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Editorial: Bury my heart at Newtown. Or Pittsburgh. Or Buffalo

Last Saturday afternoon, an 18-year-old armed with a Bushmaster AR-15-style assault weapon, a military-grade killing machine made for nothing other than mass death, walked into a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo and murdered 10 people. “Slaughtered” would be a more accurate way to describe what transpired.

As has happened so many times before in the seemingly endless cycle of mass shootings — more here than anywhere else in the world — we learned the names and ages of the victims, saw their faces, heard about some of their hopes and dreams and listened as loved ones grieved for those they had just lost to gun violence. 

It’s America, circa 2022, where it’s déjà vu all over again and it’s always Groundhog Day. When the same thing keeps happening, nothing is done in response, so it happens again. We don’t learn, we don’t change. We just call each other names and continue to accomplish little. The concept of “common good” has died, the spent shells covering the ground from coast to coast. Throw in a mountain of conspiracy theories that millions believe to be true and, by all appearances, America is now a great country in steep decline.

This latest mass killing brought up the seemingly age-old discussion of “gun control” — one of the most meaningless phrases in the public discourse. If the aftermath of the slaughter of kindergartners and first-graders in Newtown, Conn., didn’t change the political discussion on the sale of military-grade assault weapons, absolutely nothing would have.

So we come to Buffalo on a Saturday afternoon. This mass killing was entirely about race. Payton Gendron went to the store for the express purpose of killing Black people. There is a straight line between 1619, when the first ship loaded with chained Africans arrived in Virginia, to Saturday afternoon. Gendron was so self-assured in his mission, so purpose driven, he even livestreamed it. 

This violent crime is firmly anchored to who we are as Americans right now. This mass killing is a product of our time. It asks questions about what the future might hold for all of us in the ugly political environment we are now stranded in; about what we do and what we as people in a democratic society have failed to do to improve life for everyone. 

The headline on a recent story in The Atlantic magazine raised an issue we should all ponder: “Why the past 10 years of American life have become uniquely stupid.”

We know exactly what was on Gendron’s mind Saturday. He posted a mile-long screed rooted in white supremacy and promoting the “great replacement theory” — a talking point you can actually hear on evening talk shows on a certain network. Hosts on these shows come right out and say it. In short, this “theory” holds that a conspiracy is underway to “replace” white people with hated minorities.

The killings in Buffalo had an immediate impact on the race for governor of the state. Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul decried laws that allow buyers such as Gendron — a mentally unstable white teenager — to acquire oversized magazines that hold large amounts of bullets; Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), a Republican, called for reinstatement of the death penalty; and former Nassau County executive Tom Suozzi, running as a Democrat and hoping to topple Hochul in a primary, said the state has been lax on crime. In referring to elected officials in the state, Suozzi also made the point that this is what you get for electing those people. 

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden and his wife traveled to Buffalo for what has become another uniquely American ritual: a president going to the scene of a mass killing to comfort the grieving. President Obama did the same after the slaughter of children in Newtown.

In 1970, Dee Brown wrote a celebrated book about the ethnic cleansing of the American Indian, from the moment Europeans landed on these shores to the massacre of up to 300 men, women and children at Wounded Knee, S.D., in December 1890. He called his book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

This book should be required reading in every middle school in America. But given the current climate, and the hysterically bogus discussion of critical race theory, certain groups would demand the book be removed not only from the school curriculum but from school libraries as well. Teaching it, they would argue, might hurt their children’s feelings, or give them a negative view of their country’s history. For some, the truth is a bridge too far.

One day someone will write a book titled “Bury My Heart at Newtown” (26 dead); or “Bury My Heart at Charleston” (nine Black men and women murdered in their church); or “Bury My Heart at El Paso” (22 dead in a Walmart); or Bury My Heart in Pittsburgh (11 murdered in a synagogue). Now we can add “Bury My Heart at Buffalo” (10 dead) to that list.

Just change the location and a new book can be published every few months.