This story from The Moth entitled “Rescue Mission” about a young actress in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen in 1988 completely seized me.
I am suffering what I call “gun fatigue” and I believe that I am not alone. It’s the exhaustion that comes from grief over so much death, the feeling of helplessness of both the direct ability to change anything and the indirect ability to see things changed. I would not be surprised if what I feel was common in the living during the Black Death, that bubonic plague that took 30 to 50% of the population of Europe between 1347 through 1351.
You didn’t know where the disease would strike next. It could happen anywhere. And it was everpresent. The bodies continued to stack until there was finally relief. People offered countless prayers, but countless people continued to die. God seemed unmoved or deaf or worse. Children died and died and died. It could only have felt utterly demoralizing. And that horror over only a span of four years.
It has been sixteen years since Columbine. Hundreds of thousands have died in gun violence. Hundreds of thousands. And we’ve done nothing but mourn and raise our hands in our grief and helplessness. “How did this happen? How could this have been prevented? How could this possibly be stopped?” All because of our Second Amendment.
I’m not going to quibble about the Second Amendment here, that sacred rider of our American Scripture. Strict constructionist, loose constructionist, originalist, living interpretations. Whatever. At this point, it almost seems irrelevant. Like almost every country, we were founded in violence. And we chose, culturally and legislatively, at critical points in our history to preserve the use of gun violence as a sacred, inalienable right. This right for and of violence is guaranteed to each citizen and supersedes and transcends all U.S. law. We have the freedom to speak our mind and we have the right to violence by firearm. We know these rights by heart. How many of us can recall so quickly the Third Amendment? (It’s the quartering of soldiers in homes. I had to look it up.)
This right for gun violence is the Constitutional air we breathe. It is the atmosphere in which we live and find our being. We can do nothing without the possibility of gun violence. We cannot interact without the possibility of this violence. We are always at risk. But how did we get here? We did not always have this pervading violence as it is. How do we breathe so freely the air of the Second Amendment as we have it?
Gone are the muskets, the weapons that required a ramrod, ball, and paper cartridge fired shot after reloaded shot after reloaded shot. Our machines now are light, sleek, and efficient, air-cooled with high-capacity magazines. And they are manufactured cheaply, assembly lines of millions of firearms. Our nation is flooded with them. To hunt. For collection. For target practice. For threat. For protection. For murder.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what they’re for, now. They’re here. And into the Constitutional air of the Second Amendment, the guns flow. And we breathe them. We’ve reached our tipping point a long time ago. There will always ever be guns in our country’s lungs. More than ever. More than in 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified. More than when the South feared Nat Turner. More than when we warred against ourselves one hundred and fifty years ago. More than when we returned from two world wars. More than after the Red Scare. And more than after the civil rights movement, when white people feared that all American citizens could enjoy equal rights. More than after Al Qaeda attacked a sleeping nation. More than when white people first feared a black president. We breathe the guns. We breathe them. They are not only in our air, but our lungs, our arteries, our bloodstream. Gun violence is in us. It is ours and we are its and it is us.
Early on in the The Walking Dead, the AMC series about life in a post-apocalyptic zombie world, the band of survivors go to Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control to learn more about the outbreak and what can be done about it. Before the scientist dies, he reveals that the disease is airborne, that every human life has been infected with the disease. Everyone, once they die, will become a walker. And this is how I have come to see our current situation. The disease of guns has infected us. It is in us. It is flowing through our heart, our brain, our liver, our hands. We are the walking dead. We just haven’t been shot yet.
We have reached a tipping point, a critical mass. We have passed that point of no return that guns are so pervasive that they are part of us. We understood that we were here when the children were slaughtered at Newtown and we did nothing but mourn and shudder and cry. We did not accept the guns, we condoned them. We understood that this is our air that we breathe and this is us. And the lives of our children, our families, our loved ones, are the price we pay for our air. The NRA and the Gun Owners of America and the GOP and the gun laws and the courts and the gun trade, both legal and illegal, have been so successful in blowing this poison air that our children now breathe it.
And so when we die by gunfire, because unexpectedly it will happen, our last blood-choked breaths will be guns, the guns in our blood. And we can continue to ignore the etiology and causes of gun violence, because we breathe the law of gun violence. Mental illness doesn’t matter, adolescent rage doesn’t matter, anti-government paranoia doesn’t matter, religious and racial xenophobia doesn’t matter, misogyny doesn’t matter. Because we have decided it to be so. Every mass killing demonstrates in blood that we have decided it to be so.
The Black Death raged four years. We’re approaching two decades since Columbine. The people died. The rats died. The fleas died. People gained immunity to the bacteria that plagued and scarred Europe, eventually. If it was prayers that did the trick then why four years and up to half the population dead? But prayers don’t help us with the prevention of gun violence. We’ve shown this. They can only serve as salves for gaping wounds that we are happy to endure. What we are immune to now is change.
As a nation, it seems we are thoroughly willing to not accept but to rather endorse, in a wholesale strict constructionist interpretation of our Second Amendment, the guaranteed unfettered freedom to acquire arms and to seek out and kill men, women, and children and to kill them at such a level and rate that it rallies us only to mourn them as collateral damage of a pure, inalienable, unadulterated right for violence and death. Our silence is our guilt. Our inaction is our complicity.
An arsonist, by nature, leaves. Because their job and passion is starting fires. Arsonists are interested in ashes billowing from conflagration. And then they’re off. Burning buildings and hearts, alike.
And in the smouldering wake of that manic Nietzschean fire starter, is the Nietzschean protector of horses, weeping for mercy and kindness. Tumbling into the ash and dust.
In the blackest night, it is easy to see the work of an arsonist. It is much harder to watch those who work in burnt churches. One must wait until dawn.
I discovered, yesterday, that a friend from my college years passed away unexpectedly. I learned through that stuttering flutter that is Facebook updates. A few cryptic posts of loss and praise. And then a chorus of strangers clamber for more information, joining in some confused and networked online howl. This is our digital sorrow.
For more information, I reached out to our mutual friend by phone. Instead, I was the one to tell her, which made me wince. I hate being the messenger. I dwell and write on mortality as it is. Sharing the news of actual death is for more appropriate people, pastoral people. But here I am telling you of the death of my friend, anyway.
The last time I saw her was in early 2000, when I drove up to visit her smack in the middle of nowhere Vermont. She was working as a counselor in a camp for teen sex offenders as they struggled to reintegrate back into the world. She had that kind of heart. I remember we crossed upon the snow of a frozen lake, just the two of us. The air was bright and cold and muffled. It was the first time I wore snowshoes. It was a wonderful day. She was happy and alive in that way that camp staff live and find their being. She died peacefully. In her sleep, I was told. I was told online.
The group of friends we shared, we quickly created a Facebook chat group, adding more and more of us. By invitation, we shared the news. We invited people to share our grief. You’ve been invited to mourn with us about this tragedy you’re learning about as we are writing about it. Death can surprise like that. Sorry about that. There was no other way to tell you so quickly.
Our group was one of those student religious organizations at a big state university, the kind of school where you can disappear and reinvent yourself, if you want. Or get lost, if you want. Our Episcopal student group, Canterbury, was more than a foxhole for finals. And it became the first real community I experienced. It was where I felt I could finally be sad about God and the world and everything else. And she was part of that. She was my friend. She was my friend when I had some really bad moments. She had that kind of heart.
And then her heart stopped.
1 2 3 … 37 Next