The violence has been going on for such a long time that it has no recognizable beginning. Scores of bullets have been fired and sprayed at human targets — some of them caught so wholly unaware that they aren’t fleeing the shooter; they aren’t even cowering. They’re simply going about their daily lives — shopping, praying, dancing, commuting, laughing. Existing.
Existing may well be the greatest leap of faith that one can make in this country of hate and guns and fear.
There is also no end in sight.
The weekend was deadly. At least 14 people were killed in mass shootings; 39 were injured. Those days of rest and rejuvenation were horribly, heartbreakingly deadly. But so is most every weekend. This time, the shootings echoed across the country from California to Wisconsin to New York. They touched large cities and small communities. They were spawned by racism, by grievance, by elements of the human heart and soul that may never be fully understood but somehow, if anyone is to survive this country’s deeply embedded animus, have to be contained. Already, no one is unscathed.
The shooting Saturday afternoon at a Tops grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo is the deadliest mass shooting of 2022 but it’s one of more than 200 so far. Authorities believe the alleged attacker posted his intentions and motivations online. He declared himself a white supremacist and antisemite; he laid out his plan to target a Black community. He dressed himself in body armor, loaded himself down with artillery and opened fire — as he live-streamed his diabolical actions. He killed 10 people and injured three others because he was convinced that a cabal of elites was plotting the elimination of White people from America. The evil man was thirsting for blood and feasting on a lie. He was so hungry to kill that he started shooting in the parking lot on his way into the store. He fired and he fired. He looked at innocent people going about their weekend errands and he killed them.
The suspect, Payton S. Gendron was charged with first-degree murder. He is only 18 years old which is incredibly young to already be filled with such bile. But history has proved that youth is not an antidote to hate or vengeance, indeed, it may simply be a more nimble, more tech-savvy conduit. Dylann Roof was only 21 years old when the self-declared white supremacist killed nine Black members of Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Ethan Crumbley was only 15 when he was arrested on a charge of killing four students at Michigan’s Oxford High School in 2021. It may be that the young are born predisposed to prejudice and hate; seeds are planted at inception to be selfish and unyielding and over time people either grow into their feral nature or they grow out of it.
When did all of this begin? Was it Columbine in 1999? Was it with the angry postal worker in Royal Oak, Mich., in 1991 who killed four people? Or maybe it began in Tulsa in 1921?
Over the years, every resident of this country has learned that no setting is off limits to a mass shooting. When it happens, people utter the platitude about never thinking that such violence could happen in their own community. It’s hard not to wonder whether they are blind optimists or fools because the evidence makes it plain that such things could happen anywhere and everywhere. No place is safe. No place is sacred. Anything passes for a shooting range.
The schools haven’t been safe for a long time and no matter how many children are killed in their classrooms, this country does nothing to try to quell the violence. The churches, synagogues and mosques aren’t off limits. On Sunday, a man walked into Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, Calif., and shot congregants as they were eating lunch. He killed one person and injured five others; most of the victims were of Taiwanese descent. We can’t watch a movie without fear, get tipsy at a house party, window shop at the mall, hunt for bargains at a flea market or catch a catnap on a morning subway commute. The national pastime isn’t a safe space. There’s no assurance of serenity and community in the shadow of public art. All of these locations have been the site of mass shootings. So have a basketball game, the local Walmart and that quiet street where no one thought anything deadly could ever happen until it did.
In Buffalo, the shooter sought out his victims. He came for them. There are a host of historical, systemic and economic reasons Black residents often live clustered together in neighborhoods where they have to lobby for basic city services. The effects of redlining remain and de facto segregation is a reality. The steady drip of racism has long been a caustic, never-ending burden. In Buffalo, the community of Black residents had fought to get a supermarket in their neighborhood. It wasn’t an exceptional grocer and it didn’t transform their lives, but it was an oasis of convenience. And Gendron had the heartless audacity to travel from his community to their oasis to kill them in it.
Gendron allegedly came from his hometown of Conklin, a majority White suburb of Binghamton, more than three hours away, to a neighborhood of people whose lives have already been constrained in countless nagging ways and he attacked them, according to a live stream. He didn’t walk out of his home with its tidy lawn, driveway basketball hoop and backyard swimming pool, and start firing at the folks he saw daily, people with whom familiarity and proximity might have provided an opportunity for a real, rather than imagined, grievance. He didn’t fire at the so-called elites he falsely believed were trying to eliminate him from the country. He didn’t target those with power or authority or influence. He went after folks who were just living their lives with dignity.
These mass shootings are terrifying and numbing because they defy logic. Human nature understands a fight over money or sex, even if it doesn’t condone a fracas over either. Most people can make sense of tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye — even as they recognize it as a base and uncivilized way to settle a dispute. But mass shootings have none of that predictability and so it’s impossible to defend against them. We search for a motive, a grudge, a failure in the system. And it is true that there are too many guns that are too easily accessed. It’s true that social media is filled with disinformation and groups aiming to radicalize disaffected men and women. But the violence, particularly the violence that targets people because of race, religion and sexual orientation, is not a creation of the Internet or modern weaponry. That hate has always been there. It’s simply gotten easier for people to act on their worst impulses. Barreling into a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood and spraying the patrons with bullets from a jury-rigged semiautomatic weapon is a lot more efficient than lynching them one by one. It’s faster to shoot up a Walmart in a neighborhood filled with recent immigrants, as a killer did in 2019, than it is to negotiate over immigration policy.
This past weekend has reverberated because so many have been injured and killed in such a short time and with such targeted hate. But this weekend is just a data point on a continuum. It’s a terrible moment in time with a before that’s too far in the distance to see and an after that, frankly, promises more of the same. We mourn the lives lost. In Buffalo, 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield was killed. She was the oldest victim and in the sunset of life, when every moment seems that much more precious, those last invaluable days were cruelly taken from her. In Milwaukee, at a shooting in the wake of a basketball game, most of those injured were in their late teens and 20s. Their lives are forever altered. They have confirmation that terrible things can happen anywhere. They have proof that this is who we are.
This is who we are. But maybe, it’s not who we are destined to remain.
They are the words of a blind optimist — or a fool.