Turn left off Pittsburgh’s Shady Avenue onto Wilkins Avenue on a temperate evening and there, fastened on the chain-link fence, is a series of art reproductions that, this sad Tuesday, demands special, unhappy attention.
“We are here for you,” proclaims one of the paintings, from an 18-year old named Kelsie. “Love over everything,” says another, by a student named Kiara, also 18.
These drawings and legends take on particular meaning on a day when, 2,532 kilometres away, in Uvalde, Tex., at least 19 children and two adults are dead, the latest victims of mass domestic violence American style.
And here, at the busy corner where 11 were killed in October, 2018 at Sabbath prayer inside the Tree of Life synagogue, the drawings from students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. – where 17 were killed and another 17 were wounded in 2018 – stand as testimony to the other American pandemic.
Four years after the Pittsburgh shootings, a recitation of the sites of recent American mass killings – Las Vegas, Orlando, Newtown, Blacksburg, El Paso – has the rat-tat-tat rhythm of gunfire itself. On Tuesday night, President Joe Biden, who recently visited Buffalo, where 10 were killed just 10 days earlier, said: “As a nation, we have to ask, ‘When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?’ ”
The gunmen in Uvalde and Buffalo both were, like the artists whose paintings are on display outside the site of the deadliest antisemitic violence in American history, 18 – a figure which, in the Jewish numerology taught inside the Tree of Life synagogue before the structure became a symbol of modern hate crime, stands for “life.”
This week, the country seems to be past outrage, living in some emotional netherworld where logic, and pronouncements from faith leaders, and the screeches of pain and horror and fear, have no purchase, and where a generation of young people has been reared with the peculiar and perverse assumption that this is normal.
Because it has become normal.
More than a half-century ago, everyone in the United States knew the name of Charles Whitman. He was the man who, in 1966, climbed to the top of the tower of the Main Building at the University of Texas and started shooting, killing 17 people in a mad 90-minute rampage.
That now is tied, with the Parkland school shooting, as the 10th-most-deadly mass-shooting incident, with Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School moving into ninth place, perhaps higher if the death toll grows. Who today could name the shooters in the top eight, six of which occurred in the 21st century?
“Sandy Hook will never, ever be the same,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who once was a House of Representatives member representing the area around Newtown, where more than two dozen were killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, said in a poignant speech on the Senate floor Tuesday.
“This community in Texas will never, ever be the same,” he said. “Why? Why are we here? If not to try to make sure that fewer schools and fewer communities go through what Sandy Hook has gone through. What Uvalde is going through.”
Theories of why this happens – why it happens so often – why the country can’t stop it – why the midnight vigils and the Capitol Hill speeches and the sermons and the scholarly treatises and the law-enforcement theories and the psychologists’ musings have no discernible impact – abound. Solutions are, to employ a vast understatement, elusive.
“This is a political question and we have to treat it that way,” Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, said in an interview hours after the shooting. “As long as we treat it as a moral question, we will make no progress. Right now, we don’t have the political tools or the political will to do something about it.”
A YouGov poll taken a month ago found that 72 per cent of Democrats but only 20 per cent of Republicans said they wanted to make gun laws stricter. Gun control was not a prominent issue in any of this spring’s primaries for the November midterm congressional elections.
But State Senator Douglas Mastriano, who last year introduced a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature to forbid state and local officials from enforcing federal gun controls, made expanded gun rights part of his campaign for the state’s Republican gubernatorial nomination. He won a decisive victory last week.
“I don’t see this ending any time soon,’’ said Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare and an expert in school shootings at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “The combination of isolation, stress, growing gun sales, and conspiracy theories have produced more shootings all over the country. If only we had been more thoughtful about this complex combination of all these things. We have some heavy lifting to do in this country.”
Heavy lifting – for a country with heavy hearts, and a heavy burden of guilt.
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