A year ago today, a gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and committed murder. When Nikolas Cruz was done pulling the trigger, 17 students and staff members were dead, another 17 were injured, and countless others at the school were left traumatized by their brush with violence.
If the massacre at Parkland was yet another warning about the deadliness and destructiveness of America's gun culture, the reception afforded the Parkland survivors was also telling — a sign that our politics have become so destructive that we can't even treat crime survivors with a measure of respect.
After the massacre, of the biggest villains to emerge was Parkland student David Hogg.
That should seem counterintuitive, right? Hogg, who was 17 at the time, wasn't culpable for the attack in any way — he was one of the survivors. But he went on CNN to lash out at politicians he said had failed to protect him and his fellow students from gun violence — and within weeks, he and other Parkland students, including Cameron Kasky and Emma Gonzalez, organized a national "March for Our Lives" to rally young people nationwide in favor of gun restrictions.
Hogg, Kasky, Gonzalez, and many of their fellow survivors didn't accept victimhood; they became activists instead.
As a result, they have been treated with unbelievable levels of contempt and ridicule by those who disagree with and fear their message. Any chance that they would be treated as what they were — young people who lived through an unimaginable horror, kids who deserved an extra measure of protection from the ugliness of the world instead of being given another helping — was almost immediately lost.
Just six weeks after the attack, GQ published a story describing how the "sliming" of anti-gun Parkland survivors had gone mainstream — National Review, a respectable conservative outlet, had labeled Hogg and his fellow activists "demagogues" and "useful idiots."
It only got worse from there.
A week after the attack, Dinesh D'Souza — the conservative activist pardoned by President Trump for his conviction on campaign finance violations — mocked Parkland survivors as they watched Florida legislators vote down a gun control bill. "Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs," he tweeted. D'Souza later apologized.
In March, The Washington Post reported that a fake photo of Gonzalez was circulating on the internet, purporting to depict her tearing the Constitution in half. In reality, she'd torn a gun target in half at a rally.
That same month, Fox News' Laura Ingraham mocked Hogg on Twitter, noting his application had been rejected at four colleges where he'd applied, and accusing him of "whining" about it. She apologized and backtracked after advertisers began to abandon her show.
The mockery even spread to popular culture. Louis C.K. — who has problems of his own — decided to make sport of the Parkland survivors at one of his comeback shows in December. "Cause you went to a high school where kids got shot, why does that mean I have to listen to you?" he told the audience. "Why does that make you interesting? You didn't get shot. You pushed some fat kid in the way and now I gotta listen to you talking?" In his case, at least, no public apology has been forthcoming.
That Parkland survivors have been treated so terribly should not be surprising. The parents of the children who died in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 have been harassed and threatened for years — some because of their anti-gun activism, and others because fringe conspiracy theorists have dubbed them "crisis actors" who faked their grief in the service of an anti-gun agenda. What Parkland proves is that such hatred and dehumanization, like so many other ugly trends in recent years, has moved into the mainstream.
Wherever you find survivors of mass gun violence, it seems, you'll also find gun rights defenders making the survivors' lives more miserable.
Some people might argue that by plunging into the gun debate, Hogg and other survivors asked for the treatment they're getting — our politics are loud and ugly, and if you're going to take a stance, you're not going to be treated with kid gloves. Hogg, in particular, seems to give as much as he takes, which might be why he seems to be singled out for extra abuse. That kind of argument, though, suggests that name-calling and conspiracy theorizing should be a normal part of politics. Maybe it's time to challenge that idea.
What makes the Parkland survivors so effective, and maybe so dangerous, in this gun debate is that the matter is personal for them. They've heard the screams, seen the blood, and found America's policies wanting. The personal is political. But we don't have to make politics so personally destructive, nor should every person with a different or opposing idea of the public good be treated like an enemy.
This doesn't mean, of course, that gun advocates have to accept the Parkland survivors' policy prescriptions. And it doesn't meant that gun-control advocates don't have to listen to their opponents — Kasky, for example, has embarked on a project to listen to gun rights advocates. But the Parkland students should have been treated as people worthy of respect, as survivors of a horrific crime. Because that's what they are.
A year after Parkland, we still haven't done enough to protect our children from gun violence. There's more work to do — and while we're working on it, we might do more to protect these kids from the shabbiness of our political culture, too. David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and Emma Gonzalez might be loud and aggressive about their cause, but they are not villains. They are kids whose classmates died.