Sunday was the last day of the Cheshire County fair, an annual hootenanny here in southwest New Hampshire enjoying its 81st year. It is every fair that has ever been in every state with a stitch of rural real estate. The midway was made of fried dough and cotton candy, and the face-painters plied their wares over the sound of weathered carnies daring you to waste your money, c’mon, three darts for five bucks, pop a balloon and win the little girl a prize.
Nestled between the funhouse and the petting zoo was the game that has been part of fairs and carnivals for more than 100 years: The High Striker. You’ve seen it, and maybe even tried it. Crafted entirely as a means of cashing in on peer pressure, the High Striker involves a large mallet and a square pad that, when struck, launches a puck up a metal tower toward a round bell. When done properly — and if the game isn’t rigged — the smack of the mallet will be immediately followed by a high ding that carries from one side of the fairgrounds to the other. You win.
The fair was packed on Sunday, and a small crowd of burly men always seemed to surround the Striker. One after another, they would grasp the handle of the mallet, test their grip, and let fly. A few feet away, sun-soaked parents herded sugar-addled children through the crowd. Everyone went about their business, until the mallet struck the pad with a loud report that, each time, sounded for all the world like a rifle shot.
This was rural New Hampshire, land of hunters, where the sound of gunfire in season is as common as the turning of the leaves. The crowd knew what a rifle sounds like, and everyone flinched when the hammer smacked the pad. Heads snapped suddenly around seeking the source of the sound. Parents stepped in front of their children, and everything stopped for the halted breath of a moment until the potential threat was identified and dismissed.
The crowd flowed past the Striker like a river, different people in my field of vision each time the hammer came down. When the report cracked the air, there was that collective flinch every time, heads jerking toward the noise, fear in every eye. The distant sound of children screaming on the rides augmented the illusion of attack.
Everyone at the fair had awoken that morning to the news of a second gun massacre in Dayton, Ohio, only 13 hours after the massacre in El Paso, Texas, and only days after another in Gilroy, California. It has been a summer of blood and fury, this was a crowded place, and everyone knew it. Once upon a time, it had been a safe place, but we don’t do that anymore in this country. The bell on the High Striker tolled for far more than another winner at the fair.
“We are what we repeatedly do,” writes Nestor Ramos for The Boston Globe, “and in this country what we repeatedly do is mow down civilians with .223-caliber semiautomatic rifles. The mass shootings pile on top of each other, occurring so close together this weekend that cable news covers them in split-screen, like playoff games. And so, according to all the available evidence, this is exactly who we are.”
If mass shootings are “who we are” in this country, the most powerful among us will not be the ones we should count on to change it. They are the ones who have brought us to this moment.
Many of these ever-increasing massacres have been carried out by white supremacists who took their cues and permissions from the president of the United States. It is racist terrorism coddled at the highest levels of government and goaded on not just by fringe websites like 8chan, but by major news networks like Fox. When it happens, it is excused and defended by high-ranking Republican officials who blame social media and video games while ignoring the blood on their NRA money.
“Hate has no place in our country,” said Donald Trump after a weekend spent crashing weddings at his Bedminster golf club in between slaughters, “and we’re going to take care of it.” This was but his opening salvo. By Monday morning, he was blaming the news media for the attacks, using the same “fake news” language the El Paso shooter applied in his racist manifesto. The shooter borrowed it from Trump, who borrowed it right back.
Trump followed up his drearily familiar attacks on the media by proposing that background checks legislation be tied to immigration legislation; we can have limits on gun sales if he can have his border wall, perhaps. This possibility lasted three hours. At a 10:00 am press conference, he read a monotone Teleprompter statement condemning racism and white supremacy, poorly, but made no mention of the background checks reform he had floated earlier. “Mental illness and hatred pulled the trigger,” he said, “not the gun.”
For the record, the El Paso shooter used an AK-47-style assault rifle to kill 22 people. The Dayton shooter used an AR-15-style assault rifle to kill nine people.
Thirty-one more people are dead, despite Trump’s absurd denial, because the shooters had guns. Given that there have been 2,193 mass shootings since 20 children were obliterated by gunfire at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the idea that this man has either the interest or ability to “take care of it” is almost too ludicrous to contemplate.
Trump’s Republican congressional minions offer no succor. “A handful of Republican lawmakers on Sunday endorsed stricter gun controls,” reports The Washington Post, “but most in the GOP ignored Democratic demands that the Senate abandon its summer recess and return to Washington to address the issue. The House passed two bills in February that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to consider.”
Meanwhile, the larger causes of violence go scandalously unconfronted. After 29 years of ceaseless war in the Middle East, after the constant and deliberate racist dehumanization of the “other” enforced at the highest levels, after flooding the nation with easily-accessed weapons of war, and after so many long years of vampire capitalism having its way with the minds and souls of the populace, we each face the possibility of finding ourselves on the killing floor. The most powerful people in this country offer thoughts and prayers as they continue reproducing the conditions that created this national abattoir.
The Cheshire fairgrounds on Sunday were a snapshot of a nation at war with itself, flinching at the definite possibility of hostile fire in a crowd flush with children, and school starts again soon. Those with the power to act pretend to be powerless. It is not over. I fear it is just beginning.