Yesterday there was another mass shooting. Last I heard, the death toll was at least 59, with hundreds of additional people being treated for gun shot wounds. This act of terrorism was committed by one man. One white man, it should be noted, who committed suicide before the police could take him down. How he killed that many people is something I can’t and don’t want to imagine, but one thing is certain: White men with guns are still the biggest threat to us all.
When these things happen I try to imagine myself in that space. The shock. The blood. The screaming. How do I respond? Do I freeze, or leap into action? Am I helping other people to safety? Am I dead? One of the many wounded by a bullet? Please tell me I left my children at home. It’s a terrifying fantasy, almost unimaginable, except that each time this happens it becomes more imaginable. What was once unthinkable is now commonplace. Mass shootings are an American tradition, and it becomes increasingly possible that each and every one of us will eventually know or be a victim of one of these tragedies, participants in our nation’s sacrificial ritual, offerings to the God and country to whom we train children to pledge.
I don’t participate in gun control discussions anymore. I don’t have the energy and I don’t have the hope. If the Sandy Hook massacre didn’t lead to a change in our gun laws, nothing will, particularly considering our current administration and how much sway the NRA has. Several of my friends will post links to articles with statistics about gun violence and how these shootings are uniquely American. They don’t happen in places with stricter gun laws. They’ll share petitions, urging representatives to pass simple, common sense legislation. And they should. I’m glad my friends still do this. I’m glad there are people who still hold their hope for change. But my well is empty.
Other people will post about how we need better mental health services, which is true but irrelevant and dangerous in the painful wake of a mass shooting. Don’t take part in equating mental illness with violence, please.
My radical far left friends will post about how fascist governments want to disarm their citizens and that we need an armed left. I used to roll my eyes at this position because it seems so obvious that fewer guns means fewer gun deaths, period. But I now understand that point of view more than I ever have. Our government and police forces are like one giant burning ball of corruption and violence rolling down a hill, squashing and burning everything in its path, heading for us, the unsuspecting and unprepared village of the American populace. Since Trump took office I have, for the first time in my life, begun to think that I should at least be able to handle a gun. In case it comes to that.
The feeling I’ve had after other incidents like these–that feeling of now things will change, right?–is completely missing this time. The only thought that comforts me instead is well, at least none of this and none of us matter.
Tom Petty also died yesterday. It’s strange, how we grieve the people we never knew. I was not even a hardcore Tom Petty fan, or at least I wouldn’t have described myself as such. But as I listen to his familiar voice belting out his simple but elegant poetry and melodies today, I realize that Tom Petty, like David Bowie and Prince and several other musicians who died before him, seemed like a larger than life figure. Impervious to death. Always present. For people of my generation, his music has always been part of the running soundtrack of our lives. It has been there, in the background, through every life stage. When that soundtrack ends, we grieve. We grieve the loss of an artist, and we grieve our own inescapable mortality. Not even rock and roll hall of famers are impervious to death.
Oddly, it took news of this celebrity death for me to feel real sadness about the shooting in Las Vegas, the cruelty and pain of the world we live in. It’s Tom Petty’s death that has brought me to tears as I sit here listening to “Learning to Fly” for the fourth time in a row. Tears quietly run down my cheeks and splash off the edges of my clothing while my 7-year-old son sits next to me playing “Plants vs. Zombies” on an iPad, lucky enough to be oblivious to the cruelty and pain that surrounds him.
I guess it makes sense that the death of one familiar person brings out my sadness in a more personal, emotional way than news of the murders of 59 strangers. Their deaths are too big to process. They are a symbol of a situation that could be improved but won’t be. News of it leaves me a hollow empty space, while “Learning to Fly” fills me with the beauty of life and death and grief.
After all, what the fuck are we all doing here if not learning to fly?
Some say life will beat you down. Break your heart. Steal your crown. So I started out, for God knows where. I guess I’ll know when I get there.–Tom Petty, “Learning to Fly”
*Image from The Daily Beast.