On The Fourth of July, while my husband and I were in The Netherlands for a long-overdue family reunion, a young man with a semiautomatic rifle climbed onto a rooftop in our little downtown 30 minutes north of Chicago and fired 83 rounds into a parade crowd.
We were staying in The Hague. We’d been enjoying the beach and the museums but, in what now seems like a strange coincidence, we’d spent that day at the International Criminal Court, observing two trials. The charges: crimes against humanity.
At the ICC, trials are open to the public. Observers sit in a raised gallery behind glass. Justice is literally transparent, practiced at its slowest and most precise. Three judges preside over each court. Teams of robed lawyers face each other. Banks of interpreters line the walls in glass booths, variously fluent in the multiple languages spoken by witnesses, defendants, and lawyers. Multi-channeled headphones hang at each seat in the viewing chamber so that observers can listen in their own languages. Trials this careful take years.
The world seemed orderly that day, even somewhat safe. Peace seemed possible, as if crimes against humanity were anomalous and controllable and could be uprooted like stinging nettles.
Later, at the rental house, we poured wine, discussed dinner, checked our phones. The first hint that something was wrong came from my cousin at 10:52 AM Chicago time: “Are you OK?”
Jasper Johns, “White Flag,” 1955, encaustic, oil,
newsprint and charcoal on canvas, 78 5/16 x 120 3/4”.
Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In the time it had taken to open a bottle of wine, a 21-year-old with an assault weapon had climbed onto a rooftop 4,000 miles away, 3 miles from our house, and sprayed the street with bullets. He killed seven people in one minute. Injured 47 more. Paralyzed an 8-year-old. Orphaned a toddler.
We spent the evening watching the story unfold on international news, waiting for the victim list. Our town was no longer most famous for its music festival. Soon, a weird numbness began to take hold. We didn’t want to say them out loud, but finally we spoke the words we’ve been saying ever since: shocked but not surprised. I wanted to be astounded, incredulous, to disbelieve that my town — of all places! — had been hit. But honestly, I wasn’t. There had never been any doubt this would happen again. The only uncertainty had ever been where. Now we knew. It was our turn.
Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp,” 1632, oil on canvas, 82 1/4 x 66 3/4”.
Courtesy of the Mauritshuis, The Haugt, Netherlands
When you try to explain this sense of inevitability to people in countries that have better gun laws, which is to say every country in Europe, they look at you with a mix of pity, disapproval, and incomprehension. You can read their minds, though in Holland you don’t have to. People there say what they think, which is that this is stupid and unforgivable and inexplicable. Why do we let this happen?
And we do let it happen, or our legislators do by refusing to stand up to the gun lobby and vote for gun laws with bite. Not every legislator is required, just enough to block national laws. Local legislation isn’t enough, as Nancy Rotering, the brave and eloquent mayor of my hometown, said in her impassioned speech to the Senate last month. Better than anyone, she knows. Ten years ago, she successfully led the charge to enact the first local ban on assault weapons, here in this town, to forestall exactly what finally happened.
Video of Nancy Rotering speech to the U.S. Senate, July 20, 2022
On Independence Day we supposedly celebrate freedom, but freedom to possess automatic weapons makes us less free. And things are getting worse. I remember another Fourth of July trip, over twenty years ago. Then, we were in Wales. We’d gone to see a men’s choir perform in a church. Afterward, at the local tavern, we saw the choir again, now rowdily drinking, smoking, still singing. They asked where we were from and when we told them they burst into a spontaneous medley of American patriotic songs in honor of the day. I doubt that would happen now.
Of course, Independence Day is a shaky concept to begin with. If some of us have recently become less free as a result of rampant gun violence, many Americans never were wholly free, a fact white Americans conveniently forget when we supposedly celebrate liberty and justice for all.
One need only read poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s short essay “The Fourth of July” about her family’s experience as Black Americans visiting Washington DC on the Fourth of July in the 1940s to feel a little less patriotic.
The Fourth of July massacre in my hometown wasn’t ideological, though. It seems to have been yet another collision of our gun culture with mental illness, another instance of what happens when guns become the last means of self-expression for desperate people.
Photo of Audre Lorde. Link to her essay “The Fourth of July”
The Fourth of July fell on a Monday this year. I kept thinking of the Boomtown Rats song, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” about a school shooting in San Diego in 1979. The title quotes the shooter, who was 16. That’s what she said when they asked her why she did it. The fact is, the human psyche is a dark and largely unknowable place. We’ll likely never stop people from wanting to kill each other, but surely we can make it more difficult to accomplish.
The Boomtown Rats, “I Don’t Like Mondays,”1985 Live Aid, Wembley Stadium, London
In The Hague, the day before the shooting, we’d gone to see the Rembrandts at the Mauritshuis. There are ten, every one exquisitely, tenderly baring some aspect of the human soul — its flaws, its dignity, the deep uncertainties that burden us all. Every messy human thing is implied in these paintings. Ideas of good and bad, evil and virtue dissolve in that golden light and those murky shadows. They remind us that humans can be good but will never be perfectible. That’s what laws are for, to discourage us from expressing our full barbarity. Slow it down so some lives can be saved, at least. Fewer 8-year-olds paralyzed. As my friend Yvonne, who has been robbed at gun-point, said in reference to former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent assassination with a homemade gun: Over there, at least you have to be smart enough to make your own gun.
Now we’re back home. Things seem quieter than when we left. Grief has silenced some. For the rest of us, the lucky, it’s fear. It could happen again.
Every morning we walk the dog through the park, past the nursery school where teachers lead little kids out to play on the grass. It used to be an ordinary scene, boring even. Now it feels dangerous. Lately there’s been a young man in a dark hoodie, also walking the path. He wears long sleeves in the heat and stops to sit on the bench in front of the children and you can’t see his face. Maybe he’s ill and needs the exercise and frequent rests and can’t bear the sun on his skin. Or maybe he’s just an ordinary guy taking a walk like us. I don’t think I would have noticed him before. Now I wonder. I’ve started to bring my phone on these walks. I’m thinking I’ll switch to sturdier shoes, shoes that I can run in.