The echoes of gunfire resound in our minds. Four girls and one woman have been buried, their short lives chiseled in stone. White ribbons flutter from lampposts and adorn blouses and shirts.
The soul-searching has begun and, with it, denial about the heart of the problem. Some blame lax discipline, others whisper the name of the devil. Even the critical issue of gun control, which put an armament of killer weapons into the hands of two children, doesn't get to the core of the problem.
That problem? It is the way we raise our boys. And it is the ongoing epidemic of violence against women.
The truly monstrous thing about the two young killers is that they are not monsters at all. Their attitudes and actions were but an extreme expression of what every boy learns to become.
These are our boys.
They are our killers.
All of you in Jonesboro are asking yourselves the question we must all ask ourselves: How did we let this happen?
From an early age boys learn that force and aggression are desirable ways to solve problems and get our own way. Men must always be strong, performing like a well-tuned car, always in control. Don't feel what others feel, don't show weakness, and, most of all, distance ourselves from our own emotions.
Watch basketball and see the spectacular move followed not by a smile but by pumped-up rage. Observe how our political leaders see negotiation and compromise as a sign of weakness. See the way we celebrate the winners in the world of business, without giving a second thought to their effect on communities and individuals. Observe the matinee idol who has no time for discussion, who shows no pain, whose feelings, if any, lie in an alcoholic haze, but who is quick to beat someone to a pulp. Gaze at the superheroes, athletes, and male models with their ever-more absurd amounts of muscle.
It doesn't matter if we're living in Jonesboro or New York. The problem for boys and men is that these standards of aggressive manhood are ever more impossible to attain. After all, we are only human. When real human feelings – including fear, hurt, sadness, and joy – nudge into our consciousness it is like a schoolyard taunt: "You don't make the masculine grade."
Combining insecurity and rage is a deadly combination. It is especially dangerous if these boys have been raised with threats of violence at the hands of parents who teach them, through physical punishment, that you can simultaneously love someone and hurt them. Such punishment might stop certain forms of behavior, but it also teaches the young that physical force is acceptable so long as you can get away with it. It doesn't teach self-discipline; it teaches fear and causes suppressed anger, waiting to burst at someone who is weaker.
And who is the target for all this rage? What can compensate for anxieties about not being manly enough? Other boys often present a good target, but that usually peters out by the end of adolescence. Women, however, remain an ongoing target for the derision of some men, for feelings of superiority, and for violence.
Some of the boys in your community see their fathers beat their wives. Some hear men berate women who want an equal shake in the world. Many grow up with privileges not enjoyed by their sisters. They learn contempt for women and a fear of femininity.
Wrap all this together and we have the recipe for an epidemic of violence against women. It is sexual assault and it is workplace harassment. It is wife beating and stalking. It is the fear that invades the lives of the majority of adult women. It is, from time to time, murder.
Amidst all this, there are signs of hope. There are the growing number of men and boys who question the old macho certainties and are striving to be strong, nurturing men. There are the men who are horrified by the violence perpetrated against women that gives all men a bad name. There is the symbol of the white ribbon.
The White Ribbon Campaign is the largest effort in the world of men and boys working to end violence against women. It is a plea for men to rethink what it means to act like a man, to add nurturing and caregiving to the masculine pantheon.
When we encourage men and boys to wear a white ribbon, it is a public pledge never to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women.
I saw the white ribbons in Arkansas and I felt hope in the midst of despair. From its launch seven years ago, in part as a response to the murder of fourteen women at a university in Montreal, Canada, the White Ribbon Campaign is becoming an international symbol of opposition to violence against women and girls.
However, we need more than symbols. For one thing, we need education. With this letter I am sending you a copy of the White Ribbon Education and Action Kit, which I hope you will use in your school.
We also need soul searching by all men. The majority of us are not violent towards women, but most of us have been silent about this violence. Through our silence we've allowed the violence to continue. We may not be responsible for committing the violence, but we should feel responsible for making sure it ends. And we are responsible for examining ways that our own attitudes and behavior might feed into the problem.
It is because most men are good men that I write this appeal to you. We wear a white ribbon not out of a collective sense of guilt, but out of our love for the women and girls in our lives. It is out of our love for the men and boys who deserve better than to be forced into an emotional straightjacket.
I write because of your love for four girls and a woman whose names should not yet be chiseled in stone.