I’d like to never write about gun violence again. The gun violence won’t let me though.
In the three years I’ve hosted this blog, I’ve written 200 essays, give or take. 11 of them have been in the wake of mass shootings so sensationally horrific that writing about anything else would have been inappropriate.
Here’s number 12.
Next month is the five-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. From time to time I feel it necessary to say, out loud, what happened there. Because things fade in the human memory in a problematic way. We remember facts and people and dates. We remember faces. We can call them back into the front of our mind when we need to in order to serve a purpose.
But we can’t do that with what we felt. Our emotions, as felt in the time that we feel them wash away with the tide of time.
We can’t feel the same sadness we felt that day.
We can’t feel the same horror.
We can’t feel the same outrage.
But we can remember what happened.
A man walked into a classroom of first graders with multiple assault weapons and shot them at point blank range. He killed six adults too. But six adults getting shot drifts into our distant memory relatively quickly these days.
It’s the kids that stick.
When I think of that shooting and those kids, I can’t help but think about something an old teammate I served with told me.
“I can’t really overstate the impact of modern ammunition of the human body” he said.
He was a gnarly old SEAL senior enlisted. And he’d seen his fair share of war and gunfights. And he knew that what happened to people when they were impacted with high velocity ammunition wasn’t like what you saw in the movies. It’s a sentence that pops into my mind whenever I hear about a mass shooting. And it’s one I can’t seem to shake when they involve kids.
Six and seven year olds, the same age as my oldest son at the time, dressed in little clothes with their favorite characters on them.
Cars, and Finding Nemo were my son’s favorites. Likely some of their’s too.
Hiding. Scared. Crying. Their small bodies. The high powered ammunition.
They wouldn’t understand. They would call for their parents.
I can’t really overstate the impact of modern ammunition on the human body.
It was 11 days before Christmas. What did they do with the presents?
What the fuck did they do with the presents?
I’m usually pretty vague about what I used in the service. It was complicated. I was a ship driver that didn’t drive many ships. By some odd turn of events, like many that served in the never-ending war of my generation, I was repurposed. I built a new skill. That skill was hunting and finding terrorists.
I didn’t go and get them. Someone else did. But I found them. And I green-lighted the missions.
There was just enough separation between me and the bad guys most of the time for me to sterilize it all. Over time, it got easy to forget that there were people on the other end of those missions. Both on my side and the other. The important tension required to keep your humanity lessened. When that tension was gone all together, things could get ugly.
From time to time, something happened that would bring it back. Like the time the target wasn’t home because his family had rushed to the hospital when their toddler drank kerosene. Or the time that we had to find two brothers. One was using his mentally handicapped brother to plant bombs.
I remember thinking about how he would have to teach him to do it, the way I would have to teach my autistic son do make sure he got dressed every day.
First bombs. Then play.
First bombs. Then treat.
I remember the pictures of the small children killed in a suicide bomb at a funeral in some dusty outpost in western Iraq.
These were people with lives. And hopes. And dreams. They loved someone. And someone love them. Someone hugged them and said I love you daddy as they were lifted into bed at the end of the day.
They were humans. Every one of them.
Part of the deal of doing that work, was remembering that. It’s the hardest part. Sterilizing it was easy and dangerous.
Last month a man walked into a church in Texas and killed 26 people. A pregnant woman and a five-year old child and the 14-year old daughter of the pastor were among the victims.
This is something that happens in America. It doesn’t happen anywhere else with any regularity. But it happens here a lot.
Of the thirty deadliest shootings in a country with a long and storied history of shootings, 18 have happened in the last ten years.
We’ve had shootings of 59, 49 and 26 in the last 18 months.
The sphere of people executing these murders has expanded. What was once something reserved for the deeply disturbed is now something done by politically motivated or otherwise functioning adults with no explanation at all for their mass murder.
We should expect that pattern to continue. And we should expect the instances of mass shootings to increase.
I don’t know why. I won’t try to guess.
Our defense, for now, is thoughts and prayers.
So here are mine.
There were 26 people going to church with their families, the way I did this morning. There was a pregnant mother praying for the future of her child. A child that will live to see us walk on Mars, move beyond fossil fuels and cure cancer.
There was an innocent kindergartner fidgeting nervously in a seat.
There was a pastor leading a service in his church worshipping his God and watching his daughter pray.
And they’ve all collided with the one thought that never gets too far from the front of my mind in the aftermath of a mass shooting.
“I can’t really overstate the impact of modern ammunition on the human body.”
And then the horror comes after.
Those are my thoughts. I have a prayer too.
It’s a simple one. It’s apolitical. If it doesn’t feel that way, that’s on you. My prayer is that one day we agree that we want this to end. And that we get to work on ending it.
I have no idea how. But it’s probably not with thoughts and prayers alone.