A MADNESS DIPPED IN GRIEF

 

The first time I shot a gun, I was nine years old.

We were visiting my grandparents in the mountains of West Virginia, and my grandfather, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, had taken my brother and me out to the backyard with a commanding view of the majestic Appalachians where he had set up some tin cans on a table. The gun in question was a rifle. I can’t tell you the make or model, only that its weight was heavy on my young shoulders. My brother had gotten to go first, of course. He was older and a boy. Not to be outdone, I begged for my chance. There was sibling pride at stake.

As I squinted and took aim, my heart rate picked up. My fight-or-flight was not discerning about empty tin cans versus prey. It knew only that this thing in my hands felt dangerous and alive. I pulled the trigger, missed my target, staggered back from the intense recoil, then promptly fell on my butt. I was embarrassed. I was exhilarated. I felt ten feet tall. My shoulder hurt for days.

I wanted to do it all again.

Two years later, on a January morning in Corpus Christi, Texas, as moving vans prepared to carry us two days north to our new home in Denton, Texas, my brother was shot in the head. He and a friend had been off shooting high-powered BB guns. The gun had accidentally discharged. The BB, shot from close range, had struck my brother in the temple; the BB had traveled through his bloodstream and lodged in his lung where it resides to this day. There was an ER visit, a week-long hospital stay, and years of medication. My brother was changed by that BB to the head. That is not a story for now. I will only say that the lasting damage from that gunshot has showed itself in various ways over the years.

I no longer had any desire to touch a gun.

Yesterday, as the news came in from Orlando, I sat in my kitchen working on end-of-year teacher appreciation cards. My hands—hands that once itched to hold a gun, hands that touched the bullet wound on my brother’s head—worked at gluing and pasting, stickering and creating. My hands kept busy, but as I listened to the news feed from the other room, my heart was numb. So much horror, all the time. That was a nightclub I might’ve danced in with my pals once upon a time. It’s Pride—many of my friends are out in the clubs now. But celebration has turned to sorrow and memorial.

Later, my son came downstairs. The TV was still on, the horrible story playing out again and again. Often, when he sees the news on, he will say, “What’s going on? What’s happening?” This time, he looked up, saw the scrolling body toll, then looked away. His whole life has been one in which mass shootings are the norm. He was five months old when Columbine happened. Now, on the eve of his own high school graduation comes Orlando, the worst mass shooting in American history. San Bernardino, California. Aurora, Colorado. Blacksburg, Virginia. Newtown, Connecticut. Fort Hood, Texas. Binghamton, New York. It’s a travelogue of grief and madness.

And still, there are the guns. So many guns. So many dead. And we cannot talk rationally about the irrationality of guns.

To borrow from Lionel Shriver, America: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THE GUNS. Now. Yes, right now. Not after the next batch of funerals. Or the next. Or the ones that follow that one. What will it take for us to give up our insane idea that guns keep us safe? That every citizen has the right to keep his or her own personal arsenal? That our Founding-Father porn video of paranoid entitlement financed by the NRA is beyond reproach or a rethink? After Sandyhook, I thought, surely now, now with all of those beautiful children dead, oh god, the children—surely now we will stop this madness. But when even the butchering of first graders did not move the needle on the conversation, it seemed that a faction of America had given up and chosen as its new mascot Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Of the ten deadliest shootings in American history (and even typing that sentence feels like the set-up to a morbid, awful joke), eight of them have happened in the past decade. This is no coincidence.

It was 9/11 that fundamentally changed the DNA of our culture. My son was not quite three when that act of terrorism tore through the heart of the nation, a wound that, sadly, did not heal so much as harden, a thick, scabrous scar tissue that constricted the lifeblood flowing to our compassion, our expansiveness, our rejection of nihilism as a way of life. Our heart’s biggest working artery seemed to pump directly into our worst impulses: fear, paranoia, nativism, xenophobia—our collective Id.

As a New Yorker, I had seen the events of 9/11 all go down in real time. I had breathed in dust and waited anxiously with friends for the return of other friends. I had watched reams of paper fly from the burning World Trade Center and float down onto the East River and blanket Brooklyn’s streets like a misbegotten September snow. The next morning, my husband and I, like everyone, were glued to the TV, hoping that the day before had all been a terrible dream. The images of those towers crumbling into dragons of dust that roared through the canyon-like streets of Lower Manhattan flickered across the TV. “Mommy, turn it off. That scares me,” my son said. He was on the living room floor, playing with his trains.  “Yeah, honey,” I said, turning it off. “It scared all of us.”

Yes, it did. But for a few weeks, there had been, amidst the grief, a tremendous coming together. We were scared. But we were not beaten. There was a quiet strength on display. And then came the darkness. I could make an argument that so many things in our culture since then—from the rise of standardized testing to the kudzu-like expansion of vapid reality television of which the presumptive GOP nominee was a beneficiary; it made him a star, after all—have been an unconscious response to those attacks. We’ve been arming and numbing ourselves in a number of covert ways, it seems. We want the money-back guarantee. We want safety and security at all costs. And then we don’t want to talk about that cost. We don’t really want to acknowledge that ceaseless mass violence has become our new national identity and that guns are the seductive poster-boy bling of our bloody brand.

Yesterday, as the death toll continued to rise, as images of crying young men and women holding each other and sobbing mothers waiting for news outside of hospitals filled our screens, Donald Trump tweeted this: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”

Appreciate. The. Congrats.

For the record, I do not find Mr. Trump amusing. I can’t even laugh at his hair anymore. I find his nonsensical, megalomaniacal ramblings and hate-drenched rhetoric stomach-turning and terrifying. He is our Nero without the actual emperor position—yet. He is Stephen King’s Randall Flagg come to life on his way to a The Stand-worthy Republican convention. And, like the NRA, who have ceased to be gun club and are fast becoming what I’d consider war criminals, he traffics in our death impulse. We’ve dipped our storehouses of bullets in our grief. We’ve loaded them into the chambers and given them countless spins in this continuing game of Russian Roulette. We keep the muzzle pointed to our temples, helpless, because no one will reach out and take away our gun.

In the week following the attacks of 9/11, we New Yorkers moved about our fragile, broken city, frightened but determined. We stopped to hug friends and strangers alike. We were united in a grief which had been fashioned not into a weapon but into the action of compassion: We donated blood. We baked for our local firehouses. We listened. We comforted. We took the subway and grocery shopped and walked our children to school and got on with the living because choosing life over death and hatred and despair was a defense far stronger than anything a gun could offer. It was the defiance of hope. That first week, as I walked, weeping, past the ubiquitous “Missing” flyers stuck to every building wall, every light pole, every mailbox, I saw a sticker on the side of a dumpster. It said, simply, “I will not be terrorized.”

And that’s what Donald Trump and Wayne LaPierre and Second Amendment fetishists get wrong: They believe the only response to terrorism is to up the ante with more and more guns, until there is so much blood we can no longer see anything but carnage, and so carnage becomes our accepted landscape. America, America, from sea to bloody sea. They believe we must aim our guns toward a nebulous enemy while ignoring the ugly truth: We have trained them on ourselves.

 

 

 

25 thoughts on “A MADNESS DIPPED IN GRIEF

  1. It’s terrifying that this has become the new normal. I agree with everything on your post, we need to talk about guns. The rhetoric that we shouldn’t have gun laws or background checks because “criminals will still find a way to get them” is getting old. We don’t need to make it any easier for criminals to obtain them and we don’t take that same attitude with other laws. Truth is becoming more unbelievable than fiction.

  2. Thank you for writing this. It articulates what is so hard to say when we are so distraught. In the aftermath of yet another tragedy it can feel like it is almost useless to argue, yet again, against the mindless NRA taglines that are parroted by fearful gun lovers right after another massacre.

  3. Thank you so much for writing it. It’s put in to words some of the thoughts I have as well but much more eloquently, better than I ever could.

    As a Brit I just can’t understand the need of some Americans to insist on keeping guns around. We don’t have access to guns here unless you’re a soldier, police officer or a criminal. You have to be registered to own a gun and most people don’t even know how to go about getting one. As a person though it’s easy to understand how the fear can make those people turn to more and more weapons as an attempt to feel safe. How it can make the NRA insist on people being allowed to have guns. They stick with what they think keeps them safe and stick to it irrationally.

    Perhaps if they’d been through the same things that you have, seen those terrible events up close and slightly more personal they might understand the need to regulate or end gun control and just get rid of private gun ownership completely. I admit I don’t know much about how American gun control laws work but that’s because I personally find the idea of owning a gun unless you need it (ie. bears live near your house), a bit abhorrent.

    You’re right about the need to unite though, not in love but in compassion and support. Boston did it after the bombings, New York did it after 9/11 and now Orlando will be doing it. Recognising the good that people do is more important on dwelling on the evil. Celebrating those who help others and try to support those who are hurt takes away the power of the ones responsible.

  4. Sweet, Libba, and right on the money. When newscasters were finally saying Trump had a bad week last week – the perfect storm of the Dems coming together, his jawdroppingly ignorant declarations about Judge Curiel, the revealing of the true victims of the Trump University scam, his bashing Muslims in the same week as the streets of Louisville filled with well-wishers saying goodbye to maybe the most famous Muslim ever – I offered up that he has finally crapped in his own nest. He won’t be president, but the damage is done. He has opened a door that won’t close – invited into the light, the gun nuts and racists and homophobes to speak in their native tongue and feel proud. Not pretty.

    I share with you the profound awfulness of yesterday and truly appreciate your articulation of it.

  5. We cannot allow this to go on any longer. There is a limit to how many times one’s heart can be broken. We cannot allow them to rob us of our freedom. Assault weapons must be banned immediately. We need a nationwide system of licensing, registering and insuring guns – in much the same way cars are, and that’s only the first step. If that doesn’t work, then we take all the guns away.

  6. Beautiful post, Libba.
    I try not to get in on the issues, politics, or religion online, but I will post just a bit on this one. Alissagrosso got it right when she said to ban assault weapons. I live in Maine. We (not me!) hunt. We (yes us) have guns, as your grandfather did. People here have traditionally hunted for food! You can’t use an assault rifle for that. My neighbors are worried that they’re going to lose their guns, their 2nd amendment rights. I try to reason-no sense. I do believe that assault weapons/rifles shouldn’t be sold. What are they for??? And while I’m ranting, I don’t think all teachers should be armed (as some of my friends do). What would I do with a gun (a sub)? I don’t think I could defend myself with one! We do need assault gun control or complete ban. My heart is aching for everyone in our country.

  7. Thank you, Libba, for articulating what so many of us are feeling. The world is, yet again, a darker place albeit with small pockets of rainbow love burning brightly all over it. Here in London, Soho was united in the silent grief of many thousands tonight. To me (who, like you, writes and reads YA), all these killings, all the twisted logic of hatred, seems like some dystopian nightmare novel coming to life. I don’t know what to do to stop it other than to reach out, write, speak, and resolve that the fear and hatred won’t stop me doing so. One person at a time. One voice at a time. But if we join together, just maybe one day, eventually, it will make a difference.

  8. You ignore the many, many massacres of the Native People’s of the Americas in saying the largest mass shooting are all contemporary. I guess their dead do not count?

    You also ignore the millions of defensive uses of guns every year.

    You ignore the fact that violent crime in general, and gun crime in particular have dropped steadily, and by more than half since 1994.

    You ignore the fact that if you are neither suicidal or a member of a violent drug dealing gang your chances of dying by gunfire are infinitesimally small.

    Anyone that thinks you will end, or even significantly lower violence by blaming inanimate objects, and punishing people that did not commit any crimes is on a fools errand.

    Are there things we can do to keep the level of violent crime dropping? Yes there are, if you want to have a rational fact based discussion on what those are I’ll be glad to join you. If you wish to blame guns and gun owners, we would both be wasting our time.

  9. Libba, I’m re-reading this and watching a live-stream of Senator Chris Murphy’s filibuster on gun control and just weeping. American politics has been pretty bizarre lately (and I say that as an Australian whose seen five different Prime Ministers come and go in the last five years!) but this is reminding me of the little kernels of greatness that are still possible in the US Senate.

  10. How heartbreaking. I was 13 years old when the Port Arthur massacre happened. John Howard’s greatest legacy was the gun reform. I never knew my father even owned a gun — he kept it hidden on top of a cupboard in our garage — but I was glad to see it gone.

  11. As moving as your words are and as beautifully written, I fear the sad truth is that they DO believe the only response to terrorism is to up the ante with more and more guns. They DO believe we must aim our guns toward a nebulous enemy, no matter what the cost. I’m all for banning semi-automatic rifles, but I have no idea how to address the belief that only more guns will make us safer. They do believe that, and that is the real danger.

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