UVALDE, TEXAS—Over the past two weeks, I have watched bottomless grief in small communities across the United States. In Buffalo, New York, not far from the Canadian border, I spoke to a young man mourning his murdered grandmother. In Uvalde, Texas, an old man showed me a picture of his deceased grandson. Two mass shootings in the heart of modest communities suddenly torn apart. A total of 31 dead. Two communities attacked in public places. Hundreds of families and friends have left to face life without their loved ones. Whole towns shocked and horrified. A whole country in mourning.
A question you hear in these traumatized places, again and again through tears, is “why?” Why would he do that? Why here? Why pick on these people, who had never done anything to their killer, and probably never even met him?
It’s like you can understand why, maybe it would make sense, give the tragedy some kind of meaning.
Sometimes there is no apparent answer to the reason – at least not immediately, as in the case of the 18-year-old from Uvalde who killed school children and teachers in his classroom, with no known motive. Sometimes there’s an answer: The Buffalo shooter apparently left a white supremacist manifesto explaining why he was targeting a black community in a supermarket. But even when there is an explanation, it doesn’t make more sense. It just leads to more questions.
Why does this keep happening? There have been mass murders in many countries, including Canada, but the United States is experiencing the problem with greater frequency than anywhere else. Amazing frequency.
The whole world has an angry young man problem, and maybe always has – a certain subset of alienated, aggressive, post-teen males looking for a way to see themselves as the hero or the anti-hero of a bigger goal. These men have always existed. But the whole world now also has a problem of remote self-radicalization, in which the internet creates instantly accessible communities of men who celebrate past mass murders, view them as instruction manuals for fame and some sort of perverse glory. The cause may be racism, or “incel” misogyny, or political or religious terrorism, or something else – or the cause may be nothing more than “show ’em all.”
The whole world has these problems. It is not clear that anyone in the world has found a solution.
But only in the United States do these would-be killers have easy access to high-powered weaponry. Buffalo’s shooter and Uvalde’s shooter – both teenagers allegedly used legally purchased AR-15 style assault rifles.
It is the most popular weapon in the United States, and now one of the most common. It’s the killing machine of choice for mass shooters.
This overlaps with a larger gun problem in the United States, in which handguns and other types of weapons are mostly legal to own and even carry, and are seen by many as simply doing integral part of the culture. It’s a murderous culture, world leader in gun suicides, gun homicides, accidental gun deaths.
Every country in the world has domestic abusers who murder their families, every country has gangs who inflict violence on each other, depressed people who commit suicide. But no other country makes it so easy.
I have heard many prayers over the past two weeks. Not just the empty platitudes of politicians, but among the most hurt in the communities that have been attacked – vigils in both cities have called on God in hymns and prayers for comfort and salvation. And for change.
I don’t think most of the deeply religious people in those two communities reject the prayers of the powerful. But I heard many people who wanted the powerful to take action that would give meaning to their prayers.
My grandfather, Frank Keenan – himself a man of prayer – told the story of a man who reached heaven and said to God: “Every day I prayed to you to let me win the lottery, and I never won.” To which God replies: “Son, you never bought a ticket”. My father always summed up the same message in council: “Pray as if everything depended on God, act as if everything depended on you.
In both cities, I saw those left behind by these shootings trying to do something to help, to empower the world in their prayers: they came together for solace in large and small gatherings. In Buffalo, there were community food drives, mutual aid and funds for family members. In Uvalde, people lined up for hours at the blood bank in the days after the shooting, local businesses donated a percentage of their profits to families, the library stayed open late offering the AC and Wi-Fi to reporters trying to help tell the story.
Thursday night, the steakhouse I was hoping to dine at was full, and while I was driving, I saw a huge barbecue in a lot usually used as a car wash. There, the women of “Uvalde Strong” were selling plates of homemade grills for $10, trying to raise money to give to grieving families to help cover household expenses during their time of grief. The woman told me they raised $8,000 in one afternoon. “We just want to do something,” she said.
In all this horrible and deep pain, those directly attacked were doing their best to do something, anything they could to help. And on top of all the other questions, this leads to a final “why” plea to those offering prayers from above: why don’t you do something, anything, to make it less likely that another community of families has to go through this?
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