Forensic teams scrape blood off of walls and desks and floor tiles using sterilized swabs, their methodology intended to meet the demands of both scientific inquiry and the mercurialness of our system of due process, their twin goals ever in frame: first, to ensure that legal due process does not allow that the perpetrator and his supporters evade justice on a technicality; second, to facilitate identification of the dead, their corpses too indecent to let the families identify by clothing, their appearances indescribably maimed by the rifle bullets designed to spall when they hit bone.
To spall is a verb that has taken on a uniquely American character. Likely derived from the Old German spaltan, the verb means “to fragment” or “to chip.” It is used nowadays primarily in two contexts: to describe the behavior of bullets as they impact at 3,300 ft/sec, or to describe the condition of concrete as it existed before some tragic yet eminently foreseeable collapse of infrastructure.
America mourns its dead once again; in fact, it really never stopped mourning, not after a presumed white supremacist walked into a Buffalo supermarket in a Black neighborhood and killed ten people, mostly elderly Black community members, after having written a rambling manifesto about the two-penny white supremacist “Great Replacement” theory. That was only ten days before another gunman, with motives yet to be unearthed, perhaps never to be unearthed, evaded armed police who failed to stop him from walking into an elementary school and killing nineteen. Both shooters were merely eighteen years old; their victims, either old enough to have become matriarchs and patriarchs of families who now mourn their loss, figures in a community that still addressed them by Mister or Miss; or too young to have ever been given that chance.
We try to find the right way to say things. We search for the right way to hurt, the right way to grieve in public because the crime that was committed hurts us all, it hurts our sense of what America should be, what America could be. We went through this ritual three summers ago, when within the span of a week a gunman opened fire at a Garlic festival in an idyllic California town, and a white supremacist rampaged through a Walmart in El Paso, not yet a year after a neo-Nazi shot up a synagogue service, not yet eighteen months after a young man rampaged through a Florida high school.
We search for the words because if we find the words we can find a reason for the blood. He was a loner. He was bullied. He had poor mental health. He played video games. He listened to Marilyn Manson. He spent time on the dark web. Grief is a process of absolution.
We will find no absolution. There are no explanations, at least, none that we will accept. Instead we force ourselves to accept the violence because we cannot reject the violence. America is a country founded on blood, built on blood, its prosperity floated on rivers of blood. The blood that we scrape off the walls to help identify our dead is our blood of Christ, our communion. We drink the blood as we pray for our salvation, as we seek forgiveness for our sins, the sins of a society that has long abandoned its duty by seeking a sin-eater to make them go away. The spalling concrete under our bridges is a product of our neglect, of the emptiness of our social commitment to the public good, but we always find a way to make the building inspector pay.
America is the land of democracy, the land of hope, the land whose streets were paved with gold, a land which has no honest hope of creating the reforms needed to prevent the next shooting. We didn’t make the changes after the shootings in Columbine, or Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or El Paso, or Poway, or Gilroy, or Pittsburgh, or Jonesboro, or Parkland, or Oak Creek, or after any of the 211 other mass shootings in the country during the 143 days so far this year. Yet we still believe somehow in the catechisms of both our democracy and our society, despite that Mass Casualty Survivor has become an American persona. We wear it like a scouting badge. Other countries have violence; only in America do we treat it as a commodity while simultaneously trying to apologize for its existence.
Like a rifle round hitting bone, like the aging concrete straining under the staccato of our daily commutes, American democracy is spalling. We have better tools for investigating bridge collapses than we do for securing funding for bridge repairs. We have better techniques for forensic analysis of blood splatters than we do for identifying and leading insecure teenage men and boys away from a place of hate and antipathy. We’re better practiced at stalling government than making government enact change. Our grief is become ritual. Every subsequent exposition of mass violence and death leaves us likely, not more, to be able to address both the causes and consequences of it. To do so would be to acknowledge violence as the defining feature of American culture and to reject it and the comfort of our ritual grief. To do so would be to reject the blood of the vulnerable and the innocent as our American communion.