Roving thoughts and provocations

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After Aurora: No End to Grief

Alex Webb/Magnum Photos
Early morning on Squam Lake, New Hampshire, 2000

Taking a leisurely drive this time of year across rural Vermont and New Hampshire one may be forgiven for thinking that one is in paradise. Staying on back roads that wind along small rivers, you pass sleepy little towns through a landscape that alternates between stretches of open country and densely wooded hills and mountains. A herd of cows is taking a siesta in a meadow, munching contentedly as if posing for a painting; four or five hens have withdrawn in the shade of a large tree and sit around a rooster who looks as if he’s about to deliver a stump speech; a big black and white dog on a chain outside a trailer gets up wagging his tail to see who is coming, and seeing it’s only a stranger, sits back disappointed. The farm stands are overflowing with local corn, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, zucchini, broccoli, eggplants, new potatoes, cucumbers, five different kinds of salad, peaches, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. When I pull off the road and get out of the car to admire some gorgeous view, a bird twitters in a tree, a brook can be heard running close by, a horse fly can’t believe its luck that it found someone with a long nose like mine to pester, but that’s as loud as it gets.

One of the blessings of rural life is that newspapers are not readily available and cell phones often don’t work outside larger towns, so the news of the world reaches us late, unless one has the TV or the computer turned on at home. I didn’t hear about the shooting in Colorado till late the next day on my car radio, while driving to the town dump. The monstrosity of the act struck me with full force of its vileness in the peaceful surroundings. My mind wandered back to the morning of September 11, when after watching the unfolding tragedy that culminated in the collapse of the twin towers, I finally took my dog, who had been nagging me for hours, for a walk. We took the usual path through the woods down to the lake, and I came to a stop on our small beach stunned and spooked by the contrast between what I had seen take place in New York and what I was now seeing. The day was mild, the sky cloudless, and the large lake, with several small islands some distance away, lay calm before me. In the silence I could hear myself breathe. Not a single boat was in the water, nor were there any signs of life around the cottages. After a while, I noticed a loon fishing not too far from the shore. He would dive and stay down for what seemed like forever, and would resurface where I least expected him to, making a barely audible splash as he did so, looking, I thought, pleased with himself.

Life goes on, as the saying goes. Two squirrels chase each other among the tombstones in a small graveyard as I drive back from the dump, and a caller on a talk show lectures his radio listeners that if the members of the audience in that movie theater in Colorado had been properly armed, one of them could have taken down the shooter after he first started firing, implying that they could have then all gone back to watching the Batman movie. Crazy as he sounded, he wasn’t alone. In the days to come, numerous politicians and newspaper columnists took turns insulting our intelligence. They either claimed that the frequency of mass killings in United Sates has absolutely nothing to do with our lax gun laws, or that more firearms in public places would make us all safer in a similar situation.

No matter where one stands on the Second Amendment and guns issue, the inability of many Americans—including our president, his Republican challenger, and the majority of our lawmakers—to admit that assault rifles capable of firing fifty to sixty rounds a minute have no other purpose but to mow down as many people as one can, is a staggering display of cowardice. “Folks love a gun for what it can do,” Barry Hannah, the late Mississippi novelist, used to say. He was right. Thou Shall Kill, the assault rifle whispers to its owner. To some of our fellow citizens purchasing a weapon of mass murder and buying 6,000 rounds of ammunition is the most normal thing for a person to do. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia even said on Fox News that “handheld rocket launchers” could be considered legal under his interpretation of the Second Amendment. Others, holding public office or running for one, are so frightened of the NRA and its money that if pressed by the powerful lobby, they would have no hesitation passing a law allowing babies to carry concealed weapons in their cribs.

As in many other areas in our dysfunctional political system, private profit takes precedence over public good. In a country where 80 people die every day from gun violence and 10.8 million weapons were sold last year, some people must be getting very rich manufacturing and selling them. We can be sure their hearts leapt with joy at the news that the sales of guns and assault weapons had gone up after the massacre in Colorado, as they always do after such national tragedies. In a polarized society, such as we now have, with so much hatred and paranoia stewing in people’s heads, they should have no trouble finding customers for many years to come, both among the first-time gun owners and those ready to supplement and modernize their existing arsenals, among individual Americans and various law enforcement agencies, from police departments to security firms.

In the meantime, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these beneficiaries of our collective madness have summer places in my part of New England, where they are enjoying the fine weather we are having with their families and friends, just the way the rest of us are, who sometimes, when we are alone during the day or awake at night, get a feeling that if we keep going the way we are going as a country, there will be no end to grief for us.

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