one in a “tough” neighborhood. I lived in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the mid-1990s, before you could get a $4 coffee or a zucchini scone on Van Brunt Street, before there was an Ikea or a Fairway in the neighborhood. All those tough communities, those places where President Trump imagines scenes of continual “American carnage,” and I’ve never again seen a gun.

Still, people obviously own them and use them in staggering numbers and in all sorts of destructive ways. Sensing that they’re widespread beyond my imagination, my husband and I have started asking the parents of our kids’ school friends if they own guns when we arrange play dates or sleepovers. We learned this from the father of a classmate of my 11-year-old stepdaughter Rosena. The dad called to make the arrangements for his son to come over after school. We talked logistics and food allergies and then he paused. “Now, I am sorry if this is intrusive,” he said, “but I do ask everyone: Do you keep guns in your house?” He sounded both uncomfortable and resolute.

I almost choked on my urge to say, “Don’t you know who I am?” In certain odd corners at least, my last name, Berrigan, is still synonymous with muscular pacifism and principled opposition to violence and weaponry of just about any kind, right up to the nuclear kind. But that dad probably didn’t even know my last name and it probably wouldn’t have meant a thing to him if he had. He just wanted to make sure his son was going to be safe and I was grateful that he asked — rather than just assuming, based on our Volvo-driving, thrift-shop-dressing, bumper-sticker-sporting lifestyle, that we didn’t.

“You know how kids are,” he said after I assured him that we were a gun-free household. “They’ll be into everything.”

And right he is. Kids are “into everything,” which is undoubtedly why so many of them end up with guns in their hands or bullets in their bodies.

“Do you question everyone about their guns?” I asked the dad. He replied that he did and, if they answered yes, then he’d ask whether those weapons were locked away, whether the ammunition was stored separately, and so on.

“Thank you so much. I think we need to start doing that too,” I said as our conversation was ending and indeed I have ever since.

It’s a subject worth raising, however awkward the conversation that follows may be, because two million kids in this country live in homes where guns are not stored safely and securely. So far this year, 59 kids have been hurt in gun accidents of one sort or another. On average, every 34 hours in our great nation a child is involved in an unintentional shooting incident, often with tragic consequences.

The National Rifle Association’s classic old argument, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” takes on a far harsher edge when you’re talking about a seven-year-old accidentally killing his nine-year-old brother with a gun they found while playing in an empty neighboring house in Arboles, Colorado.

Two weeks after we learn this new parenting life skill in this oh-so-new century of ours, my husband Patrick is on the phone with a mom arranging a sleepover for Rosena. I hear him fumble his way through the gun question. From his responses, I assume the mom is acknowledging that they do have guns. Then there’s the sort of long, awkward silence that seems part and parcel of such conversations before Patrick finally says, “Well, okay, thanks for being so honest. I appreciate that.”

He hangs up and looks at me. “They do keep guns for hunting and protection, but they’re locked up and out of sight,” he tells me. “The mom says that the kids have never tried to get at the guns, but she understands the dangers.” (He had heard in her voice apology, embarrassment, and worry that the guns might mean no sleepover.)

I grimaced in a way that said: I don’t think Rosena should go and he responded that he thought she should. The two of them then had a long conversation about what she should do and say if she sees a gun. She slept over and had a great time. A lesson in navigating difference, trusting our kid, and phew… no guns made an appearance. And we know more about our neighbors and our community.

Anything Can Be a Gun

My son Seamus, five, received an Easter basket from a family friend. He was happy about the candy of course and immediately smitten with the stuffed bunny, but he was over the moon about what he called his new “carrot gun.” It wasn’t a toy gun at all, but a little basket that popped out a light ball when you pressed a button.

The idea was that you’d catch the ball, put it back in, and do it again. But that wasn’t the game my kids played. They promptly began popping it at each other. His little sister Madeline, four, was in tattle mode almost immediately. “Mom, Seamus is shooting me with his carrot gun!”

“Mom, mom, mom,” he responded quickly, “it’s a pretend play gun, not a real play gun. It’s okay.” He made popping noises with his mouth and held his hand as if he were grasping a genuine forbidden toy gun. It was an important distinction for him. He’d been a full-throated participant in the March for Our Lives in Boston on March 24th, chanting with the rest of us “What do we want? Gun Control! When do we want it? NOW!” for four hours straight.

At the march, he pointed out that all the police officers managing traffic and the flow of people were wearing guns on their belts.

“I see a gun, Mom,” he kept saying, or “That police officer has a gun, Mom.”

Repeatedly, he noticed the means to kill — and then four days after that huge outpouring of youth-led activism for gun security, Stephon Clark was indeed gunned down in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California. The police officers who shot him were looking for someone who had been breaking car windows in the neighborhood and they fired 20 shots into the dark in his direction. The independent autopsy found that he had been hit eight times, mostly in his back. Clark turned out to be holding only a cellphone, though the police evidently mistook it for a tool bar, which could have done them no harm from that distance, even if he had wielded it as a weapon.

Maybe the police saw a weapon the same way my five-year-old son sees one. He can make a stick or just about anything else, including that little basket, into a “gun” and so evidently can the police. Police officers have killed black men and boys holding pipeswater hose nozzlesknives, and yes, toy guns, too.

Where Does the Violence Come From?

Parkland (17 killed, 14 wounded). Newtown (28 killed, 2 wounded). Columbine (15 killed, 21 injured). School shootings are now treated as a structural part of our lives. They have become a factor in school architecture, administrator training, city and state funding, and security plans. The expectation that something terrible will happen at school shapes the way that three- and four-year-olds are introduced to its culture. Part of their orientation now involves regular “shelter in place” and “secure-school” drills.

At my daughter’s pre-school, the kids are told that they’re hiding from rabid raccoons, those animals standing in for marauding, disaffected white boys or men roaming the halls armed. As parents, we need to do more than blindly accept that these traumatic exercises are preparing our kids for the worst and helping them survive. Kids are vulnerable little beings and there are countless dangers out there, but they have a one-in-600-million chance of dying in a school shooting. We endanger them so much more by texting while driving them home from school.

After every episode of violence at a school — or in the adult world at a churchnight clubconcertmovie theater, or workplace like San Bernardino’s Inland Regional Center or the YouTube headquarters — there’s always a huge chorus of “why”? Pundits look at the shooter’s history, his (it’s almost always a guy) trauma, and whatever might be known about his mental health. They speculate on his (or, in the rare case of those YouTube shootings, her) political leanings, racial hatreds, and ethnic background. The search for whys can lead to hand wringing about hard-driving rock music or nihilistic video games or endemic bullying — all of which could indeed be factors in the drive to kill significant numbers of unsuspecting people — but never go far enough or deep enough.

Two questions are answered far too infrequently: Where do the guns come from? Where does violence come from?

Guns of all sizes and description are manufactured and sold in this country in remarkable numbers, far more than can be legally absorbed in our already gun-saturated land, so thousands of them move instead into the gray and black markets. Evidence of this trend shows up repeatedly in Mexico, where 70% of the weapons seized in crimes between 2009 and 2014 turned out to be made in El Norte. We have an estimated 300 million guns in this country, making us first by far in the world in gun ownership and some of them couldn’t conceivably be used for “hunting.” They are military-style weapons meant to tear human flesh and nothing but that — like the AR-15 that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz legally bought and used in his grim Parkland shooting spree.

This country, in other words, is a cornucopia of guns, which — honestly, folks — doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the Second Amendment.

Where does the violence come from? I’ve already shared my inexperience with guns. Now, let me add to it my inexperience with violence. I don’t know what it’s like to have to react in a split second to or flee an advancing perpetrator. No one has ever come at me with a gun or a knife or a pipe, or anything else for that matter. And I count myself lucky for that. In a nation in which, in 2016 alone, 14,925 people were killed due to gun violence and another 22,938 used a gun to kill themselves, it’s a significant thing to be able to say.

And yet, I know that I’m the product of violence (as well as the urge, in my own family, to protest and stop it): the violence of white privilege, the violence of American colonialism, the violence of American superpowerdom on a global scale… and that’s no small thing. It’s a lot easier to blame active-shooter scenarios on poor mental-health screening than on growing up in a world layered with the threat of pervasive violence.

Power is about never having to say you’re sorry, never being held accountable. And that’s hardly just a matter of police officers shooting black men and boys; it’s about the way in which this country is insulated from international opprobrium by its trillion-dollar national security state, a military that doesn’t hesitate to divide the whole world into seven U.S. “commands,” and a massive, planet-obliterating nuclear arsenal.

And don’t think that any of that’s just a reflection of Trumpian bombast and brutality either. That same sense of never having to say you’re sorry at a global level undergirded Barack Obama’s urbane dispassion, George Bush Junior’s silver spoon cluelessness, Bill Clinton’s folksy accessibility, George Bush Senior’s patrician poshness, Ronald Reagan’s aura of Hollywood charm, and Jimmy Carter’s southern version of the same. We’re talking about weapons systems designed to rain down a magnitude of terror unimaginable to the Nikolas Cruzes, Dylann Roofs, and Adam Lanzas of the world.

And it doesn’t even make us safe! All that money, all that knowledge, all that power put into the designing and displaying of weapons of mass destruction and we remain remarkably vulnerable as a nation. After all, in schools, homes, offices, neighborhoods across the country, we are being killed by our kids, our friends, our lovers, our police officers, our crumbling roads and bridges, our derailing trains. And then, of course, there are all those guns. Guns meant to destroy. Guns beyond counting.

So what might actually make us safer? After all, people theoretically buy the kind of firepower you might otherwise use only in war and pledge allegiance to the U.S. war machine in search of some chimera of safety. And yet, despite that classic NRA line — “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun” — are we truly safer in a nation awash in such weaponry with so many scrambling in a state of incipient panic to buy yet more? Are my kids truly on the way to a better life as they practice cowering in their cubbies in darkened classrooms for fear of invading rabid “raccoons”?

Don’t you think that true security lies not in our arming ourselves to the teeth against other people — that is, in our disconnection from them — but in our connection to them, to the web of mutuality that has bound societies, small and large, for millennia? Don’t you think that we would be more secure and so much less terrified if we found ways to acknowledge and share our relative abundance to meet the needs of others? In a world awash in guns and fears, doesn’t our security have to involve trust and courage and always be (at best) a work in progress?

As for me, I’m tackling that work in progress in whatever ways I can — with my neighbors, my town, my husband, and most of all my children, educating them in the ways violence scars and all those weapons just increase our journey into hell, never delivering the security they promise.


Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for WagingNonviolence.org, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhoodand lives in New London, Connecticut.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, as well as John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2018 Frida Berrigan

 

“Do Kids Die, Mom?”

Facing the Future With Trepidation in the Age of Trump
By Frida Berrigan

As a mother and an activist, here’s what I’ve concluded as 2018 begins: it’s getting harder and harder to think about the future — at least in that soaring Whitney Houston fashion. You know the song: “I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way…” These days, doesn’t it sound quaint and of another age?

The truth is I get breathless and sweaty thinking about what life will be like for my kids — three-year-old Madeline, five-year-old Seamus, and 11-year-old Rosena.  I can’t stop thinking about it either.  I can’t stop thinking that they won’t be guaranteed clean air or clean water, that they won’t have a real healthcare system to support them in bad times, even if they pay through the nose in super high taxes. They may not have functional infrastructure, even if President Trump succeeds in building a yuge gilded wall on our southern border (and who knows where else). The social safety net — Medicare, Medicaid, and state assistance of various sorts — could be long gone and the sorts of nonprofit groups that try to fill all breaches a thing of the past. If they lose their jobs or get sick or are injured, what in the world will they have to fall back on, or will they even have jobs to begin with?

The country — if it even exists as the United States of America decades from now when they’re adults — will undoubtedly still be waging war across the planet. Our Connecticut town, on a peninsula between Long Island Sound and the Thames River, will be flooding more regularly as sea levels rise. And who knows if civil discourse or affordable colleges will still be part of American life?

What, I wonder all too often, will be left after Donald Trump’s America (and the possible versions of it that might follow him)?  Will there, by then, be an insurgent movement of some sort in this country?  Could Indivisible go rogue (please)?  Maybe they’d have a nonviolent political wing the way the Sandinistas did in Nicaragua in the 1980s?  With the help of volunteers from all over the hemisphere, they eradicated illiteracy, brought in the coffee harvest, and vaccinated against diseases (while their armed wing fought against the U.S.-backed Contras). Maybe in our city, my grown-up kids can harvest potatoes — no coffee grows here, not yet, anyway — teach reading, and write revolutionary propaganda.

And when it comes to dystopian futures, I’ve got plenty more where that came from, all playing in a loop on the big screen in the multiplex of my mind as I try to imagine my kids as adults, parents, grandparents. Please tell me I’m not the only one in America right now plagued in this fashion.  I’m not fixated on passing our modest family house down to my three kids or making sure that our ragtag “heirlooms” survive their childhood.  What preoccupies me is the bleak, violent, unstable future I fear as their only inheritance.

It’s enough to send me fumbling for a parental “take back” button that doesn’t exist. I just don’t know how to protect them from the future I regularly see in my private version of the movies. And honestly, short of becoming one of those paranoid, well-resourced doomsday preppers, I have no idea how to prepare them.

Recently, I had a chance to school them in the harshness of life and death — and I choked. I just couldn’t do it.

Death and Breakfast

“When will I die, mama?” Madeline asked at breakfast one day recently.  She’ll be four next month. Her tone is curious, as if she were asking when it will be Saturday or her birthday.

“Not for a long time, I hope,” I responded, trying to stay calm. “I hope you’ll die old and quiet like dear Uncle Dan.”

“I want to die LOUD, mama!”

I’m not sure what she means, but already I don’t like it.

“I want to die like a rock star!” her brother Seamus interjects. He is in kindergarten and thinks he’s both wise and worldly.

Great, I think, just great. What does that mean? “Yes,” I say, my voice — I hope — neutral, “rock stars do tend to die, buddy.”

“Do kids die, mom?” he asks suddenly.

“Yes,” I reply, “kids die sometimes.”

My head, of course, is suddenly filled with images of dead kids, little Syrian bodies washing up on Turkish beaches, little Afghan bodies blown to bits, little Yemeni bodies brittle with starvation or cholera. There’s no shortage of images of dead children in my head as I talk with a kind of painful calmness to my two small ones on a school-day morning in southeastern Connecticut.

“Do teenagers die?” Seamus asks. They love teenagers.

“Yes,” I say, my voice heavy and sad by now, “teenagers die sometimes, too.” New images swirl through my head of teenagers drunk, in cars, on drugs, in stages of undress, in mental anguish, dying because they don’t believe they can. I keep all of this to myself.

“People die,” I say, trying to regain control of the conversation. “We all die eventually. But you don’t have to worry. You have a lot of people working hard to make sure you have what you need to live long, happy lives.”

Long, Happy Lives and Other Lies

And that was the end of that. Their existential, morbid curiosity satisfied for the moment, they moved on to an argument about the fantasy character on the back of their cereal box.

I, on the other hand, haven’t moved on.  I’m still right there, sitting at that breakfast table discussing life and death — the when, the where, and the grim how of it all — with my three-year-old and five-year-old.  And wondering if I’ve already failed them.

When I was a kid, my own parents, Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister, Catholic peace activists who spent long stretches of time in jail as nuclear weapons disarmament activists, never missed a chance like this to knock some hard lessons about the power structure’s monopoly on violence into my head. Innocent queries about life and death were regularly met with long discourses on nuclear weapons and how such Armageddon weaponry threatened to ultimately cheapen all life, including mine and those of my brother and sister.

To this day, I can still replay those homemade history lessons that regularly began with tales of rapacious white colonizers landing on these shores, wiping out Native Americans from sea to shining sea, and launching the succession of seizures, invasions, and wars that built the United States into an imperial power and guaranteed its future global dominance. (At a certain age, we could even follow along in our own copies of A People’s History of the United States by their friend Howard Zinn). Those lessons were an education in violence and its bloody, brutal efficacy, at least in the short term.  They were also an introduction to its fundamental failures, to the way such violence, deeply embedded in a society, requires an accompanying culture of pathological distraction, fearfulness, and deep insecurity.

That was my childhood. Some version of that once-upon-a-time-in-America, no-sleep-for-you nuclear nightmare of a bedtime story was always playing in my house. And thanks to their clear-eyed, full-disclosure approach to parenting, I grew up feeling prepared for a brutal, unequal, unfair world, but in no way protected from it.  At least as I now remember it, I felt exposed, terrified, and heart-broken too much of the time.

If Madeline and Seamus were 10 years older and asking such questions, what would I have told them? If their big sister and my step-daughter Rosena (who lives with us half the time) were there, would I have been less circumspect? Could I have shared my fears of the future and the myriad ways I dread the passing of each year? Like my parents, would I have held forth on the long-term consequences of our settler-colonial origins, the ways the use of force and violence at the highest levels have come to permeate society, corroding every interaction and threatening us all? Could I have lectured them on guns, drugs, and sex — on the cheapening of life in the era of the decline of this country’s global version of a Pax Americana? Would I have pulled back the curtain to show them that everyone is not working hard to make sure that they — or any other kids — have what they need to lead long, happy lives? I don’t think so.

All these years later, I’m not convinced of what such rants — however well reasoned and well footnoted — truly accomplish. I’m not convinced of what such demoralizing verbal versions of a Facebook scroll of bad news and hypocrisy do for any of us, which is, of course, why I’m sparing my kids, but dumping all my fears on you.

A World on Fire and on the Move

As for my kids, I tried my best to keep that breakfast of ours in the upbeat realm of death-is-part-of-life. That’s where I want to live with them. That’s how my father died — as he lived, surrounded by the people who loved him. His two closest brothers died that way, too. When I imagine the deaths of those I love, I hear a last gasp of breath, feel a last grip of fingers, witness a peaceful slumber that doesn’t end.

But the peace that I treasured in my father’s death, the joyful stability I want for my children, these things that I can tell myself are the bedrock of a meaningful life, are already denied to so many people on this planet. In fact, in a world engulfed in flames (both the literal and figurative fires of war), increasing numbers of them are running as fast as they can in hopes of somehow getting away.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, 1.7 million people are reportedly displaced, mostly fleeing from one part of that vast African nation to other regions to escape spreading violence. In total, four million people are displaced within that fractured land alone. Similarly, in Myanmar, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group subjected to terrible violence, have been on the move in staggering numbers. In the wake of a deadly crackdown by that country’s security forces, 647,000 Rohingya fled into neighboring Bangladesh where many are now living in fetid, desperately overcrowdedrefugee camps. And that’s just to mention two countries on an increasingly desperate planet.

Last year, an estimated 65.6 million people were displaced, a record for the post-World War II period, and tens of millions of them crossed a border, becoming refugees as they fled war, poverty, persecution, and the destructionof urban areas (from major cities to small towns). They regularly left their homes with what they could carry, kids on their hips, in search of imagined safety somewhere over the horizon, just as people have done for millennia, but increasingly — with a twenty-first-century twist — consulting Google maps and WhatsApp, while constantly sharing intel on social media.

And scientists are predicting that this world in motion, this world already aflame, is just the prologue. As the effects of global climate change become more pronounced, the number of displaced people will double, then triple, and possibly only continue to grow.

Charles Geisler, an emeritus development sociologist at Cornell University, predicts that two billion people may be displaced by rising sea levels by the turn of the next century. Coastal peoples will press inland, while farmland off the coasts is likely to be increasingly compromised by drought and desertification. He concludes: “Bottom line: Far more people are going to be living on far less land, and land that is not as fertile and habitable and sustainable as the low-elevation coastal zone… And it’s coming at us faster than we thought.”

Madeline and Seamus will be in their eighties (god willing) when Geisler’s predictions come to pass. They can’t, of course, know about any of these possible catastrophes, but I already sense that they’re picking up on something subtly fragile and vulnerable about our relatively settled lives together. How do I respond to them? What do I as a parent do in the face of such a potentially bleak future?  How and when do I break news like that? Am I supposed to help my children cultivate a taste for crickets instead of hamburger or start building a solar powered hydroponic farm in our basement? Worse yet, whatever I could imagine suggesting wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t protect them. It wouldn’t even prepare them for such a future.

I’m No Fireman

In 1968, my uncle, Dan Berrigan, called Vietnam the “land of burning children” in a beautiful polemic he wrote to accompany a protest by a group that came to be known as the Catonsville Nine. He and eight other Catholics — including my father (long before he was a parent) — publicly burned hundreds of draft files at a selective service office in Catonsville, Maryland, a symbolic attempt to obstruct the sending of yet more young men to the killing fields of Vietnam. My father served years in prison due to actions like that one. Throughout my life, my family drew hope from such creative acts of resistance, elaborate and effective performances of street theater that extended right into the courtroom and sometimes the jailhouse. My uncle, a poet and Jesuit priest, turned that Catonsville trial into an award-winning playthat’s still performed.

And yet, despite their sacrifices, almost half a century later, children are still on fire and I’m no fireman. I’m not breaking into whatever the equivalent of draft boards might be in the era of the all-volunteer/all-drone military. I’m not sitting in at my congressman’s office either. I’m nowhere near a “movement heavy” (a Sixties-era term I often heard applied to my dad). I’m just a gardener who tries to be a good neighbor, a mother who tries to look after a whole community of kids. I’m just one more set of hands. And even though these hands of mine are working hard, my efforts feel ever more paltry, inadequate, token.

Still, I’ll get up tomorrow morning and do it again, because if my efforts don’t matter, what does?  I’ll hug my kids tight, answer their endless questions, and try to equip them for a future that scares the hell out of me. Even if I can’t see that future clearly, I do know one thing: it will be desperate for love, humor, some kind of balance, and the constant if distracted probing of inquisitive children.


Frida Berrigan harvests lettuce with her daughter Madeline, 2

Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for WagingNonviolence.org, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhoodand lives in New London, Connecticut.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, as well as John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2018 Frida Berrigan

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