Some Kind of Freedom

Why do Americans Practice Child Sacrifice?

I used to look down on the Aztecs and Maya of old, with their bloodthirsty and unreasonable gods. I lumped them together with the devotees of Moloch, a cruel deity of the ancient Canaanites to whom followers would offer up their children as a way of ensuring prosperity. I cringed when we sat down as a family to watch “Lost Cities with Albert Lin: The Great Flood”(2021) and learned of the mass child sacrifice that took place at Huanchaco some centuries ago. We had some explaining to do with the kids. “We’re so much better,” I thought. “So much more civilized. We’ve come so far!” Now I’m not so sure.

Show me the altar on which a society readily sacrifices its children, and I will show you what that society really values. According to The New England Journal of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “firearm-related deaths are the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the United States.” As of my writing this, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database, there have been no fewer than 91 school shootings so far this year. “How do you define a school shooting?” is a valid question. But, in the face of such dire facts and a lack of an adequate policy response, the better question: why?

“‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The headline of The Onion’s 2014 article should be satire—unless we collectively are less motivated, less agitated, less willing to sacrifice other things than we, as proud Americans, ought to be.

There is a kind of freedom in having the right to own any kind of firearm under the sun. Assault rifles are designed to kill large numbers of people quickly. They are weapons of war, to be used by members of the military against enemy forces in the context of battle. This is among the reasons why such firearms are kept under tight control on military bases, as I recall from growing up on a few of them and as some of my active-duty family have reminded me.

Such a freedom allows for the possibility of private citizens amassing vast arsenals in order to potentially overthrow the ruling government. Some version of that is part of the mythos around the American Revolution. However, it may be a stretch for any hypothetical future armed uprising to meet the criteria of “just war” (the right reasons, at the right time, after other courses of action have been exhausted, conducted in the right way, etc.). Our current information media landscape hardly lends itself to potential armed combatants having access to accurate intelligence, as evidenced by how conspiracy theories fueled the violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

That kind of freedom comes at a price. Not only the lives cut short—crying soothed, nursing, burping, diapers changed, fragile bodies swaddled, rocked to sleep, tummy time, crawling, staggering, walking, swaggering, running, falling, riding a bike, training wheels off now, falling again, band-aids, ice packs, so many band-aids, dance recitals, swimming lessons, piano lessons, little league games, struggles with homework, “it’s just a bad dream,” splinters removed, lunches packed, snack attacks, Happy Meal surprise, visiting Grandma, Disneyland!, “when I grow up…,” college, flying through space, police detective, mechanic, chef, talk of living next door even after all that time—hours, years of unyielding nurture, all in vain. That kind of “freedom” also comes at the price of the freedom of the living.

Many of us who are parents, I’m sure, remember the danger each day. I cannot send my kids to school without thinking, at least in the back of my mind, that today might be the last day. I wonder the toll that fear takes on my parenting, my erstwhile compassionate calm. I want my children to flourish, to learn, to grow in themselves and in their friendships. But, most of all, I don’t want them to die of something utterly preventable.

Some, too, I’m sure, cultivate a kind of practiced obliviousness, a shutting out of reality from what they choose to remember. Such indifference dulls the mind, a futile exercise in wishing the uncomfortable away. When I catch myself falling into this, I think of how James Baldwin likened U.S. entertainment culture to “narcotics”—and how this is doubly true of social media. The title of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death also comes to mind.

A critical mass of us being “checked out” fuels the seeming futility of it all. “It would be rude to be confrontational, to rock the boat, to question the status quo,” one might tell themselves. As if past precedents did not pave the way for future tragedies, so long as we no not undertake drastic change in the present. If there is anything truly exceptional about “American exceptionalism,” it is our dominant culture’s capacity for denial.

It’s only a matter of time before the kids find out, too, of course. Then they must wrestle with their own fear and despair at the kind of world that the supposedly-compassionate grown-ups have made for them, not only in this, but in other ways, too. Nuclear war remains possible. Irreversible and catastrophic climate change seems inevitable. Much of our society seems content to ignore the lack of affordable housing, at the expense of people without housing, including disabled veterans. Many older adults find themselves isolated, alone, even abandoned, especially in nursing homes. Entire communities are cut off from adequate healthy food resources, healthcare, transportation, and school funding. How could our children not doubt the viability of our professed love for them and for the people around us?

A few kids, it is clear, perceive in news of school shootings the seed of possibility, the lethal temptation of one day becoming perpetrators themselves. We must contend with that, too, not only by intervening with at-risk individuals but also by diminishing the scope of what is possible here.

The kind of “freedom” that allows all this is a false god no less bloodthirsty and unreasonable than any in human history. Say what you will about the people of ancient Huanchaco. At least they were not in denial that what they did was child sacrifice. “Thoughts and prayers” have never been enough. To paraphrase the Apostle James, prayer without action is dead. More of us need to agitate, to run for office, to demand that our representatives do the right thing, and, if they won’t, to elect different people who will. Finally. Before another nine-year-old goes to school for the last time a lifetime too soon. If our society cares more about maintaining the status quo of its adults than about the wellbeing of its children, it has no future. Let us fight for an America with a future.