Are you ashamed of the United States? In a 2021 Pew Research study, 60% of Americans responded that they were often ashamed of our country. How is it, then, that we have become a nation where people like Michelle Obama and Colin Kaepernick are vilified when they express disappointment in the way we approach issues of race, climate, and gun violence?
I thought about that last week on the long flight back from Europe after ten days in Spain and France. I flew home with a heavy heart after yet another horrific school shooting, trying to wrap my head around what happened in Texas while I had been immersing myself in the joy of other cultures.
Even as our plane had landed ten days earlier, I couldn’t help making comparisons and feeling somewhat abashed. The first thing I noticed as we traveled the streets of Barcelona and Arles wasn’t the amazing sites but the number of enormous recycling bins on every street in both cities. The difference in our effort and theirs to reduce our carbon footprint continued to be striking throughout the week. Most of their water and bottled drinks were packaged in either glass or cardboard. On the return flight home on a European airline, we were given reusable utensils made of metal—a stark contrast from the unrecyclable plastic utensils our American airline gave us on our flight to Europe.
European vehicles were also more environmentally friendly. The cars were smaller and more fuel efficient, and the streets were filled with people on bicycles and motorbikes. The only large SUVs on the road were shuttles for transporting tourists. On our first tour of Barcelona, an American complained loudly from the back of the bus about the inadequtae air conditioning. In a moment of unvarnished truthfulness, our Spanish tour guide responded, “You Americans like everything big.”
I quickly became ashamed of myself for failing to brush up on the little bit of Spanish I learned in high school when I saw how many people abroad spoke fluent English and how many of them asked us questions to learn more. When our server on the ship, who was Bulgarian, learned that we were English teachers, he immediately asked us questions to help him respond better to passengers. It was his very first week as a server, and, unfortunately, one of the tables assigned to him was a group of ugly Americans. A man that I had observed flouting the mask rules and then being extremely rude to his wife when she called him out for it was quite nasty to the server when he made mistakes in their order. The man called the head waiter and demanded a different server, and afterwards the poor trainee was a nervous wreck that the ugly Americans may have cost him his job.
By far, however, I was most ashamed when the news of the latest school shooting made its way across the ocean in the middle of the night in Europe. Already weary of the bad news at home when we left, I had tried to limit my news consumption as we left for a vacation that had been postponed three times because of Covid. I had left the United States feeling guilty that I had the luxury of turning off the news from Ukraine, but I couldn’t possibly ignore the news alerts when I saw the faces of yet more innocent children and their teachers who will never come home from school again.
I am deeply ashamed of the politicians who immediately began the dance of defending gun rights and of their constituents who blame the home life of the shooter. This is a boy who was bullied as a child for his stutter, yet state leaders do little to improve the mental health services in schools. Instead, they focus their attention on banning books that might make children more empathetic.
Worst of all, instead of working with President Biden to pass sensible gun laws, they bully a leader who overcame a stutter similar to the shooter’s and refuse even to have a sensible conversation with the president about it.. Even many people who voted for Trump have said to me over the years that they support some sensible gun laws. I am deeply ashamed of my fellow citizens who voice this opinion every time another parent loses a child to a shooter but then continue to elect the very politicians who obstruct such measures.
That I am ashamed doesn’t mean that I’m not patriotic as we approach another Memorial Day. I am deeply proud when I hear a French guide point out the mortar damage on ancient buildings and then acknowledge all that America did to protect them from Hitler once we finally entered the war.
But when do we begin to protect our own children from the madmen who walk among us every day? When do we begin to vote with the common good in mind, rather than the wealth of our own purses? When do we recognize the value of every life, even the life of the tormented shooter, who should have had a village of compassionate people to help him when he felt hopeless and tormented?
My fellow Americans, we should all be ashamed that we’ve done nothing in the years since the first horrific shooting to prevent these grieving families from having to plan funerals as we approach another Memorial Day. Instead of planting flags on every corner, we should be asking ourselves what we can do to prevent parents from having to plant flowers on the graves of their children.