The New Year has finally arrived, and with it, a promise of new beginnings.
Still, I’m thinking back to a recent conversation.
But first, a little background.
For the last few months, I’ve been working part-time as a substitute teacher’s aide at a nearby middle school.
It’s a way to stay actively engaged with the world—something that solitary writing on a laptop in a home office
doesn’t much do—and, too, it’s an opportunity to support kids who need a little extra attention.
Anyway, part of my schedule includes yard duty, where I often chat with the head custodian.
He has been at this school for more than a decade, and in all honesty, probably knows more of what really goes on around campus than anyone else. In any case, I asked him if he thought the school had flown the American flag out front at half-mast (sometimes called half-staff) this past year more frequently than other years. (Since he’s in charge of raising the Stars and Stripes every school day morning, he knows.)
He paused a moment before answering, and then said he was pretty sure the number was higher than he had ever seen. In fact, he went on, it seemed that the flag had flown at this mourning position nearly as frequently as full mast.
Of course, flying our flag at his particular resting point has been around nearly as long as the United States has been
One of the earliest instances was in 1799, when the U.S. Navy ordered all of its vessels to “wear their colours half mast high” to recognize the death of George Washington. Some scholars say that lowering the United Sates flag makes room for the invisible “flag of death”—flying the flag exactly one width lower than its normal position to emphasize that “death’s flag” is flapping right above it.
Half-mast days in 2018 will include May 15, which is Peace Officers Memorial Day; two weeks later, there’s the more well-known Memorial Day that honors our fallen soldiers. Then there’s September 11, when we remember 9/11. And of course, December 7 is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. State governors can also proclaim half-mast days, such as the time when then New Jersey governor Chris Christie ordered flags to fly at half-mast to honor Whitney Houston, one of that state’s famous natives.
Yet many half-mast days in 2017 had nothing at all to do with patriots and holidays and celebrities.
But they had everything to do with the epidemic of mass shootings in America.
In fact, the web site Mass Shooting Tracker—that such a site even exists gives me pause—lists an astounding 427 mass shooting incidents in the United States last year, with four alone occurring on December 31. (To clarify, this site defines mass shooting as a violent incident in which four or more persons are shot, although not necessarily killed. This is not the same as mass murder, a term the FBI uses, which is three or more persons killed.)
And while a good many of these fatalities made nary a blip on our national radar, I can say with confidence that I bet every victim had at least one friend, one family member, or one colleague whose grief was fierce and horrible and inconsolable.
There were also those mass killings that—at least I hope—continue to numb us to the bone.
Perhaps the most senseless (although really, aren’t they all?) was the Las Vegas shooting, where a successful-on-paper, professional gambler (no need to mention a name) watched an outdoor country music festival from a high-up-in-the-sky, high end hotel room. He then indiscriminately opened fire, killing 58 people and injuring 546 more.
This one especially hit home because my husband’s youngest adult daughter and her spouse had been planning to attend the event.
They ended up staying home at the last minute, but many of their friends went to the show. For those witnesses, the sheer terror of that night hasn’t gone away, and on some level, will probably never end.
After that nightmare night, the flag at the middle school seemed to be at half-mast for days.
The second most awful multiple shooting of the year was in the tiny Bible belt town of Sutherland Springs, Texas. There, on the first Sunday in November, a gunman armed with a military-style rifle and clad in all black (again, no name needed) opened fire on a church congregation. Twenty-six people lost their lives that morning; most of the victims were small children.
Once again, the flag at the middle school was at half-mast for a while.
There were also eight ambush style police officer assassinations (including that of New York City cop Miosotis Familia, a 12-year veteran of the force, shot in the head in her patrol vehicle while on duty), as well as the usual domestic violence killings (including four dead on August 24, in Bloomington, California). And always, there were those disgruntled employees and former employees, opening fire at their workplaces (one, on October 18, resulted in three fatalities in Edgewood, Maryland).
Of course, the middle school flag wasn’t in a half-mast position every single day last year.
But if every mass shooting in 2017 had been remembered with a lowered flag, it would have been.
Will this year bring less shooting deaths? Feel free to comment on the flag, gun control, mass shootings, patriotism and what half-mast means to you. All thoughts are welcomed and appreciated.