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Child Watch® Column: "Numb - Spiritually Dead - Nation"

Release Date: May 24, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

Ka’Nard Allen has been shot twice in his 10-year-old life. On May 12 he went with his mother to the annual Mother’s Day second line parade in New Orleans. When two gunmen shot into the line of participants—men, women and children—Ka’Nard’s cheek was struck by a bullet. Eighteen other people were wounded including a 10-year-old girl. Less than a year ago, at Ka’Nard’s 10th birthday party in his front yard, his five-year-old cousin Brianna Allen was fatally shot by an AK-47, and he was shot in the neck.

Now, with his 11th birthday coming up on May 29, Ka’Nard’s mother doesn’t know where to have the party. He wants to go to a hotel, swim in the pool, and stay overnight, he told a reporter for the Times-Picayune, but his mother said she can’t afford it. She doesn’t know where to let him play that will be safe, and he remains at risk because she can’t afford to move.

I have written this before and I write it again now: The psychological and emotional toll of gun violence on children, whether they are bystanders or victims, can be overwhelming and last for years.   

A recent screening of 232 New Orleans middle school students who were part of a teen pregnancy prevention program found that 44 percent had someone close to them murdered, 29 percent had witnessed an assault with a weapon, and 14 percent had witnessed a murder. More than half the children classified concerns about “personal safety” as a source of worry, more than twice the number who worried about “being unloved.” “At least a third of our kids are experiencing symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which on a simple level means it is hard to attend school and do well,” said Dr. Denese Shervington, a psychiatrist who heads the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies that ran the program and conducted the screening.

John C. Raphael, the pastor of a church in the neighborhood where Ka’Nard lives, told Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Cass on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund that children who regularly hear gunfire and see dead bodies on the street become acclimatized to violence and learn that violence is the way to solve conflicts. “They’re afraid but they can’t escape so they harden themselves to survive. They become numb to what should be emotionally disturbing and accept it as a norm, as the community does.”

As a nation we seem to be hardened and numb to what should be emotionally disturbing when we cannot legislate the most modest and reasonable measures for national gun safety even after children in as seemingly safe a place as Newtown, Connecticut, far from an inner city, can be shot down in school. We are numb when the same child can be shot one year at his own birthday party and shot again the next year at a Mother’s Day parade and both shootings are just another day on our cities’ streets. Why are we not all calling our legislators and expressing outrage? How can we let the voices of gun dealers and manufacturers drown out the cries of children?

Pastor Raphael pointed out another consequence of rampant gun violence in places like New Orleans, Chicago, and Newark: Young men become locked into a situation where they feel they have to retaliate to protect themselves and to be respected. When a culture teaches its children that violence is a way to resolve conflicts, “if your brother or friend is shot, you think you have to strike back,” he said. “Sometimes, the family members or friends of the shooter assume you will retaliate and go after you preemptively.”

Retaliation is said to be the motive for the Mother’s Day shooting. Police said that the brothers, aged 19 and 24, who are charged with the crime, were part of a loosely organized neighborhood drug gang and were shooting at a member or members of a rival group. The shooting was related to two previous ones, police said. The childhood experiences of the accused brothers have not been revealed, but it would take numbness to violence to shoot into a crowd with women and children.

In Pastor Raphael’s view, New Orleans “has a spiritual problem. It is beyond criminal. It is a spiritual problem when in a high population area you see children and you shoot into them.”

America has a spiritual problem when it protects guns rather than children. Since 1963, more than 166,000 children and teens have died from guns on American soil—more than triple the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars combined. It is beyond criminal that we allow so many children to suffer and die. It is spiritual deadness.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by funpuppy at: June 28, 2013
This is beyond disturbing. I would like to know what the writer and other advocates are proposing to the legislators.

Submitted by dlberek at: June 7, 2013
It's a horror to read about the world we adults are passing down to our children; the hideous role models too many adults in real life and on TV provide sicken me. And then many adults rail on how violent our children have become. We enact anti-bullying laws that criminalize children while tolerating bullying behavior in adults. That said, "Numb, Spiritually-Dead Nation" is a very accurate - and sad - title for this essay.

Submitted by Is anybody listening? at: May 31, 2013
I am very honored to be able to write on your site. As an ordained minister, what I am about to say many will disagree with. To be as brief as I can,our bible is a philosophical and prophetical book spoken (written) in mysteries. It should be delivered in that context. It has many authors over hundreds of years dating back to around 580 BC. In the light of customs and traditions of that time period until today much of the text has changed from what was to what is now. Three main branches of religious thought- solar(sun),lunar(moon)and that of the stars or constellations have been combined into one theological concept or belief system. Today, theology has been ever evolving. Here is the problem. Read Romans Chapter 1. Then re-read verses 22-32 and meditate on the passages. I don't like to argue with what people believe. However, if God is real you must understand that the texts were syncretized to bring about a common thought among the various religious beliefs between 50 AD and 500 AD. AEseus, Iesus, Esus, Jesus is Lord of the Cosmos or Lord of the Earth. He represents the anatomy of the perfected spiritual man. Something we don't teach. Not a physical anatomy but the spirit. Paul did not actually write the book of Romans. It is attributed to him. A custom of that day in time. This possibly could have been written by a Hellenized Jew or an Essene( Essenes did not participate in temple worship or blood sacrifice). Put aside everything you have been told and form your own conclusion.

Submitted by hank at: May 30, 2013
It is time to change the culture of guns to a culture that protects and cares for children. Dads and grandpas should join with concerned women to speak out against the glorification of violence in gangs and the pseudo-macho attitude of violence that has gained a strangle-hold on our nation.s

Submitted by kitty at: May 30, 2013
I am sick to know these facts how can we continue to allow our children to be sacrificed at the altar of violence and gun rights.

Submitted by awatcher at: May 28, 2013
The key words here were from the title, "Numb-Spiritually Dead-Nation." People do a lot of chatting about religion, guns, and so forth, but very few mention anything about spirit. I think there is fear of being labeled as a fanatic, when really- we need all of the spiritual awareness we can get. I am a new grand-mother, and I can not imagine what the world will be like in only 18 years, to see my grandchild become an adult. Who are our spiritual leaders? Where are they? What are they doing for anyone? Take a good look around yourself. Can you really imagine being here in 2031?

Submitted by End gun violence at: May 28, 2013
Ms. Edelman, Thanks for bringing the gun violence issue home and making it real for folks. I lived in Oakland, where gun violence is everyday; i was lucky because I could move my children to a more peaceful area. Please tell us how we can help. What should people do.

Submitted by Jenny at: May 28, 2013
Thank You for this inspiring article. I am headed to a church meeting tonight and will bring this with me to discuss how we can up our game on the outreach ministries we have to children and families. The key statement is these children need to know they are loved. We cannot let go of the Beloved Community of the Civil Rights Era. Love of neighbor and non-violent action make for lasting change. Thanks for the kick in the pants to not become complacent in this struggle.

Submitted by Anonymous at: May 28, 2013
It's a real tragedy that so may peopele don't care -- "Out of sight, Out of Mind!!!" Our agency works with youth in the inner cities of RI. It's no different then the article states. Chronic cycle of violence, school failure, dropouts ,Alcohol/substance abuse, teen pregnancy, etc. I heard you speak a few years ago at our Kids Count Fact Book release. WEe can't give up! We need to continue trying if we will ever overcome this cycle.

Submitted by Jeanno at: May 27, 2013
I fear for my beautiful little grandchildren that already are growing up at risk without a strong, male figure in their lives. It is sickening that this country does not take seriously the plight of the children living in poverty and in fear of violence, all because of a group of angry, mean and spiritless people-the NRA!

Submitted by Kathy at: May 27, 2013
This gun situation is just ridiculous. Apparently we have enough people in this country that we as Americans are completely expendable. The only thing that seems to matter are guns, and the right to own them. This is backward, and completely unacceptable. If I had the money, I would give it to this mother for her son's 11th birthday!

Submitted by maemae at: May 27, 2013
So Sad. I recall that there is a scripture in Zacharia, which reads, "And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls thereof." How very unfortunate that our city streets, school,malls, movie theaters are unsafe for our children to play. Complacency, Complacency, Complacency.

Submitted by waynerueb at: May 27, 2013
We need to make it illegal to shoot children, even by accident.

Submitted by Dr. Brandon at: May 26, 2013
Guns have been prevalent and on the scene since the wild, Wild West. Al Capone and his comrades had guns. The difference with African Americans and guns today is ‘home front’ training and rearing. The government can’t and never will be able to do everything for any people. When will a generation of African American parents train their children and keep their children away from the exploitation of African American entertainers that make the ‘gun life’ seem appealing and the way to live today? I’m in the Boomer generation and normal for our young lives was school, hard work, and respecting our parents . . . who pay the way did not allow certain activities. If they found out about something we did that was not allowed from another adult, the adult who reported us was thanked, and we felt the wrath of our parent’s tongues and belt! What is the missing link? The missing link is a fear of God, a lack of respect for life, and the lack of guidance in the home. I pray for spiritual revival for our entire nation. Many in our nation believe that God has changed His word and precepts to meet the current demands of society. Parents must “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6

Submitted by murphy at: May 26, 2013
This article like so many more that either have been written, or could be written, cannot overemphasize how important the children are. They are the future of this nation and what part of that is being missed. Mrs. Edelman has dedicated her life to advocating for those who can't speak to these issues. Do not know how she can daily continue on with the strength that this lack of empathy on the part of the general public must extol. Caring is out there but in the case of some it needs to be drawn out -- not because they are directly involved but because there is hope that this country has not totally given up on their values when it comes to faith. Faith is an either you are in or you are out kind of thing. Christ does not go for the luke warm and this is definitely a case in point. Either we are in this fight or part of the problem that allows it to continue. Continued success in maintaining your voice. Mary Daman

Submitted by Andy S. at: May 26, 2013
This is madness. Guns do not protect our children from harm--they cause harm. The stories you hear about "law-abiding citizens" defending themselves against "violent criminals" by brandishing a pistol or assault-style rifle are just that--stories peddled by the gun industry and its NRA shills. Violent death and injury are the main byproducts of the flood of guns in our society.

Submitted by Leslie at: May 26, 2013
Many Crime and Courtroom Dramas have made the point that those who see guns used are more likely to do so themselves. That is probably why one's Family Physician is to ask if there is a gun in the home, and properly stored. Asking Saves Kids (ASK) Day will be June 21.

Submitted by Nan at: May 26, 2013
I am writing a documentary and intend to collect stories of children who were shot along with a photo of each story teller. I was shot as a 10 year old and I believe that this book will touch others and decrease the numbness in our society, increase awareness of needless scarring and death, and provide healing to survivors both the shooters and the shot. I would like a recommendation on how to elicit participants in this project. Thank you.

Submitted by Nomad Rev K at: May 26, 2013
Unfortunately, legislation and laws have never changed the spiritual emphasis of a country or culture. Legislation and laws are only for those who respect and follow them. It is sad to see the spiritual legacy being of using violence for the purpose of resolving conflict in the world, our country, our neighborhoods and our homes. Domestic violence, absent parents, and hypocritical leadership in public places teaches an acceptable moral and spiritual character. Children learn what they live... not what you teach them with words!

Submitted by kuumbamia at: May 26, 2013
Great piece