What We All Know

I’m old enough to remember when Charles Whitman hauled a footlocker full of guns and ammunition up to the top of the University of Texas tower and started shooting people. It was the summer of 1966, and part of the horror — and fascination for my 12-year-old self, to be honest — was that the mass murder Whitman carried out was unique. Nothing quite like it had happened in many years, and it would be years before we saw anything similar.

But now?

So many massacres have happened so frequently over so many years that the details now blur and each episode of death and destruction brings to mind others that aren’t so far in the past. A massacre at a Texas school? Without thinking too hard about it, several other school massacres come to mind: Newtown, Connecticut; Littleton, Colorado; Stockton, California; Parkland, Florida. To name just a few.

We’ve gotten used to that — the sudden appearance of the teenager or 20-something bent on slaughter, the death, the litany of thoughts and prayers, the outrage and vows of action. And we wait for the next killer to make his entrance. (I started trying to write this the evening of the white racist 18-year-old’s terror attack on the supermarket in Buffalo. Even though it is just a matter of time before the “next killer makes his entrance,” I’m stunned at how quickly the Texas attack followed the one in New York.)

As a people, if that’s what we can be called, we’ve surrendered to those who insist that their freedom means you accepting the minute-to-minute possibility that anyone you stumble into — on the street, at the store, at work, at school, at church, on the train — can murder you and everyone around you on a whim, for any reason or for no reason at all.

Kate, my wife, went off to spend the day as a substitute teacher this morning. I kissed her goodbye, and when I did, I thought about the possibility that she might not come home later today because someone with a gun had settled on her school as a target. I didn’t say anything, and off she went. The odds are everything will be fine. And that’s exactly what the children, the parents, the teachers and police and everyone else in Uvalde, Texas, thought when they began their routines yesterday morning.

None of this is beyond our capacity to begin changing it. It’s hard to have faith in that notion right now. But would it be so hard, for instance, to ban the sale of assault rifles to people under 21? Or to finally move on a bill to require universal background checks? Will it take a 10-million-parent march on Washington to make those things happen? I don’t know. But one way to ensure that changes like that never occur is to remain silent. And we all still have a voice.

Nothing to Be Done

I’ve got a weakness for connecting something new I encounter with something old I might be thinking about. In my Irish history class, we’ve been spending a good deal of time reading and talking about the Famine. One thing that is new to me is the discovery that people seemed to see Ireland’s problems with great clarity years or decades before the catastrophe struck. Foreign travelers, native politicians and priests, and even British government commissions repeatedly looked at Ireland and said, “What a mess.” To be more specific: the poverty of the place was obvious and appalling to observers; they found the extent and the depth of the privation that was the normal lot of the great mass of people striking and troubling. Not that anyone saw a famine coming–though those who paid attention saw that most people depended on potatoes and potatoes alone for survival; there was a recurring problem with hunger when crops failed or harvests were insufficient to carry people from one season to the next.

So there it was, out in the open: a huge population of destitute people living close to the edge of survival. Though the problem was commented on frequently and solutions occasionally broached, very little was done beyond the appointment of more commissions to study the problem anew. Doing something would have been very difficult. It would have meant fixing the country’s dysfunctional and inequitable system of land ownership; confronting that system would mean challenging a right considered fundamental by those who enjoyed it. The challenge would have been politically explosive. It was never attempted, and soon Ireland had its calamity and was never the same. Perhaps there was nothing to be done, though in the end the landowners who could not be challenged were swept away with the millions of poor who starved, succumbed to disease, or fled.

So, then: Northern Illinois University. We’ve all read what happened there this week. A perfectly nice young guy with a psychiatric history bursts into a lecture hall with his personal arsenal and shoots everyone he can. Also recently: five women shot and killed one Saturday morning by an apparent robber in a store just across the fields from my brother’s place in the Chicago suburbs. Here in the Bay Area, we have Oakland: 20-some murders already this year, and you can guess the tool of choice for the killings. A couple months back, a kid taking a piano lesson in a “safe” part of town was struck and paralyzed by a stray shot fired randomly during a gas-station robbery across the street.

Anyone remember Virginia Tech?

No matter where you are when you read this–as long as you’re in the United States–at least one incident in your neighborhood or city or state will readily come to mind: random shootings, drive-by shootings, accidental shootings; so many dead, so many wounded that the tallies are only numbing. We all see what’s happening, we all know or intuit that this kind of mayhem is out of control and is all too easily traceable to one source, regardless of the age, skin color, brain chemistry, or economic status of the victims and perpetrators, regardless of all the prison cells we’ve built and all the fearsome punishments we mete out.

Somehow, beyond the brief outbursts of shouting and finger-pointing that accompany the most atrocious outrages, we don’t seem to talk about this much anymore as something we can do anything about. Somewhere, in the tangle of dead and damaged bodies and amid the piles of spent shells, there’s a fundamental right we dare not challenge. Maybe there’s just nothing to be done.

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