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On September 12, 2001, one of my siblings told me, nearly all the local workplaces in Galway City, Ireland, closed for a day of mourning for those lost in the U.S. terrorist attacks the previous day.
The workplaces that stayed open were nearly all American. I'm sure their CEOs weren’t evil. It simply wasn’t on their cultural radar that, on the day after nearly 3,000 people have died, it's never business as usual.
Here’s a separate but related anecdote:
Over a decade later, I got hired to teach a one-day workshop at a conference in southern New England. The night before, I checked into my hotel, changed into my conference duds, then plugged in my GPS to find the conference site for a pre-event dinner. Three miles on, here was a roadside sign welcoming me to Newtown -- the town where, three months earlier, a young man had shot 20 children and eight adults dead.
Stupid me. Tacky me. Why hadn’t I consulted a map? And now, who the heck was I to blithely drive through a place of such loss and sorrow?
Should I pull over to pay my respects? Or would that make me into one of those fetishists who drives across state lines to visit the grave sites of dead strangers — but only those who have achieved media fame?
In the end, I drove on through that pretty little town, but I knew in my gut that I should have turned down that teaching gig.
At dinner, I was seated between a literary agent and a publicist, both of whom loudly discussed their respective clients. The agent was undecided about taking on a memoirist who had written about a family loss.
“Newtown!” The publicist exclaimed. Her voice had the cha-ching ring of a car dealer who was about to close the deal on a Porsche. “Once the one-year anniversary of Newtown happens, there’ll be a crop of TV appearances and books from people who lost kids."
The next day, after I had taught my class and driven home to Massachusetts, I looked at my husband across our dinner table and said, “If this is what the writing trade has come to, I will gladly opt out. If I ever try to make money on the backs of dead children, I give you full permission to confiscate my laptop and burn it in a backyard bonfire.”
Today, five years after Newtown, America leads the developed world in mass shootings. One of the latest is in Las Vegas, where dozens of people have lost their lives at the hands of a lone gunman.
After these tragedies, we the people lower our flag and engage in a Twitter or Facebook storm of “thoughts and prayers.” Then, days later, it’s business as usual.
Sure, most of us decry our country’s lax and mercenary gun laws. But even if the powerful were to actually listen and legislate, changing gun laws is a slow-boil process. So by the time real and effective reform would actually get done, based on our current rate of mass shootings (over one per day and defined as injuring or killing four people or more), prepare to see more carnage.
Laws aside, we must work to address those parts of the American psyche -- this country’s dangerous brew of best-in-class hubris, entitlement and a kind of rabid version of fame-seeking. In large or small parts, these have contributed to many of our mass shootings — especially those committed by young white males.
We must also admit this ugly truth: There are millions of Americans who have the stomach to buy one or more deadly weapons with the stated or implied intent to one day pull the trigger.
I say enough with the “thoughts and prayers.” Enough with the pictures of candles on our Facebook and Twitter feeds. Enough with our self-spun mythologies about America’s bootstrap resilience, our national and faux pride in being able to smile and “move on.”
From where I sit, we’re not moving on. How can we when we rarely take time to mourn — as in, real, heartfelt, wail-out-loud mourn — for our dead neighbors?
America, you could look and learn from your less powerful, less well-heeled nations — those cultures who still observe a much higher reverence around death and who aren’t ashamed to pull down the blinds to weep.