The Parkland mass shooting and the senseless deaths of so many innocent children and teachers in the series of heartbreaking school massacres our country has experienced over the past few decades demand an urgent response. While I come from a very different background than school administrators, as an American ambassador and senior diplomat, I have also lived with and reacted to the uncertainty of possible violent attacks and the deaths of colleagues and coworkers.
While I was serving at the State Department in 1985, an employee was murdered at her desk in the middle of the afternoon by a relative who was able to bring a concealed rifle into our Foggy Bottom headquarters. It occurred just a few offices down the hall from Secretary of State George Shultz’s office where I worked. Shultz had to be pushed into a back office with diplomatic security agents shielding his body. That incident quickly led to enhanced controls over visitors entering the building, and newly restricted areas being created with automatic crisis control doors and locks that required agency I.D. cards to open.
We took urgent action. To protect our employees from random shooters, we armored our entire vehicle fleet in order to defeat bullets from the equivalent of the AR-15 rifles that were being used against us. In addition, we hardened the wall and reinforced the gates surrounding the U.S. embassy and searched every person and vehicle that entered. The killing stopped. Our grounds remained safe. The U.S. embassy in the Philippines, which had been the most dangerous American diplomatic facility in the world, became the State Department model for enhanced security.
In Cambodia, the threats were even more dramatic. My embassy had no Marine security guards or any armed personnel. It was like Benghazi, but on a much larger scale. We faced the daily threat of attacks and truck bombs, similar to devastating terrorist incidents against U.S. facilities in Africa. Our embassy was assessed as the most exposed American diplomatic mission anywhere in the world.
My family felt the raw fear of a near death experience, when my ambassadorial residence in Phnom Penh was hit by a rocket and ringed in automatic weapons fire for two hours. While my wife and I covered our three children with our bodies, we prayed with all of our strength that the bullets would kill us and not them. Afterward, we took urgent action. I even refused to implement instructions from the State Department in order to get a new embassy built with a wall and enhanced security. It took time, but it worked. There were no more American deaths.
I cannot begin to understand the unbearable pain of those parents who have suffered the loss of their child in one of these school shootings. But from my own experience, I am certain that every one of them, if they could, would willingly change places and give their lives so their child could live. The voices of these parents and children are calling for action. Gun control will be an acrimonious debate with an uncertain outcome. But there is a way we can come together as a country to urgently protect our school and our students, just as we previously protected Americans abroad.
In the foreign service, with strong congressional support, we embarked on a massive effort to harden our embassies and consulates. We built walls with access control points so that no one could enter our facilities without being searched. Our buildings were now less open and inviting to the local population that we sought to influence, a development we regretted. But the terrorist incidents against our embassies were largely rebuffed and our employees were safe.
At the same time, it is relevant to note that American hotels abroad also became targets of violence and terror, and likewise responded with new walls, greater setback from the street and controlled security access points. It was annoying to have to wait to enter the hotel grounds, but once inside, it was a relief to feel safe.
It pains me to say so, but it will likely take walls, ballistic doors and access control points to keep the more than 100,000 elementary and secondary schools in America safe. It will be very expensive, and it will take years to accomplish, but it will work. It is the one thing we could do right away that will start to make our school children safer.
Congress could appropriate funds as block grants to those states that choose to participate. Local school boards could decide if they need a wall. President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE is an accomplished builder with hotels around the world and construction projects across America. It would be a lasting tribute to his leadership and an incomparable legacy of his presidency if he would embrace this national construction program to keep our school children safe. It might just bring our political parties closer together, and like all infrastructure projects, it will create jobs.
The construction of a border wall has been at the heart of the political debate about immigration. Whatever decision is reached about that project, I believe most Americans would put the safety of our children above all else. The wall we should build is the wall around every public elementary and secondary school in our country.
Kenneth Quinn served as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia during the Clinton administration and as deputy U.S. ambassador to the Philippines during the Reagan administration. He spent more than 30 years as a career foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department.