“Welcome to America, the land of blue jeans, rock and roll, and sporadic meaningless mass murder.” ~ Ben DreyFuss, Mother Jones

 

| Sun Apr. 20, 2014 2:31 PM PDT

On April 20, 1999, two teenagers walked into a suburban high school outside of Denver and shot 13 people to death. The massacre at Columbine was not the first mass shooting in America. It was not the first mass shooting at an American school. Indeed, Peter Jennings began the news that night, “The reaction of so many people today was ‘Oh no, not again.’” But Columbine was different. It became a national trauma in a way the others hadn’t. Yes, it was the deadliest American school shooting on record at the time—though it is no longer—but what really amplified its significance was the fact it was the first mass shooting that played out in real time on television. The shootings began at 11:19 a.m. By noon, local television stations had broken into regular programming with uninterrupted media coverage. Millions of people across the country turned on CNN and watched the story develop.

Here’s how America watched the chaos of Columbine: There were reports of a shooting and it was at a school and the body count began going up and witnesses said they were two shooters with shotguns and rifles and pistols and there had been an explosion across town and it had been a diversion maybe and pipe bombs, something about pipe bombs, and the body count kept rising, and booby traps, and then Clinton gave a speech and then the shooters were in a mafia that wore trench coats and maybe there were more than two and then, no, there were only two and they were dead and the bomb squad finished the initial sweep of the building at 4:45 p.m. and it was over, but not really because then there was the CCTV footage, the witness interviews, the search for motive, they had been bowling, they had been bullied, they had said something about Hitler and they listened to Marilyn Manson and they wanted to one up Timothy McVeigh and What Does It All Mean?

After Columbine there was a general sense that something had to be done. That kids getting killed at school was a thing we weren’t going to be okay with. “Never again,” as they say.

It wasn’t some fanciful impossibility. The British did it after Dunblane. And so we did that. Everyone got together and passed sweeping gun control legislation and there was never another mass shooting in America.

Except not really. Because the “never again” response—though shared by many—was not shared by all.

We seem to have accepted that the occasional mass murder is the cost of America.

On May 1, Charlton Heston came to Denver and made a much-discussed speech where he said, “We have work to do, hearts to heal, evil to defeat, and a country to unite. We may have differences, yes, and we will again suffer tragedy almost beyond description. But when the sun sets on Denver tonight, and forever more, let it always set on we the people, secure in our land of the free and the home of the brave.” Say what you will about that speech, but as far as predictions go it was spot on. It’s a fait accompli. There were more shootings. We mourned and then did nothing because we seem to have accepted that occasional mass murder is the cost of America.

Both responses, “never again” and “don’t bother trying,” offer statements about the USA. The former says “America is the greatest country on Earth. We went to the moon. Surely, we can stop kids from getting shot to death at school! If the Brits can do it, so can we. ” The latter says, “No, we can’t. We’re America. The greatest country on Earth and the cost of the liberty that makes us so is that our kids may get shot to death at school.”

Every time there is another mass shooting and nothing happens it becomes a little easier to believe that the “don’t bother” crowd is right.

Nothing changed after 13 people were killed at Columbine, or 33 at Virginia Tech, or 26 at Sandy Hook. Each of those tragedies came with the same breaking-news urgency as Columbine, but none generated the same sense of expected action because fewer and fewer people actually believed things could change. The last 15 years have been a lesson in how “never again” can be cowed into “I need a drink.”

And that’s insane.

Fifteen years after Columbine rattled America to its core, people still get shot while they’re at school. People get shot while they’re at work. People get shot eating. People get shot drinking. People get shot watching movies, shopping, driving, swimming, skipping, and playing baseball. It’s 2014 and in America people get shot doing basically any goddamn thing you can think of.

They don’t have to.

 

Ben Dreyfuss

Ben Dreyfuss is the engagement editor at Mother Jones.

 

“All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better, but I did not bother to weight the curtains correctly and all that summer the long panels of transparent golden silk would blow out the windows and get tangled and drenched in afternoon thunderstorms. That was the year, my twenty-eight, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and ever procrastination, every word, all of it.” ~ Joan Didion, from “Goodbye to All That”

Kurt Schwitters Untitled paren Tenartional 1942

Untitled (1942)
by Kurt Schwitters

                   

Two for Tuesday: The Relentless Passing of Time

Louis-Georges-Eleonor Figure in the Moonlight 1887 gouache on paper

“Figure in the Moonlight” (1887, gouache on paper)
by Louis-Georges-Eleonor

If You Knew

What if you knew you”d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line”s crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don”t remember
they’re going to die.

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They”d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt”s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked a half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon”s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

~ Ellen Bass

                   

Maurice Denis Residence with a Pond c1895

“Residence with a Pond” (c1895)
by Maurice Denis

String of Pearls

The pearls my mother gave me as a bride
rotted inside.
Well, not the pearls, but the string.
One day I was putting
them on, about thirty years on,
and they rattled onto the floor, one by one…
I’m still not sure I found them all.

As it happened, I kept a white seashell
on my vanity table. It could serve as a cup
where, after I’d scooped the lost pearls up,
I’d save them, a many-sister
haven in one oyster.
A female’s born with all her eggs,
unfolds her legs,

then does her dance, is lovely, is the past –
is old news as the last
crinkle-foil-wrapped sweet
in the grass of the Easter basket.
True? Who was I? Had I unfairly classed
myself as a has-been? In the cloister
of the ovary, when

released by an extra dose of estrogen,
my chances for love dwindled, one by one.
But am I done?

~ Mary Jo Salter

                    

Music by Nathan Barr, “Love Theme from True Blood”

“There is no sign of us where we have been.” ~ Elizabeth Jennings from “XIII. Last Reflections”, Sequence in Venice

“Sorrow is a vessel so deep
it can hold anything, even its own absence.”~ Eric Gamalinda, from “Fallen”

                   

April is National Poetry Month, and I read two books in one day yesterday, and then spent the next 12 hours with one of the worst eye migraines of my life . . .

All images by British realist painter Peter Coker (1926-2004). For more on Coker, go here.

                   

Nothing But Death

There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.

And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain.

Sometimes I see alone
coffins under sail,
embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair,
with bakers who are as white as angels,
and pensive young girls married to notary publics,
caskets sailing up the vertical river of the dead,
the river of dark purple,
moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death,
filled by the sound of death which is silence.

Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no
finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no
throat.
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.

I’m not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and the somber color of embittered winter.

But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom,
lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies,
death is inside the broom,
the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses,
it is the needle of death looking for thread.

Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses,
in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out:
it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets,
and the beds go sailing toward a port
where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.

~ Pablo Neruda, trans. Robert Bly

                   

Selections from Sequence in Venice

I. Introduction to a Landscape

Difficult not to see significance
In any landscape we are charged to watch,
Impossible not to set all seasons there
Fading like movements in a music one
To other, slow spring into the fast rage
of summer that takes possession of a place
Leaving the residue of time to autumn
Rather than just a used and ravished landscape.

And never long able to the see the place
As it must be somewhere itself beyond
Any regard of the ecstatic gazer
Or any human attitude of mind,
We blame all human happiness or grief
Upon a place, make figures of our feeling
And move them, as a story-teller might
Move modern heroes into ancient legends,
Into the solid and acceptable land.

For who can keep a grief as pure grief
Or hold a happiness against the heart?
Noble indeed to impute our worthiest thoughts
To a serene and splendid countryside
And therefore logical to let our loathing
See a storm looming in the summer light,
The hills about to learn of landslides and
The entire landscape be quite swallowed up
In a surrender—a type of our death.

XI. Journey from a Landscape

The colours stay within the mind, the light
Will not so easily permit itself
To be put out. In thoughts once more at home
A foreign fire will gleam, tints taken from
A sail, a wake of water widening out
Or subtle colours that make crumbling buildings
Renew themselves. These we have with us still.

And home again we learn how much we build
Abroad, put roots down in impermanence
Yet waver not from what time drags away
But are drawn too—like colours fading fast,
Like slow canals escaping to the sea.
Rest in this power to adapt, remember
The mind still turns like the huge globe and shows
Now Italy, now England and we are
The axis on which all our journeys move.

~ Elizabeth Jennings

                   

Music by Choir of Young Believers, “Hollow Talk” (such a wonderful video)