The flights to America leave from Terminal 2 in Dublin. There was a time when arriving at the airport was a relaxing part of the trip. It was a last chance to sit at O’Brien’s and have one last authentic fry-up, one last cup of well-brewed Barry’s tea before stuffing a real scone in my bag and heading back to the land of hot dogs and coffee.
Time has changed things. O’Brien’s is not what it was. The tea is a weak European blend that we don’t recognize. The fruit is green and the sausages are no longer spiced in the Irish style. The staff are eastern European, serving up a cheaper version of the Irish experience that has lost everything in translation without gaining any international flavor. The beans are insipid at best.
But this barely matters, because we no longer have time to stop there for breakfast before our flight. New American security concerns mean that we must go through two sets of security screenings, as well as customs, before we even get to the gate. Well over an hour later, when we’ve gone past all of that, we queue up for half an hour at the one restaurant in the American section of the airport, where I pick out a muffin that I don’t want because we no longer have time for the staff to heat up a panini. The plane is already boarding, even though we’ve been at the airport for two and a half hours. I swallow half of my cappuccino before throwing out the rest so that this time, thank God, we don’t end up running for the gate. I burn my tongue.
It has been an exhausting trip, this trip back to Ireland to bury my brother-in-law. I’ve cried a great deal more than I expected, while remembering more names than I anticipated. My in-laws are a veritable tribe, a tribe that shows up en masse to major life events. There are cousins and friends and adult children with children of their own, all of whom seem to remember my name. When I ask my Beloved to clarify which cousin Mary that he had just referred to, he gives me a blank look at my dense incomprehension, then rattles off a string of names and relationships that I lose hope of being able to follow by the second sentence. My family has been declining in numbers for a generation; I am simply not equipped with the skills to remember everyone, even after four years of marriage. But I am getting better.
My sister-in-law brought pictures of my Beloved and his three siblings to the wake, one from shortly after the birth of the youngest and another from right before my Beloved left Ireland for good in the late 80s. They are children in the first picture and barely more than that in the second. The second photo hung in the family home for decades, becoming such an icon that my Beloved and his siblings retook it a few years ago. I am so glad that they did now, though I remember being in a rush at the time, because there will never be another one with all four of them together. That time in their lives has finished, long before we ever expected that it would. So we passed around the pictures and told old stories to the new generation, while marveling at the changes in the family between then and now. Baba wandered at our feet, pulling at the photographs and trying to find out what happens when you bend them.
My brother-in-law was buried on Saturday, so we took Baba and her cousins to St. Anne’s park on Sunday for some much needed downtime. There is a playground there that is a Dublin institution. The carved horses and cows had fresh paint once, but it has been worn off by generations of small hands climbing all over them. Baba climbed up onto the Viking ship, which is far too tall for her, and her eldest cousin, who is a man himself now, reached up to keep her from falling. We posed her with her two cousins, and tried to keep her still enough to get a good shot. She doesn’t understand why we would want to sit still in a playground, where there are so many things to climb and explore.
Perhaps there will be a day, years down the road, where we’ll make another photo like yesterday’s, when Baba is old enough to understand, and marvel again at the impossibility of capturing time.
I know that I am grieving, because poetry keeps running through my head. A fragment here, a stanza there. It is a dark season, made darker this week by the passing of my brother-in-law, who was a fine, big man that I’d been planning on having in my life for another 20 to 30 years, at a minimum.
Tonight, we will get on a plane, a red eye flight that will take us over the dark waters of the Atlantic. We’re travelling with Baba and have taken enough red eye flights with her now that I do not think that I will be sleeping for the better part of 24 hours, because toddlers do not understand things like ignoring all of the distractions on the plane for some much needed rest.
There are, indeed, many miles to go before I sleep. Many of them will be spent walking my 30-pound toddler in my arms up and down the narrow aisle of the plane, begging her to just, please God, please just close her eyes.
And I am reluctant to go and see my brother-in-law. In April, my brother-in-law was a healthy man. I saw him this summer, after the brain tumor had started to destroy his body function, but when he was still talking. A seriously ill man, but an alive one, who was asking about the madness that has infected American politics this year, who had opinions about movies and wanted to tell you what you needed to watch next on TV.
As far away as we are, it doesn’t yet feel possible that he won’t be in Dublin, waiting to greet us when we get there. I have no experience of Dublin that does not include dinners at his house, his hugs and kisses, the feeling that he always gave me that I was truly a part of the family, that the in-law part of our names for each other was just a stupid formality that only mattered to other people. He was the first of my in-laws to call me his sister. I will never forget the happiness in his face as he did it, because it must have reflected mine.
Once I see him, then I know that it will be real that he won’t be there anymore. Not this time, nor the next.
And I do not want that. I desperately do not want to talk about him in past tense. I want to keep him in the realm of “is” and not “was.” It’s impossible. It’s just impossible that such an alive person could no longer be with us. It’s impossible that there will be no more beers in seaside pubs and stories of his motorcycle cop days and eating takeaway fish and chips at his dining room table, listening to the fire crackle and pop.
Cliché, cliché, cliché. But things become clichés because they are true.
And that’s where poetry comes to save us, to say things for us in beautiful ways, to express our grief in words that seem worthy of it.
And so, Joe, let me share with you the stanzas that I’ve had stuck in my head since I heard the news of your death. The poem reminds me of you, you who spent your weekends sailing yachts, because it was what you just loved to do. You, who took scuba trips to Caribbean islands, who worked in Croatia for a year, who finally found the adventure you were always looking for in the love of your life. You were never too modest to share how happy you were about the fine adventures you had! — and that gratitude, that spirit is something that we should all learn from you. And so I think of Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society, again, telling a classroom of young boys about the preciousness of each day, because you, Joe, you were the essence of carpe diem. And so I say, to all of you…
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
It is Monday morning, on the sort of fall morning where rain comes by in unsuspecting gusts, drenching any commuter that was brave enough to put their umbrella away during the brief periods of dryness. On the train, freed from the drama of the rain, we are hurtling towards Penn Station, racing past the sleepy yellow houses of Queens that quietly witness the thousands of people that travel past them each day.
Then the phones begin to buzz, first a single alert, then an unignorable clatter of sounds, as Verizon and AT&T and TMobile send out a law enforcement alert. Without glancing at my phone, I know that they must have found the person behind the bombings of the last 24 hours, the set of trash can and pressure cooker bombs in Manhattan and northern New Jersey that have scathed passer-bys, but not yet killed anyone. They’ve gone off in empty neighborhoods, late at night and early in the morning, just a reminder of how vulnerable we are and how dangerous it is to dare to be in a crowd.
How much worse they could have been.
My kid brother came over last night for dinner, as is his habit on Sunday nights. “Did you hear about the bombings?” he asked, worried that people are once again attacking our city. He is young – 21 – the same age that I was on September 11th, 2001. He was six at the time and living in England, so I know that the stories about it sound like people landing on the moon or the assassination of JFK did to me.
“It’s scary,” he says.
“Yes, but,” I say, “if you lived in Baghdad, this would be something that happened every week.”
“That’s true,” he says.
“It is scary,” I add, belatedly. “And New York will always be a target. That’s just something you have to deal with, living here. And oh God, tomorrow’s commute. It’s going to be awful.”
“Ugh,” he says, sympathetically. I know that he is glad that he works nearby.
I am not, you may note, the most reassuring person in a crisis.
And so here we are again, with another frightening drama unfolding on streets so familiar that they feel like home. The mayor and the media were quick to respond, to reassure us that the first two bombs were “intentional but not terrorism.” I laugh a bit at the language, because the way the media restructures words. Of course it is terrorism. Anyone planting bombs in public spaces is trying to terrorize the public at large. And, hardy as we are by now, it’s working. The kids are scared.
And so I wonder about this name that has just shown up on all of our phones, as we go about our lives and continue on to offices with bosses that would not understand if we “let the terrorists win” (whatever that means) by staying home. We’ve seen this play out before, in Boston, and we know that he will be found. There is not a scenario where you draw this kind of police attention and walk away free. And, is that the point? Is this kid — only a handful of years older than my brother — testing himself? Is this a question of wits, inspired by a thousand and one blockbuster action films? And is he alone? Will we be safe, as he runs for his freedom?
In the seats in front of me, a woman wearing far too much perfume is peacefully playing Candy Crush Saga, whiling away her commute as though today were just an ordinary day. At the other end of my subway ride, I will come out of the World Trade Center subway stop, thinking as I queue up for the exit of how vulnerable we are, standing trapped underneath such a world-famous target. I feel the echoes of the dead around me, as I emerge into the sunlight and pass St. Paul’s, the three and a half century old church across from Ground Zero, where some of the first European inhabitants of Manhattan are buried. The grass grows long and wild at the edge of the graveyard, where it curves down to the meet the street. I wonder about the groundsmen whose job it must be to worry about this small detail.
It’s no secret that I get excited about new Tana French novels. I have been slowly doling them out to myself, using them as a special reading treat, because I have been afraid of running out of her novels. Now that I’ve finished The Secret Place, I have read absolutely every word that she’s published and can only wait for her next book, The Trespasser, due out in the fall. Tana French is such a favorite that I actually order her books in paper format, because I know even before reading them that I’m going to want to keep them in my collection forever.
The Secret Place did not disappoint, by which I mean that it took over my life in the week that it took me to read it. If you’re not familiar with Tana French, her Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of first-person character-driven classic detective novels told through the eyes of Dublin Murder detectives that are inevitably working the case of a lifetime. I do not read a lot of crime fiction because of its tendency to be more focused on the details of the mystery than the characters of the story, but French combines the detective genre with thoughtful character development and the sort of poetic prose that reminds me of Margaret Atwood. And did I mention how Irish her novels are? French was raised all over the world, but she lives in Dublin, which is obvious in the faithful and delightful representation of Irish speech and culture. Having an Irish spouse makes reading her dialogue a delight, because it’s so faithful that it almost feels like a private joke.
Her lip pulled back. “Jesus fuck. I thought they were gonna put me through a decontamination chamber, get rid of my accent. Or throw me a cleaner’s uniform and point me at the tradesmen’s entrance. You know what the fees are? They start at eight grand a year. That’s if you’re not boarding, or taking any extracurricular activities. Choir, piano, drama. You have any of that, in school?”
“We had a football in the yard.”
Conway liked that. “One little geebag: I go into the holding room and call out her name for interview, and she goes, ‘Em, I can’t exactly go now, I’ve got my clarinet lesson in five?'” That curl rising at the corner of her mouth again. Whatever she’d said to the girl, she’d enjoyed it. “Her interview lasted an hour. Hate that.”
“The school,” I said. “Snobby and good, or just snobby?”
“I could win the Lotto, still wouldn’t send my kid there. But…” One-shouldered shrug. “Small classes. Young Scientist awards everywhere. Everyone’s got perfect teeth, no one ever gets up the duff, and all the shiny little pedigree bitches go on to college. I guess it’s good, if you’re OK with your kid turning out a snobby shite.”
I said, “Holly’s da’s a cop. A Dub. From the Liberties.”
“I know that. You think I missed that?”
One of the tropes of French’s novels that I really love is the way she pulls her protagonists from earlier books in the series, developing the character by throwing them into a first-person narrative. In The Secret Place, this character is Stephen Moran from Faithful Place. Two books ago, he was a young man at the start of his career who is pulled in as a floater on a high-profile murder case. When he stands out for his work on that case, he’s promoted to the Cold Case department. When Holly Mackey, the teenaged daughter of the detective of Faithful Place, comes in to him with a new piece of evidence in the year old murder of Chris Harper, a boy that was killed on the grounds of her posh boarding school, Stephen recognizes his golden opportunity. Desperate to be promoted to the Murder squad, he takes the card that Holly has given him to Antoinette Conway, the Murder detective that has failed to solve Chris Harper’s murder. He asks for a chance to work the case with her.
Ambitious, is our Stephen.
But first he must convince Conway that he’s worth keeping around. Unlike French’s other novels, The Secret Place takes place in a 24 hour time period, which serves as Stephen Moran’s trial by fire. And it is a trial by fire, as Stephen and Conway visit the luxurious grounds of St. Kilda, a boarding school for high school girls, where the headmistress makes it all too clear that she’s more concerned about the reputation of the school than bringing any kind of justice to Chris or his family. The students aren’t any better, where rival cliques of girls try to use the detectives for their own purposes. In order to solve the mystery of Chris’s murder, Stephen and Conway have to wade through their lies and rivalries.
Conway’s eyes narrowed. She turned back to Joanne, slower. Shoulders easing.
Smile. Steady sticky voice, like talking to a stupid toddler.
“Joanne. I know it’s hard for you, not being the center of attention. I know you’re only dying to throw a tantrum and scream, ‘Everybody look at me!’ But I bet if you try your very best, you can hang on for just a few more minutes. And when we’re done here, your friends can explain to you why this was important. OK?”
Joanne’s face was pure poison. She looked forty.
“Can you manage that for me?”
Joanne thumped back in her chair, rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
The circle of arena eyes, appreciative; we had a winner. Julia and Holly were both grinning. Alison looked terrified and over the moon.
As Stephen and Conway start piecing together the story as they interrogate the girls at St. Kilda’s, French uses flashbacks to follow the girls’ lives in the year prior to Chris’s death, using Holly and her friends to bring the reader along on a journey of suspense and suspicion. She does it beautifully, capturing the emotion and precariousness of teenaged life in such a precise and realistic way that it seems impossible that French is not a teenager herself. These moments sneak up on the reader, pulling us along with the events of school life at St Kilda’s until we feel like we’re one of Holly’s gang, navigating the beginnings of adulthood in a simultaneously thrilling and dangerous environment.
As the countdown to Chris’s death marches on, French reveals the privately vicious world of the teenagers, as they jockey with one another for status. Although their days are filled with classes and scheduled study time, their free hours are spent at the local shopping mall, where the boys from a nearby boys’ boarding school also hang out. As the St. Kilda’s girls try to figure out boyfriends and friendships and identity, we are filled with the knowledge that this very normal tangle of relationships will turn into a deadly combination. Each scene feels both like an opportunity to look for clues and a familiar and personal experience.
Chris sits down next to her. Selena has never been this close to him before, close enough to see the scattering of freckles along the tops of his cheekbones, the faintest shading of stubble on his chin; to smell him, spices and a thread of something wild and musky that makes her think of outside at night. He feels different from anyone she’s ever met: charged up fuller, electric and sparking with three people’s worth of life packed into his skin.
Readers of French’s other novels will also recognize the eerie role that the grounds of St. Kilda’s play in the novel. The girls are locked in at night — and for good reason — as the woods on the property come alive at night with all types of wildlife. As the girls find their way out onto the grounds at night, St Kilda’s changes from an institution to a place of mystery and power, long before Chris Harper is found dead. While some readers might find French’s tendency towards mysticism off-putting, The Secret Place gives a very concrete answer to each mystery that it presents, which was almost disappointing to this Tana French fan.
I’m on the downtown 2 train from Penn Station on a Monday morning. It’s summer and the trains have been bunching up, so I get lucky enough to find myself a seat. I settle into a book, half-listening to the announcements as we go from 34th Street to 14th to Chambers. At Chambers Street, the train doors open to a platform that has so strangely silent of all ambient noise that I look up from my book. The doors open on scene of a mother and a stroller and a baby on the ground. There’s a scream, then a chorus of screams as a rush of bodies move and surround the child, who is lying too still.
I have a perfect view of all of this. My seat is in the center of the train, aligned perfectly with this terrible drama. Or, I do for a moment, before half of the people on the train rush to the door to get a better view. The doors stay open too long, as the train operators call for help.
I stay where I am because I know that one more body in that crush will not save the child’s life, if it is still possible to be saved. The last thing that I see before my view was blocked was the back of a woman in a black skirt, who grabbed the child and rolled that tiny body onto its left side. The doors close. The train moves on.
I do not know how the story ends. My mind wants to give it a happy ending, if only to control my shaking limbs. As the train travels through the tunnels to Park Place, I have to move to escape the discussion surrounding me. “What happened?” a man asks. “Probably choking,” someone else says. “Or a seizure?” I walk to the other end of the train, because I feel like I might throw up and I know that I need to calm down before I get to the office. How could I even begin to explain to my young coworkers why I was so upset? It wasn’t my story. It is only the brushing of time and place, the overlapping of the coincidences of so many strangers in such a small place, that made me a participant at all. And yet, it was a public witnessing of the pain of another mother, a mother that is probably not so different from me.
New York is a strange place. The millions of people living and working in such close proximity means that our lives overlap with strangers in a much more intimate way than you ever see in less congested towns. This was actually the third medical emergency that I’ve been touching distance from, though this was by far the most horrifying. In the first, a young girl fainted on a subway car so crowded that we nearly absorbed the weight of her body before dropping her to the ground. When she woke, she cried, embarrassed, and begged to go home as dozens of water bottles were passed her way. A woman she had never met before put her arm around her and said, “Just take deep breaths. It’s going to be okay.” And, although I had held the weight of her body for a moment, I got off at my stop anyway.
The second time, I was buying a box of tissues for the office when a man in the line in front of me fell into a seizure. He was at the counter, his wallet out, when his eyes rolled up in his head and he fell, heavily, to the ground. He writhed, but I froze, not even certain why I was so frightened. And I was frightened, in the most primal and physical way. Just like with the subway today, others rushed to him before I did. When he stilled, breathing peacefully, I asked what I could do. “Go keep people from coming into the store,” someone said, so I went outside, only to discover that the job was more than adequately filled already. I looked around and hugged my shaking arms to myself and went to work, without the tissues.
Dozens of these experiences must happen across the city every day. And perhaps the strangest aspect of my experiences is that I would not recognize any of the other people in any of these scenes if I were to see them again. As a watcher, I don’t even feel the right to my own emotions. Who am I to get so upset, so frightened, so afraid? These are not my stories. These are just things that I saw, in an otherwise ordinary day.
Tonight I will go home to my Baba and hold her as much as she’ll let me. Without a doubt, I’ll be even more cautious of how small I cut her food and of the many dangerous things in the world that find their way into her hands, despite my vigilance. But what made watching that mother’s pain today so terrible was knowing how little control I really have. To love someone is to be vulnerable. To love someone the way that I love my Baba is to be very vulnerable. And the only way that I could handle that knowledge was to pretend that I know the end of the story that I saw today. In my version, that child coughed out a carrot and rose and held her mother until both of their hearts burst with joy. The end.
Since the day that Baba started day care, I’ve taken to driving to the train station. It is less than a mile from our house, but since I’m driving her anyway, it seems silly to go back home just to park the car. It is just as silly to drive to the station, but it means getting home 10 minutes earlier – and those 10 minutes are precious, because they are my only chance to play with Baba for a few minutes before she goes to bed.
They aren’t always the best part of my day, but I spend my afternoons looking forward to them. When the train is late and she’s melting for bed by the time I get home, I’m always hugely disappointed.
My street is near the center of town, which means that parking is often at a premium at six in the evening. And on the bad parking days, I get frustrated, because those extra minutes matter. But now that we’ve had an offer accepted on a house in a less congested part of town, that frustration has turned into daily rants, even though I once enjoyed living on such a community-minded street. It has been this way with all the little things in our house, which I loved in the way that you can only love the first place you live that’s really your own. Now, it’s maddening that the upstairs toilet takes an extra half-second to flush, because I didn’t make the chain short enough the last time I replaced it. There’s a scuff near our skylight that I used to be able to ignore, but now can’t wait to never see again. Walking down two flights of stairs to do my laundry is just impossibly aggravating, because this maybe-ours house has no basement.
Soon this won’t be a problem, I tell myself every time I encounter some new aggravation that never bothered me before. Soon this will be all behind us when we are at our new house.
We’ve been trying to be careful not to call this new house ours. Our offer was accepted so quickly that we’ve been wondering when we’ll find out some dark secret that will make the deal fall apart. It’s a lovely house, with a grand demeanor and oversized rooms with a delightful snob appeal. The front porch is welcoming and warm; it just begs for a swing and pitchers of iced tea on summer afternoons. The interior is finished enough that you’d only have to do projects that you wanted, which is a fine change from our current century-old plasterwork house. It’s on a quiet street just three blocks from the train station. The lot is oversized…and yet we can afford it.
Something seems badly wrong here. Is this still New York?
So we started stalking the house. We sneak up on it, checking to see what it’s doing at different times of the day. Does it disappear during the night? Are there ghostly lights? Was it perhaps part of the growing heroin problem in our county? It feels like it must be something, so we’re trying to dig up all the information we can. Stalking the house helps, because it gave us the opportunity to introduce ourselves to the one neighbor that we’ve seen anywhere near the house (and thank goodness for dogs and their walks). He tells us that no one has lived there since before Hurricane Sandy.
Oh, I see, we said, while congratulating ourselves on our cleverness in having already ordered our mold test. We knew the house had flooded, like most of our town. But no one living in it to pick up the mess? That’s a terrifying thought. Most of the homes in that situation now sport special red signs on them, with big warnings that it’s not safe to go inside. Almost four years later, the neighborhood wears them like pimples.
We were supposed to have our structural inspection done this week, but the owner cancelled on us last minute, which gave us all sorts of fuel for speculation. Yesterday my Beloved drove by the house and caught the owner cheating on us showing the house to someone else, which makes it pretty clear what the delay was about.
Still, a showing is not an offer. Any new offer may not be better than ours; we went in high, because we understood that we wouldn’t be the only ones to notice that this house seems like a steal. So it may end up being our house yet, without contest. But I admit that it feels very much like the beginning of a romance, when the stakes are just getting high. We feel very vulnerable as we wait, wait, wait and hope and dream that this might be The One.
In 1992, my mother really liked Denzel Washington.
Like, really really liked him. She liked him enough that when a movie studio was recruiting for extras for a scene in The Pelican Brief, she signed herself right up. To our great amusement, she was assigned to be in a crowd protesting gun control.
I can’t quite tell, but I’m pretty sure that the lady in the lower right corner with the blue and yellow shirt is my Mom. Denzel Washington ran through this crowd. My Mom was only a few feet away, which absolutely made her month.
The scene was funny, of course, because my Mom was absolutely for gun control, long before it was an acceptable thing to say out loud. She was an Army veteran, raised in a county so rural that one of her chores was riding her bike to the farm next door to pick up milk bottles for her family. She knew a little bit about guns and counted the time she had to throw a grenade in basic training as the absolutely most frightening moment of her life. She certainly didn’t see a reason why just anyone should have access to weapons.
No doubt, her experiences as a special education teacher in inner city D.C. contributed to her feelings. She specialized in teaching emotionally disturbed children. These are the kids who had been kicked out of all of the other schools, but still needed an education. Given their behavior problems, it likely won’t surprise you to hear that their home lives were not the greatest. Many of the children had been abused. All of them had parents trapped in poverty and plenty of her students had parents in jail. Some of her students, by the age of twelve, thought of jail as a place where you could go to get three solid meals a day. I can’t remember exactly how many funerals for her students that she went to during her years in the city, but it was far, far too many. Guns were a big part of all of that.
It was also the nineties, when D.C. was commonly referred to as the murder capitol. I remember joking about that with my friends, as though we were somehow tougher because we were living in such a dangerous environment. The summer of 1994 really sticks out in my memory, because it began with a Romeo-and-Juliet style suicide between two twelve-year-olds that were forbidden to see each other. After that, it seemed as though there was a drive-by shooting at least once a week. It was the first time we’d heard the phrase road rage, where people were so angry at being cut off in traffic that they were pulling out their guns and shooting people. To this day, I still cringe whenever my Beloved loses his temper and shouts out the window at other drivers, because I presume that they will have a gun. It was that frightening to live through.
Right before I left D.C. for New York, the tri-state area was brought to its knees by a 17 year old with a rifle. Just reading through the Wikipedia article now, fourteen years later, leaves my heart pounding in my chest. The list of shootings read like a geography of my childhood. The first shot, through the window of a Michael’s store, is the store I used to walk to as a kid. I spent hours there, looking at all the craft items that I wanted to try but could not afford. Two of the victims were murdered on the streets where I grew up. Another was shot only a block and a half from where I was attending college at the time in Virginia. The management of the apartment complex that I lived in sent out a memo to the residents, urging extreme caution as we went about the neighborhood and recommending limiting our time outdoors. I remember people volunteering to pump gas wearing bulletproof vests, because folks were that scared. One morning I was over two hours late for work, because the police had stopped the eight-lane Beltway and were investigating every single car in their desperation to find the killer. When we learned that it was a teenager pulling the trigger, it was simply impossible to process. That is how a single gun ended sixteen lives and brought an entire city to its knees.
When another murderer walked into Pulse in Orlando last week, I was on a plane home from Ireland, where I’d just spent a week trying to answer the question of why Americans are so in love with their guns, because Irish people simply don’t understand it. Irish law is very restrictive with guns, while still allowing some shotguns for hunting. Most knives will get you in trouble, if you don’t have a really good explanation for having it, so the idea that we can walk in to a store and buy a gun that’s advertised to be able to shoot 13 bullets a second is simply incomprehensible to them. (I have since learned that pragmatically your finger really couldn’t fire 13 times a second, so the real rate would be more like 3 bullets a second. I remain in awe that this is what we’re talking about.)
I have watched the public mourning of the Pulse attack with no small amount of sadness, but mostly I have watched it with a deep and intense anger. Is it any surprise that we’ve had another shooting on this scale? Is it any surprise that eventually it would target LGBT folks, given a political climate where anti-trans bathroom bills are not only voted on, but actually passed? The mourning is proper. It is good. This is a national tragedy. It should be mourned loudly and publicly. But what bothers me most is that in the last 72 hours, as I write this, 56 people have been killed by guns, per the Gun Violence Archive, which syndicates and counts reported incidents of gun violence in the media. Over 6,000 people have died so far this year. 1,200 teenagers have been injured or killed, as have 262 children under the age of 11. 148 police officers have also lost their lives.
And it’s only June.
Where is the outrage? Where is the mourning?
We are in the middle of a rise in gun violence across this country. According to a recent DOJ study, homicide rates have jumped 17% in the nation’s 56 biggest cities. In my home town, after a decade of falling crime rates that almost created a sense of normalcy, violent crime has increased every year since 2011. That’s the just the crime rate. It doesn’t count suicides or accidents. Reported accidents accounted for nearly 2,000 incidents nationally last year. In April, one of those accidents injured two people right on the same floor of the same building as the pediatric office where I take Baba. Because, apparently, responsible gun ownership means bringing your gun into the same building as a pediatrician’s office. In talking to gun owners, I’ve heard a lot more stories about accidental discharges that weren’t reported. Accidental, that is, if you get over the intentionality of having a gun in your hands in the first place.
Forgive me if that sounds bitter. I am bitter. I am bitter because I’ve been watching people shrug their shoulders at gun violence for my entire life, as if it is some kind of natural force that we can do nothing about. It is not a hurricane or cancer, which, as it happens, are problems that we spend millions of dollars each year to address. It is a problem entirely of our own making.
And the worst part, of course, is that our Congress has enacted legislation to prohibit gun violence from even being studied. I laugh when I hear people talk about Hilary Clinton’s terrible complicity and corruption in giving speeches to Goldman Sachs, because that seems so trivial compared to such an outrageous law. Why aren’t we marching in the street and screaming about the incredible pull the NRA has on our politicians? It is literally killing our kids.
I am not a gun owner, nor will I ever allow guns to come into my home. You can undoubtedly tell me a million ways in which my understanding about guns is wrong. I know this, because I’ve been talking to gun owners endlessly to try to come up with some sort of meaningful change that would actually work. But without the ability to even study the problem, we are all making wild guesses at to what would actually help. Ban assault rifles? Sure. It seems like a reasonable step. Limit the number of bullets you can put in it at a time to ten? Sure. That would give the victims of mass shootings a greater opportunity to overpower their attacker. It just doesn’t address the bigger problem, where over 31,000 Americans are shot in an average year. A national database for background checks would have saved the eight lives in Charleston. National gun laws, rather than the regional hodge-podge that makes the stricter laws completely useless would also be a great step. D.C. has a handgun ban, after all, which means nothing when you can drive 10 miles in any direction and legally purchase one, then drive it right back over the border and into your home.
Even just instituting licensing and training, like we do with driving, would be a huge step in the right direction. And that’s something that most of the gun owners that I’ve spoken to can get completely behind. I know that I live in a democracy, and that compromise is the name of the game. That has to come from both sides. We seem to be stuck on the first step, which as any addict could tell you is recognizing that we even have a problem. When you start looking at how we compare to other countries, I don’t see how you can possibly deny it.
And maybe, when we’ve actually managed to get fewer guns on our streets, NYPD recruitment posters won’t have to look like this one any more:
There’s just got to be a better way than this. Doesn’t there?