In our half-century of living and vacationing in small town New England, we’ve attended many Fourth of July fireworks. Even for people like us who are too cynical for our own good, the event awakens what I just heard a radio commentator describe as a sense of “progressive patriotism.” The roads leading to the fireworks are lined with parked cars for a great distance. Many generations of members of the same family are streaming toward the best possible viewing sites. Even in once homogeneous small towns, there are sprinklings of recently arrived immigrants or families of color who have abandoned the city for the sake of their children’s safety.
At one recent Fourth of July event, my wife and I shared a similar thought. If a terrorist wanted to inflict maximum damage on the American psyche, an act of terror in a space that represents safety and community would send shock waves to every corner of our society, leaving in its wake an unshakable feeling of insecurity, discouraging people from gathering to bond in ways that build strong viable communities.
And now it’s actually happened, not at a firework, but at the other major Fourth of July celebration, a parade in the town of Highland Park. Just two weeks ago, Rosellen and I drove through that town on the way back from a bat mitzvah, remarking on the affluence of the sprawling homes set on large green plots, stretching back from the roads that crisscrossed the terrain. It’s the kind of place that arouses all my proletarian ire about the growing inequities of our capitalist economy. Is there a place on earth where people could feel safer and more protected?
The seven dead and a downtown strewn with the lawn chairs, strollers, coolers and other personal possessions have obliterated that sense of safety and security forever. Is it even possible to find any place outside your own home where you can avoid looking over your shoulder, scanning for locations from which a troubled sniper might rain down gunshots from his ridiculously automatic weapon? I say “he” because so far, the perpetrators have all been male, but one day that exclusive club will be breached by a tormented woman. (In fact, this morning we heard on the radio that the suburban Brookfield Zoo had been proactively evacuated because a woman had announced that she was going to hurt herself and others as well.)
This new layer of insecurity and loss of trust is superimposed on an already prepared bed of the same caused by the pandemic and by the political chaos of the Trump era whose hallmark is the deliberate sowing of division on as many fronts as possible. The Three Horsemen of distrust, insecurity and suspicion are eating away the glue that holds the fabric of our society together. Of course, Rosellen and I will continue going out for our afternoon walk, parents will see their kids off to their special computer, acting or rock-climbing camps, and the outdoor restaurant seats will fill, but it will all be happening against a backdrop of growing unease.
The other night as we sat outside a restaurant before the Highland Park shooting but here in a neighborhood wracked by street crime at all hours, Rosellen told me that she’d had a fleeting instant of fear that, sitting innocently in the evening cool, we could be shot or robbed. It took an effort to put that fear aside. And now how can its contagion have failed to spread?
Of course, the residents of the part of town where we were dining are no strangers to the feelings that the parade shootings aroused in suburban Highland Park and in small towns across America. The insecurity, the fear for their own safety and the safety of their children are baked into the daily lives of the residents. For them, the casualty figures from the period are the predictable body count for the holiday weekend. Most residents of less affluent communities are hardly more than a step removed from someone who has been a victim of random violence. But for me, this was the first time I had personal connections to people who were present at the event, and even to one of the victims of the shooting.
There’s got to be a way to put Humpty Dumpty’s pieces together again. Collective political action focusing on the issues the Supreme Court has laid out for us so starkly – guns, abortion and the environment – would go a long way to lifting us out of this darkness. I’m not built to lead the way on these fronts, but I hope some of our committed young people will atone for the sins of their ancestors.
NOTE: I’ll be away for the next two weeks in a place where the internet connections are not great. Besides, I need some time to recharge my batteries. So, I’ll see you in August.