Gerald Herbert, Associated Press
Organizers Cameron Kasky, left, and Jackie Corin, student survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School address fellow students before boarding buses in Parkland, Fla., Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, to rally outside the state capitol.

In the awful wake of another tragedy, Americans demonstrated once again our ability to quickly come together for a moment of unity, mourning and reflection. In such moments we cry, we pray for victims and survivors, we raise money for memorials and causes, we even unite in our anger and frustration to protest what isn’t working. Americans have become very good at moments, but we seem to be less able at fostering sustainable movements.

Moments aren’t hard to engage in. An epic event occurs and we react with emotion. We respond to the news media reports, donate money, post on social media, share thoughts with friends and colleagues, engage in political rhetoric and briefly reflect on what happened or why.

The moment passes and we move on with our busy lives.

We are much like the rapidly moving driver on a slick highway who comes upon an accident. For a moment everything changes — the driver slows down and proceeds with caution for a few miles. Then as the accident moment fades from the rearview mirror the driver quickly returns to full speed and the journey ahead.

As a country, we have had many, far too many, moments — from Columbine to Sandy Hook, from Virginia Tech to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. But we have failed to transform such moments into movements. Sustainable movements require difficult conversations and deeper thinking. For movements to take hold, politics must be tempered and set aside, opportunistic partisan fundraising must stop and, above all, principles have to drive the discussions and the solutions.

Following Florida we must also be careful that we don’t reflexively act to do something, anything, just so we feel better. We cannot confuse motion with forward movement.

We have united for a moment in the aftermath of the Florida shooting, but will we transcend a Second Amendment-centric debate that is doomed to fade in the days ahead? Will we passively listen to lawmakers in Washington who shrug their shoulders while saying, “The country is just too divided to deal with these issues”? Remember, when Congress convinces us that we are too divided to address challenges, it gives them an excuse to do nothing.

Instead, citizens should square their shoulders and engage in a full-on, deep-dive, civil discussion about gun laws, gun safety, background checks, mental health, school security, law enforcement, coordination between agencies and much more. In fact, with shoulders squared, hearts softened and minds open, we should have elevated conversations about the breakdown of families, fatherless-ness in America, a culture that doesn't value life, social media that breeds contempt, violent video games, Hollywood’s promotion of gun violence, online bullying, teen anxiety and depression.

Focusing on all of the factors driving violence in schools will prevent us from reacting by simply trying to control behavior. When we talk about the easier to measure components of outward behavior, we often keep ourselves far distant from the enlightening and empowering element of principles and values.

Where there is a void in values, laws and legislation will not deter bad behavior. Where values are valued, laws and legislation can lend strength, certainty and security to society.

If the energy and emotion of a powerful or poignant moment is not directed forward, driven by principles and values, it will devolve into chaotic motion or even commotion. Emotion propels activity — but activity alone, without direction and forward movement, ends in more anger, frustration, division and political posturing. The key to transforming moments into movements is harnessing early momentum.

29 comments on this story

The students in Florida have created some much-needed momentum around the important issues surrounding guns, violence and school safety. These teenagers have given voice to the moment in unique and powerful ways. Students and adults now need to work together to channel that momentum toward the more difficult discussions and practical solutions that can turn this tragedy into a sustainable movement that will make a lasting difference for the country and our communities.

We are once again in an American moment — we should transform it into an American movement.