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U.S. Politics Post-shooting rituals have become an American art form, performed in grief

Today, the grieving is in El Paso, Tex., and Dayton, Ohio, just as it had been in countless other places in the United States.

JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ/Reuters

Here, we know how things unfold: the sirens; the escalation of the death count; the emergence of a manifesto of hatred. Then the vigils, the multifaith services, the flower-laden shrines, the handwritten signs, the funerals. And of course the calls for gun control.

Here, we endured all of this 10 months ago, when 11 Jewish people were slain at prayer in a synagogue three blocks from my house. The Squirrel Hill incident transformed the phrase “Tree of Life" from an excerpt from Proverbs into a metaphor for unendurable, inexplicable pain. It did not escape us that the scriptural reference spoke of “paths of peace.”

Today, the grieving is in El Paso, Tex., and Dayton, Ohio, just as it had been in countless other places in the United States: San Jose, Calif.; White Swan, Wash.; and Virginia Beach, Va., in late May and June. Some places you’ve never heard of had episodes you never heard about: Aurora, Ill., in February; Sebring, Fla., in January.

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“I fear that some Americans just get numb to it, as if it is a national anesthesia, far worse than the opioid crisis," Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life said in a conversation Sunday when the news was still fresh. ”I wish I could say I had an answer for this. Is political will required, is civic will, is theological will − or is it all of these things? My congregants shake their heads."

There was a time, back in 1966, when these crimes were so rare − when the horror was so raw − that they stood out on the American psychic landscape, much the way the university tower stood out on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. There, just before noon on an August morning in Lyndon Johnson’s hometown in Lyndon Johnson’s America, a man climbed into that tower and opened fire. He already had killed his mother and wife, but those domestic crimes were but an overture to a dirge of death. By day’s end, 16 were dead.

Then everyone knew his name: Charles Whitman. Today, hardly anyone could name even two of the mass shooters. I had to go to the web to find the name of the Pittsburgh shooter.

While crime in the United States is down − that is a fact that seems incongruous to our experience − mass crimes have become an American affliction, and an American allegory, followed by American eulogies. Guns are easily accessible in a Second Amendment country. Soft targets for violence are manifold in a free society.

Saddest of all: Mass violence has become a form of free expression.

But so is protest. The young people of Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were slain at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, became outspoken advocates for gun control. They took their message to Tallahassee, the state capital, and to Washington. If nothing else, they rekindled the notion of student activism on the issue.

El Paso’s former congressman, Beto O’Rourke, is a Democratic presidential candidate and Saturday, when the news was fresh, he could barely retain his composure. It was a response to an episode that in recent years has become a reflection of the American character.

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Already the post-shooting rituals have begun in West Texas, site of so much controversy during America’s new focus on immigration. They will continue for days. It is what people do, and it has become an American art form, like scrimshaw carving, only performed in grief, in bewilderment and through tears, though no longer in shock and disbelief.

For days, we in Pittsburgh performed those rituals. For months, we have wondered whether they make any difference.

‘’For some people these rituals help them heal,’’ said Mark Oppenheimer, a Yale lecturer writing a book about Squirrel Hill, site of the Tree of Life shootings. ‘’But everyone is different. There are people who want to participate in them, and the world wants to march everyone though one narrative of healing. But for some people, healing involves staying at home and calling friends. For some people, it means leaving town. Some simply don’t want to be part of mass congress with hundreds of people.’’

And yet, after these rituals, after the halting start of healing, both public and personal, the shootings continue.

Here, the Senator John Heinz History Center is assembling an archive of writings and relics from the Tree of Life shooting. Commemorations are being planned for the October anniversary of the rampage. A committee is mobilizing for an international conference on anti-Semitism for the fall of 2020.

But controversy continues. People are still debating whether U.S. President Donald Trump should have been welcomed at the shooting site. Tree of Life leaders are wondering what to do with the building, now boarded up at the corner of Wilkins and Shady Avenues. (Should the structure, riddled by bullets, be torn down? Should the site be transformed into housing for the elderly?)

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The congregation wonders whether it will ever have a separate home again; today, its services are in a neighbouring synagogue.

Along with the controversy has come resignation. These sorts of shootings happen. Maybe they can’t be prevented. Maybe the enhanced security measures at synagogues will help, though surely they were too late.

Tree of Life is a block from a police station. It was not an ideal target, though it was. In our sadness, in our grief and in our deep regret, every place is vulnerable to being the next target.

David Shribman, a Globe contributing writer, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and led the reporting on the Tree of Life shooting that won a Pulitzer Prize.

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