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Last night I sat down with Seamus McGraw's new book "From a Taller Tower: The Rise of the American Mass Shooter". It arrived Sunday, and I planned on starting it at least....maybe getting through a few chapters. So after a brisk 5 mile walk I propped myself up on pillows in the bedroom, turned on the sound machine, poured myself a pint, and didn't move for 6 hours.
I read it from cover to cover.
When it was over.....it was well past midnight. My wife was softly asleep next to me. My kids are away at school....but both of them had checked in and were safe and secure. My dog was snoring against my leg. I was alone, but surrounded by love and good fortune. So I cried softly to myself, and then poured myself a second pint. And maybe a few more after that.
"There is no silence on earth deeper than the silence between gunshots...."
McGraw repeats this line over and over throughout his narrative, and each time I read it I shuddered, as though I heard the shots myself. A year into this pandemic, with vaccinations ramping up, we're seeing a sense of normalcy slowly return. And to our everlasting shame this means that mass shooters are back in business.
McGraw was part of an online Zoom discussion on Friday evening, April 16th. Since that event ended, there has been 8 mass shootings in the United States. As I type this, there's another one. At a Long Island grocery store. One dead, two wounded, the killer still at large. And so it goes.
From the University of Texas Tower shooting in 1966, to the slaughter from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas 51 years later, McGraw traces these atrocities (he rages against calling them "tragedies". "Tragedies are mythic, beyond human control", he writes. "These are things we do to each other.") like one might map out a long, strange trip....and argues that our rabid fascination with these killers....granting them some sort of everlasting dark web fame.....is as complicit as our obsession with the guns that drive the body counts so high (120 guns for every 100 Americans......which means we could give up our excess weapons and fully arm Canada and Australia). He refuses to even name the killers in the book, instead focusing on their victims and the first responders, and the extraordinary grace and compassion often shown by both. The killers are almost without fail rabid narcissists who wallow in imagined victimhood, much more likely to be bullies than be bullied, often leaving behind incoherent, rambling "manifestos" or a breadcrumb trail of hateful social media posts. Almost everything that's been spray-painted on the walls and tapped out on internet message forums about these guys (and they are almost always men) is wrong. They were and remain what Bill Bryson termed English Football hooligans in his classic book Among the Thugs...."insignificant little shits". Racist. Misogynist. Anti-Semitic. All of the above. Two out of three. "Driven by a desire to attain infamy....", the FBI Behavioral Unit decided. Not worth naming.
But there seems no end to them.
McGraw doesn't describe the carnage. This isn't some sort of true-crime porn. Instead we get the chilling remembrance of first responders at the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, where 49 people died, who can't get the sound of the chirping cell phones left behind by both the living and the dead out of their heads....each ring tone and beeping text a loved one desperate for a reply. One of the dead had 1000 text messages on his phone. One fucking thousand. The scars are uncountable......and spread far and wide, another virus for us to contend with.
We seem paralyzed by all of this. Even the carnage of Newtown, which included 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 years old, didn't move the dial in any significant way. Guns and God are intertwined in some sort of obscene square dance, and none of our elected officials seem willing to piss off fans of either one. We're becoming allergic to introspection, and as a result can't accept blame, only dish it out. It's always somebody else's fault. The ones who are different. The ones who are not LIKE US.
Nothing is easier than doing nothing.
And so it goes.
But then again…..the kids.
The Kids are Alright.
The “March for Our Lives” was 3 years ago….both my daughters were there. This is what they told me about the day. I think it’s worth quoting in full what I wrote that night….
My youngest told me that at one point her and her friends wanted to move closer towards the speakers. The adults in the crowd all parted like the red-sea, allowing them to pass over and over again, saying “we’re here for you today…..we’re here for you kids….go on….get closer.”
She told me this story when she got home last night. Excitement practically bounced in her eyes. I think she realized right then how powerful her generation is, and will continue to be. It was tangible now….she stood in the middle of it…feeling its peaceful energy.
These kids are direct descendants of the ghosts sitting at that Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter….and the marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge…..and the Memphis sanitation workers. They refuse to accept that their lives don’t matter. They instantly spot hypocrisy, and stomp all over it.
Anybody who thinks these kids aren’t gonna be marching to their respective ballot boxes when they’re old enough is deluded.
Sure, they’ll surely look to adults for guidance and leadership, but if the adults aren’t up to the job, these kids are gonna cut the line.
Where to start about what happened yesterday? The haters are out in full force today, but that’s to be expected. They’re loud, but do not mistake decibels for numbers. Silence does not equal acquiescence. Anybody who thinks this didn’t see Emma Gonzalez’s extraordinary call to action yesterday, putting herself on the line using only grief, tears and 6 minutes of bated breath.
And so that’s what I’m left with.
Seamus ends his book with optimism. And last night…through tears…..I didn’t see how that was possible.
Today, now….with some introspection….I get it.
In a bit..