Coming Undone in the Age of Mass Shootings

Living like this is unbearable.

Two people embrace during a vigil after a mass shooting
Jim Vondruska / Getty

About the author: Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

You develop certain psychological reflexes to get you through the initial shock of the first push alert: Some number dead, others wounded in a mass shooting someplace in America. At this point we all know that the earliest reports are typically flawed, so you can suspend belief a degree or two, just for the time being. It’s summer; school’s out, which means they—the murdered, whoever they were—likely weren’t children, which means you can exhale a little, uneasily. That it’s technically a “mass shooting” does not necessarily imply that it was one of the randomly targeted slaughters carried out by young men with powerful rifles who now haunt American society as ubiquitously as the Son of Sam did New York City in the summer of 1977. It could be something interpersonal, still. Something that makes some kind of sense. You can pick up your phone, swipe, and read on with curious apprehension.

On the Fourth of July, every indicator augured the worst case. I was preparing food for an evening celebration when I first saw news of the Highland Park parade murders. My husband was getting the kids ready to head to the pool. I stood in the kitchen, poker-faced over a cutting board of onions; he stood in the entryway, catching my eye as the kids squirmed into their goggles and water wings. “Looks bad,” I said, “in Chicago.” He nodded, shook his head, glanced down at the two girls slicked with sunscreen and eager to swim. They had no idea.

If you’re an adult in America today, you’ve learned how to speak furtively of what is happening, how to deploy discretion in repeating what you’ve heard, this secret grammar of mass murder. Time was that a horror like the 2006 slaying of five Amish schoolgirls by a deranged gunman would hold up daily affairs for at least a few moments; even little ones could detect a disruption in the normal order of things. By now we know that if the kids are young enough to miss the news, you might as well let them, because there will—not might, but will—come a day when the reality of their situation finds them.

You have read what to do in case of a mass shooting. You scan large gatherings for cover and exit routes; you’re aware that your options include running, hiding, and fighting. And when it comes over you in a rush of dread that you’re not trained for life in a combat zone, that the chances of you reacting shrewdly under semiautomatic gunfire at a parade are next to nil, all you have to soothe yourself with is a little math and the flimsy prayer that this is as bad as things can get. You try to anesthetize yourself with the actuarial calculations of a wartime general. Most of the revelers at Highland Park’s Fourth of July parade escaped unharmed, and that’s not nothing. These are still rare events, you tell yourself, and in the grand scheme of things they claim relatively few lives. You can let your kids go to the pool or take them to the evening’s fireworks, because of how the math works out.

You know by now that the story will follow a familiar pattern. In the hours and days after the news of a mass shooting breaks, two sets of characters emerge, and you patiently await information about each: the victims and their families; the perpetrator and theirs. News reports list names and surface images from photo albums, social media, church directories. You won’t remember all the names and faces of the slain, but you will remember the moral circumstances of their deaths, and the way they wounded you secondhand. To the little children of Uvalde who lay dying while police stood on the other side of an unlocked door you add the 78-year-old grandfather who was shot to death in his wheelchair, and whose family was so racked with guilt that they foregrounded the fact that the elderly man had not wanted to attend the Highland Park parade in their first remarks to the press.

On the second day, you wake up to blunted feelings and settled facts. You learn exactly how young the young man who bought the guns and murdered the innocents was: sometimes a teenager, always someone who, in retrospect, had no business owning the kind of weapons used in the attacks, because hardly any civilian does, least of all troubled young men. The police gradually dispense information about the assailant’s motives, but in truth you already know there’s no reason they could provide that would make any of it rational. It’s just something that happens, here, now. The two kids at Columbine somehow cut an awful path through American life right alongside all the traditional courses of life for young men, like college and a house in the suburbs or a tour with the military and free training in a good trade. Now there are young men who do this instead, because they can’t do anything else or don’t want to, or because they’d rather kill strangers. Every time it happens, the blood runs through the path they cut and makes it deeper and wider, carves it into the flesh of this country. It’s how we live now.

I tried not to notice reports of a bloodied toddler found at the Highland Park parade. As the sun sank on the Fourth of July, we gathered up the kids and went to our backyard barbecue. I poured my girls pink lemonade and crouched in the grass with my 3-year-old, pointing out the amber glitter deep in the blue evening woods: fireflies. I laid my hand on her back, over her delicate bird shoulders, and felt an animal terror streak up my spine. All of the perfect and beautiful things in the world seem so insubstantial, so defenseless against the mechanized, stochastic kind of brutality we endure now—like the abject horror of English boys at the Somme discovering precisely what machine gunfire could do to a human body, but for civilians, mothers and schoolteachers, grandfathers in wheelchairs, the smallest of children. In just two days’ time, you know you’ll start to see the GoFundMes for the surviving victims facing heinous out-of-pocket medical costs and the families suffering lost income and funeral expenses. Thousands of people will share, forward, and retweet; they amassed well over $2 million for the orphaned toddler who, as it turns out, was discovered underneath his father’s body. His mother, too, was murdered at the parade. You can’t think too much about it. You are becoming a skilled curator of what you can’t think too much about.

By the third day, the bare contents of the news are digested into narratives by interested parties. This initiates the process through which everyone stops caring about the shooting, and turns back to other matters. For the right, mass shootings are about a cultural malaise for which there is no cure, or buildings with too many doors. For everyone else, they’re about guns. This is a culture war so stolid and hoary that it hardly bears repeating even in effigy, and is so spent that it scarcely captures an entire news cycle anymore. You have already had this argument so many times.

At our little party on the Fourth of July, as the evening wound down we stood around a modest bonfire and talked in low tones about Chicago: “Is it just five or six?” Just five or six, I marveled, though I had been the one to ask. Smoke obscured the shape of the fire. Someone said the shooter had been on a rooftop, which was novel—though not so novel, not after the University of Texas, and Dallas, and Las Vegas. It made sense, somebody else said, that they would start staking out crow’s nests. Our miniature fireworks show had begun several yards away, showers of brilliant color. My girls lingered nearby enraptured, bouncing on bare feet. Then came the finale, grand sputtering blasts of light, the sudden thunder of which sent my toddler racing, startled, into my arms. I stole her up from the ground and held her tight against my body, where this weary panic has come to dwell, I think, forever.

On the fourth day after a mass shooting, other news has already begun to compete with the murders for real estate on newspaper A1s and landing pages. The fade-out begins. You know what to do. Forget what you can, try to move on, salvage what’s left of you. Soon enough, it’ll feel too quiet again.