Today I run a slightly amended version of the post that I wrote after Dylan Roof gunned down nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June, which in turn was a repetition of posts I’ve written on previous mass shootings.. All I’ve changed is Charles Harper Mercer for Roof, Umpqua College for the Charleston church, and President Obama’s response.
The response didn’t need much updating since President Obama feels acutely that he is repeating himself. Each time he sounds more like desperate King Hrothgar in Beowulf, who is flummoxed by the fact that Grendelian violence continues unabated. As I understand Grendel, he is the blood feuds instigated by Denmark’s own resentful warriors that ravaged Anglo-Saxon society. In other words, the violence comes from within, not from without. Here’s The New York Times reporting on Obama venting his rage and sense of impotence at our continuing refusal to take concrete steps against our Grendels:
President Obama’s rage about gun massacres, building for years, spilled out Thursday night as he acknowledged his own powerlessness to prevent another tragedy and pleaded with voters to force change themselves.
“So tonight, as those of us who are lucky enough to hug our kids a little closer are thinking about the families who aren’t so fortunate,” the president said in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, named for a man severely wounded by a would-be assassin’s bullet, “I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save these lives and let these people grow up.”
Mr. Obama admitted that he was unable to do anything to prevent such tragedies by himself. And he did little to try to hide the anger and frustration that have deepened as he returns again and again to the White House lectern in the wake of a deadly mass shooting.
And now for the amended version of the post I wrote just three and a half months ago:
Revised post from June 19, 2015
I am losing count of all the blog posts I have written about mass shootings since starting this blog six years ago. (Some of them are listed at the end of today’s post.) Today I write about the ten people killed and seven wounded at Umpqua College by a lone gunman.
I feel like the grandmother at the end of Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony following another eruption of violence on the reservation. “I guess I must be getting old,” she says,
“because these goings-on around Laguna don’t get me excited any more.” She sighed, and laid her head back on the chair. “It seems like I already heard these stories before…only thing is, the names sound different.”
I too go back to a familiar story. Few works of literature capture the social violence that strikes from within as powerfully as Beowulf, especially in its depiction of the resentment-crazed Grendel. If Charles Harper Mercer follows the pattern of previous Grendels, it will emerge that he nursed “a hard grievance” and saw others partying in the Great Hall while he felt left out.
Meanwhile, we are like King Hrothgar, helplessly surveying the devastation and feeling incapable of doing anything about it. It doesn’t matter that we are the most powerful country on earth, just as Denmark was the reigning power in medieval Scandinavia. One hears President Obama’s despair in his remarks:
On Thursday night, Mr. Obama said that given the frequency of mass shootings, people have “become numb to this.”
“And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation,” Mr. Obama said. “Right now I can imagine the press releases being cranked out. ‘We need more guns,’ they’ll argue. ‘Fewer gun-safety laws.’ ”
“Does anybody really believe that?” he asked, his voice rising.
He has been saying versions of this after each mass killing for the past six years.
In Beowulf, the spirit of resentful violence has been operating for twelve years. Here’s how the poet describes Grendel’s reign and the king’s sorrow.
So Grendel ruled in defiance of right,
one against all, until the greatest house
in the world stood empty, a deserted wallstead.
For twelve winters, seasons of woe,
the lord of the Shieldings suffered under
his load of sorrow; and so, before long,
the news was known over the whole world.
Sad lays were sung about the beset king,
the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel,
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war…
All were endangered, young and old
were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
who lurked and swooped in the long nights
on the misty moors; nobody knows
where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.
In his remarks last June after the Charleston shooting, Obama spoke of his “deep sorrow,” and of “the heartbreak, and the sadness, and the anger.” The poet says that “these were hard times, heartbreaking for the prince of the Shieldings.”
None of us knows when and where the next reaver of hell will strike. We only know that he will.
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