This IS Who We Are!
This story is a rant, plain and simple. My response to gun violence has morphed from anger and despair to becoming numb. There are only so many tears one can shed before there is nothing left. How could America have gotten to this place?
May 24, 2022… We were greeted with yet another mass shooting (generally defined as incidents involving multiple victims of firearm-related violence), this time at a school in Uvalde Texas. I had my typical moment of horror and anger, but then it all went numb. I had no interest in another long news evening that sounds the same as all the others, including that awful mournful music:
- “This is what we know at this hour, a gunman…”
- “Enough is enough, we can’t let it happen again!”
- “The problem is mental illness- what we need is more good guys with guns!”
- “We’re not going to reveal the name of the shooter to prevent him from getting the fame he wanted!”
And the next day there’s the reading of victim’s names, including statements about how wonderful they were. What an insult to their memories! If the country really cared, this carnage would end.
I just couldn’t figure out why I was feeling so cold about something so awful. During the short period of time I watched the news about the Texas school shooting, Congressman Joaquin Castro was interviewed and his words cleared up my confusion: “This is who we are!” Yes, that’s it: This IS Who We Are! Mass shootings with weapons of war have become common and expected.*
It’s hard to get excited by something that is common and expected, though it’s equally hard to believe that could happen with mass shootings. I know the sun will rise tomorrow and that another mass shooting is already being planned. When that one happens we will quickly forget about Buffalo and Uvalde (the ink was not even dry on this story before Tulsa happened). I just wasn’t willing to subject myself to days and days of painful non-stop coverage that will disappear the moment another big news story breaks. I just can’t live on that emotional roller coaster that seems to have no end… I wish there were something I could do to end the violence. The main tool is the ballot box but I’m no longer sure my vote will count.
I thought I could put it out of my mind, but I was wrong… it wouldn’t let me go!
*As I was preparing to post this photo essay, I received "The Morning" from The New York Times. The headline: "Again and again"... "Shootings that kill multiple people are so common in this country that they often do not even make national news. They are a regular feature of American life..."
Early the following morning after the Texas school shooting I drove to a place that was new to me hoping to do some interesting photography. It’s always hit-or-miss, and after a couple of hours it looked like a solid miss, so I headed for home. As I drove, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a stand of American Flags on a grassy field. There were a large number arranged in rows and it looked like it might be interesting for some images. I parked in front of a building a few hundred feet from the flags. I got out of the car to see where I was and, UGH, I was at a school- really? The group of flags was an installation for Memorial Day.
For someone trying to forget the school shooting, this was as bad a place to stop as any. And to make matters worse, the flags were next to the school’s flagpole. At the moment I arrived, employees were raising the American Flag to half-staff. I either needed to cut and run, or find a way to deal with what I was feeling… I asked the people raising the flag: “How do kids go to school today?” They didn’t have an answer.
I photographed the flags for an hour in hopes they would help me understand what’s going on in this country. What I really wanted to know: “What does the American Flag stand for?”
There are many ways to define the purpose of a country’s flag, but one that seems to fit at this moment comes from the New Zealand Flag Institute: “A flag represents an idea, or an ideal…. Many flags are held in high esteem for… the qualities for which the country and people stand.” So, if a flag represents an ideal and the qualities for which the country and people stand, what does our flag stand for? Since mass shootings are common and expected, is that one of the ideals our flag stands for? That does sound ugly, but I can’t offer a counter argument, because it surely seems: This IS Who We Are!
Flags For Heroes
The installation was Flags For Heroes organized by the Rotary Club and held in many cities. Residents were encouraged to sponsor a flag for their personal hero. This is a beautiful sentiment for the ideal of people caring for others. There are so many heroes who stand up to the call whenever needed- they are the best part of America.
But the American Flag stands for what America stands for, including how America cares for its people. So objectively, does America care for its people? With mass shootings being common and expected, the American Flag doesn’t look particularly heroic. Sadly this is not a new phenomenon in America.
Take a walk with me through the Flags For Heroes installation, starting with the school’s flag.
Knowing that mass shootings are common and expected, perhaps American Flags should be permanently lowered.
The Flags For Heroes stood tall in stark contrast to the flag lowered for people killed by the cowardice of rifle wielding murderers and the cowardice of a country unwilling to protect its people. The irony of this scene was almost too much to bear.
The wind carried the Flags For Heroes and the school flag in the same direction- if only this were a true alignment.
Seeing these soldiers march in perfect unison is a reminder that most of the country is in unison about limiting gun violence. In a true democracy, the people would decide.
The American Flag Is A Symbol Of America
At Its Best And At Its Worst
We’ve had an official American Flag since 1777. It symbolizes America at its best and at its worst. The best and worst columns are quite long and there would be unending disagreement about what is good and what is not good about America.
With all of the wonderful attributes about America, this country has been and continues to be poor in its treatment and protection of its people, particularly those who are different from the majority and not at the top. There are countries far worse, but that’s no achievement for America.
Which column our democracy fits in is up to serious debate at the moment. But when it comes to gun violence, there is no question- we are in a class by ourself: This IS who we are!
The American Flag casts a dark shadow for the thirty one people lost in two mass shootings in little more than a week- add four with Tulsa!
My experience with Flags For Heroes didn’t make me feel any worse and certainly didn’t make me feel any better. It just created a sense of resignation to a reality I will remember whenever I see an American Flag, whether flying high or at half-staff.
Colors of the American Flag: red for hardiness and valor, white for purity and innocence, and blue for vigilance, perseverance and justice. (www.ushistory.org/betsy/).
Right now I see it differently: Red for the blood of people lost to gun violence, white for intolerance that diminishes people not in the majority, and blue for sadness that American won’t protect its people… When I look at an American Flag I think about who we are and what I wish we would be.
On March 24, 2017 I went to Washington DC for "March For Our Lives" in the aftermath of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In doing the photo essay, I realized that the story could be told with just a single image. After five years and many more mass shootings, I still believe it… and that is The-Story-Within-The-Story!
One More Thing
I apologize to anyone who might be offended by the notion of This IS Who We Are!… “That Is NOT Who I Am!”
This IS Who We Are! is about the country overall, the “We,” and what the collective allows. Since Sandy Hook there have been four national elections and yet we still have a congress unwilling to deal with gun violence, so the killing goes on.
Published June 3, 2022