I’ve struggled with deciding whether or not to blog in response to the seemingly endless string of mass shootings that are plaguing our country. I’ve been reluctant to do so because pretty much everything has already been said, and I see no point in piling on. Should I have responded immediately, my essay would have been a futile expression of despair and resignation. Futile because those who feel and argue passionately for unfettered access to guns – even those of military grade – are beyond reason and reach. As Kirk Douglass’ character, Spur, says in the movie The Man from Snowy River, “Don’t throw effort after foolishness.”
After mulling it over, I decided that instead of composing an essay, I would let an excerpt from my forthcoming novel Belfast, Ohio, express some of my thoughts, not just on the issue of school and mass shootings but also my general frustration with mankind’s perpetual and inane choice to turn to violence in the attempt to address its problems, ranging from the smallest of scales to the largest. The excerpt amounts to about three pages approximately two-thirds of the way through the novel.
Surreal is not the right word to describe the scene on Public Square in the minutes following the explosion. What I experienced was all too real and, sadly, kind of expected.
As a child of the eighties and the Cold War, my dad had told me that he and kids of his American generation had grown up with a nuclear cloud over their head. He said they didn’t wonder if a nuclear war would occur, they just wondered when and hoped it wouldn’t happen before they had a chance to be grown-ups and to do grown-up things. He never specified exactly what those “grown-up” things were nor did he stop to think that if their hope came true, they’d be, most likely, leaving the next generation, my generation, in the exact predicament of living with the potential for being denied an adult future.
My mother, on the other hand, was another one of those Irish who overstayed their visas working the bars and restaurants of urban America, a character type quite common on Cleveland’s West Side. In those days, there wasn’t so much trumped up animosity toward illegal immigrants – at least not towards the white ones. To the contrary, there was no shortage of folks willing to help her stay clear of the government’s radar, which, at the time, they weren’t monitoring that closely anyway. Although she denied vehemently that it had anything to do with her and my dad’s relationship, there was even a sort of underground matchmaking organization that fixed up American Irish with home country Irish who were hoping to get married, to obtain their green card, and to stay in America permanently.
The day after she graduated from secondary school and after having practiced her American accent for years by watching American movies on VHS tapes, my mother left for America. Until that day, she had lived her entire eighteen years near the Falls Road in West Belfast during some of the peak years of The Troubles. She was born to staunchly Catholic parents who harbored no hatred toward Protestants and felt the sectarian civil war to be an affront to the teachings of Jesus. Her parents’ neutrality earned the family few friends but much suspicion from republican neighbors, who would hurl the accusation of being “Brit Lovers” in their direction as they walked the streets lined with red-bricked terrace houses. Stones sometimes accompanied the insults.
Unlike my father, she said she had little fear of nuclear annihilation. “That would have been a bloody luxury,” she’d say half seriously. The use of the adjective “bloody” was the one ineradicable colloquialism from her Belfast youth. “A nuclear bomb dropping out of the sky and incinerating everyone in a flash would have been a godsend compared to the slaughter caused by car bombs.” However, as a child and in a similar fashion to my father, she was dubious that she would ever see adulthood.
She was born in 1972, one of the bloodiest years of the internecine war. Shootings and bombings were quite common and real in her world, not hypothetical as in my father’s, and they came from both sides of the dirty guerilla warfare that Catholic republicans and Protestant unionists waged against one another and in which the innocent or those just minding their own business were often collateral damage, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or victims of mistaken identity.
My mother would scoff at native-born Americans and their various wars on terror as if they believed there had been no such thing as terrorism prior to 9/11, as if Americans were its first “bloody victims,” and as if it were a war they could actually win. “You want terrorism?” she’d ask rhetorically. “It was the Irish who taught the modern world terrorism. Your so-called Muslim extremists are copycats when they’re at their best and bloody amateurs when they’re at their worst. To hell with both of them.”
As for me and kids of my generation, we went to school almost every day half-expecting to be killed or blown up. Many of the parents at St. Brigid’s actually bought their girls book bags with Kevlar shields stitched inside. We regularly completed “live shooter” drills with pretend bad guys from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department firing blanks in the halls and chasing us from the building. On one occasion, Sister Mary Higgins played the shooter role. Imagine that.
We didn’t just practice “ducking and covering” under desks like my dad and his classmates. And as for my mom’s living through The Troubles, at least the terrorists she feared had a cause, a side, and even a conscience: so much so that it was not unusual for the bomber to phone in a warning to the police a short time before the detonation in order to give those nearby a heads up. But the school shooters of the nightmares of schoolchildren of my generation were random actors. Half of the time, they didn’t even have a reason for the killing they did other than some petty grievance against those they felt slighted by in some way or another, or they were simply taking out on the world their dissatisfaction with their own shitty lives before ending them entirely.
To the next generation, we leave a planet fast tracking towards inhabitability due to climate change.
As my dad used to say, quoting some pop song from his childhood, “And the beat goes on.”