The Independence Day mass shooting repeated a narrative our country has trained us to memorize of blood, nightmares, remembering and forgetting. First, our phones alert us to breaking news of a shooting: some wounded, some dead. News channels broadcast images of parking lots, police tape, red and blue lights flashing, lines of the evacuated, the patrolling of officers with rifles and dogs. Soon, the described scenes are made real through hastily captured smartphone recordings: We listen to the gunshots and watch strangers sprinting wildly from death.
Social media posts update the numbers of wounded and deceased; police chiefs speak about a recovered assault-style weapon and, after hours of suspense, a person of interest (typically young, white, male, troubled by loneliness, heartbreak, masculinity, delusions of grandeur). Democrats appeal for donations, Republicans for more good guys and prayer. Then we find the things left behind: strollers, lawn chairs, children’s bicycles, pools of blood, lives without nightmares, hope for this wretched country and world.
Monday’s mass shooting in Highland Park developed like the others we have watched and read but this time with the symbolism of lost freedom at a parade on the Fourth of July. And the narratives materialized for the people there, waving flags of stars and stripes — people suddenly splattered with blood, crouching behind dumpsters, fleeing down Central Avenue and throwing themselves against glass storefronts for refuge. They will carry physical wounds and psychological scars and haunted memory, the music of the band initially playing through the carnage, the lingering feeling of an absence they can’t quite describe.
My generation grew up in the 1990s and 2000s learning the story of civilian death. Mass shootings remained behind the TV screen, uncanny horrors that seemed too distant to be human. In school, we would huddle in dark corners in preparation for death. We were forced to see ourselves in the story. I imagined what I would do — perhaps fleeing, perhaps defending those beside me in heroism that would prove my character to others and to myself — as well as what I would say at the microphone as a weeping family member or friend. All of us did this — we still do — and our country has permitted enough mass shootings that we do not only fear them but also are now waiting for our turn to be the victims running from bullets and shrieks.
I have reached the part of the op-ed when the writer typically offers a promising cliche: We must unite, we will change our story, etc. I can’t. Gun laws in this country are influenced by a few politicians who receive contributions from the National Rifle Association. The same week the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, partly out of “respect for and preservation of … life,” it allowed for what one Second Amendment expert called the “biggest expansion of gun rights” in American history. Systemic racism, insufficient legal deterrents and broad access to firearms facilitate the many other crimes that meet the definition of being a mass shooting, such as the one early Monday in Chicago’s Parkway Gardens neighborhood that left five people wounded.
And the rest of us? We scroll, double-tap, repost and forget.
In America, killing is our story. And if killing is our story, who is responsible? The primary suspects — I will not glorify their names — die or are imprisoned. Like a Greek chorus, we stand beside the action and lament. But is that resolution? What is justice for the dead? We punish the killer who pulls the trigger, but what of the people who vote to permit access to assault-style weapons? What of those who glamorize the shooters’ images and names? What of those who do nothing at all?
We forget that, at the same time they are told, stories of mass shootings are real: real blood, real bodies, real screams that cannot be rid from dreams.
Centuries from now, if our species has not rendered itself extinct through climate change, people will speak of this barbaric era of the American past, a collective failure of killing by guns. We will not be there to narrate our times. We will all be seen as killers and courageless fools. As people who, as late as July 2022, did not do enough and did not say enough, and who at any time might enter public spaces and become the main characters of the tragedy of the United States.
Marek Makowski teaches literature and writing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He lives in Chicago. Read more of his work at marekwriting.com.