Since he took office, President Obama has had to publicly address sixteen mass shootings in these United States. Sixteen times he has stared into a camera and uttered the best words for the worst of times knowing he will probably have to do it again. Each time, we listen to him, we ask why, and we shake our heads and shed tears in disbelief. And each time, when the media abandons the story and the families of the victims, we go away too. We abandon them too.
When it happens again, as it always does, our revulsion returns. For a day or two, maybe a week, we are forced to confront the reality that yes, it could happen to us just as it happened to them as they went about doing the things that comprise life as we live it – learning, earning, playing, praying, shopping, dreaming, dancing. Dancing. It could happen to us as it happened to them: 13 of them killed at a citizenship class at an immigration center in Binghamton, New York; 13 killed at Fort Hood, Texas; 6 killed in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Arizona; 12 killed at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; 6 killed at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconson; 26 shot and killed at Sandyhook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut; 12 killed at the Washington Navy Yard; then Fort Hood again – 4 killed; 3 killed at a Jewish community center and assisted living facility in Overland Park, Kansas; 2 killed at a high school in Troutdale, Oregon; 3 killed in their own apartment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; 9 killed at a prayer meeting at an African American church in Charleston South Carolina; 5 killed at a military recruiting center in Chattanooga, Tennessee; 10 killed at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon; 14 killed at a community center in San Bernardino, California; and, this past Sunday, 49 killed at The Pulse night-club in Orlando, Florida.
Our levels of gun violence are off the charts. There’s no advanced, developed country on earth that would put up with this.
But we do put up with it, don’t we? The President’s calls for stricter gun laws have gone unheeded, and all those lives snuffed out right in front of us have done little to move Congress to make it more difficult to access weapons of war. We are weary, but even today as we learn more about the victims of the Orlando shooting, we are bracing ourselves, aren’t we, for the next shooting in America, the next press conference from a prematurely aging and beleaguered President? Next time – or this time – we will wring our hands, and we will maybe even blame him, and we will find no way to do anything that suggests the slaughter of our brothers and sisters is anything but the norm. We will keep a safe distance, although we know – surely we know – the time has come to go the distance?
I am an immigrant who turned her back on the country that shaped and scared her – a troubled and tragic Northern Ireland. It was the 1980s, a turbulent and traumatic time, and within a national crucible of doubt and suspicion, a half-empty glass, I always anticipated the worst. Rarely, was I disappointed. In such a tiny country, we all knew somebody affected by The Troubles. According to the Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) from 1969 – 1999, “3,722 people died. There were over 35,000 shootings, 150,000 bombings, and over 40,000 people wounded. Surveys say half of the population knows somebody killed or injured.” What did I do? Nothing. As I have done nothing about mass shootings in America.
Although maddened by the bombs and bullets, the brutality and barbarism on all sides, we were also resigned to it. Yes, we were cautious but not all the time. Sometimes, we were casual about the sectarianism swirling around us as it reached an “acceptable pitch” – the sirens and smoke, the booby traps and barricades, incendiary devices and legitimate targets. Such things are stitched into our remembrances of an ordinary trip to the store or to school or to the pub on a Friday night. Like a mass shooting in America.
Still, we kept our distance, coping as County Down poet, Damian Gorman articulates with “devices of detachment” –
“I’ve come to point the finger
I’m rounding on my own
The decent cagey people
I count myself among
We are like rows of idle hands
We are like lost or mislaid plans
We’re working under cover
We’re making in our homes
Devices of detachment
As dangerous as bombs.”
We “coped too well,” until that inevitable jolt to the psyche when it happened again, and it always happened again.
Like a mass shooting in America.