Our Mass Murder Problem
Why we have to keep burying our young
Editor’s Note: Have a question, Ask Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org. Just try not to make it as difficult as the one below.
I know this is unfair of me to email you. You are a writer. Can you help the rest of us make sense of the senselessness? Help. Please explain why Uvalde and Buffalo happen. Why are young men so angry, so violent? Is there no other way? No other outlet? From your journalism and writing, you clearly are a person who subscribes to a particular faith. I was raised Catholic. I left that church the minute I got a car. Having said that, I did not leave spirituality. I am about to cry, so I shall stop here.
Well, thanks for the tall order, AL: “Solve our unsolvable problems, writer-boy. Speak to the unspeakable.” Perhaps you did not read my last piece on the humbling power of uncertainty. Perhaps you do not realize that writers, as a species, are on balance barely equipped to shower and shave and keep their writer-sweats Downy-fresh, while still keeping the electricity bill paid so the laptop can stay powered. It’s a touch-and-go operation, living inside your own head. And it can be a sure-fire formula for getting in over it - trying to put a frame around the unfixable ills of the world, while hardly knowing how to order your own.
But that said, it was a gifted writer whose words came back to me the other day when we first heard of Uvalde, and the 19 elementary school children (and their two teachers) who were gunned down as yet another psychopath worked out his rage on living, breathing human beings. Now, formerly living and breathing. Not to in any way discount the Buffalo grocery-store victims of a week earlier, who didn’t deserve their fates either – all life lost to senseless violence feels like a theft. But there’s something about those cherub-faced little kids being murdered that makes us cry out about the unfair randomness of it all. Each of their photos break me in half, but this little dude especially did (second row, bottom right), Xavier James Lopez, 10 years old. There he is, looking all scrubbed up for school with the perfect part in his hair. How could he know what was facing him? How could his parents know they were dropping him off at a death mill?
And so it was the words of one of my favorite writers, Thomas Lynch – a Michigan undertaker by trade, whose very vocation is to look death in the eye on a daily basis, so he isn’t just pronouncing on it from the writerly sidelines. Lynch once wrote about burying the young. He was talking about infants who pass for mysterious reasons (“they simply forgot to breathe”). But he might as well have been talking about the fourth graders gunned down at Robb Elementary School, who are now someone’s dead babies, too:
When we bury the old, we bury the known past, the past we imagine sometimes better than it was, but the past all the same, a portion of which we inhabited. Memory is the overwhelming theme, the eventual comfort. But burying infants, we bury the future, unwieldy and unknown, full of promise and possibilities, outcomes punctuated by our rosy hopes. The grief has no borders, no limits, no known ends, and the little infant graves that edge the corners and fencerows of every cemetery are never quite big enough to contain that grief. Some sadnesses are permanent. Dead babies do not give us memories. They give us dreams.
A little over 23 years ago, I went to cover Columbine after the Littleton, Colorado school massacre that imprinted itself on our memories, back when school shootings were still capable of commanding our attention for weeks instead of days, before they became so commonplace. It was my first and last school shooting. I was glad to never cover another. I don’t like writing about dead children.