“This is the price of freedom.” — Bill O’Reilly on the Las Vegas massacre
“Freedom to be afraid is all you won.” — Gil Scott-Heron from “Gun”
Originally, this was going to be a column about Sydney Aiello. She was 19 years old, a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, and she was buried Friday after committing suicide. Her parents said she lost friends in last year’s shooting at her school. They said she carried survivor’s guilt and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Then the column about Sydney became a column about Sydney and a boy, his identity not yet released, who died of an apparent suicide the day after her funeral. He was a sophomore at her old school.
Then the column changed yet again. Jeremy Richman, the father of 6-year-old Avielle Richman, who was killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, was found dead of an apparent suicide on Monday. It seems reasonable to suspect, though at this point not possible to know, that proximity to tragedy played a role in the deaths of the man and boy, as it evidently did with Sydney.
So this is a column about the three of them. And the 328 million of us. And the singularly grotesque thing Bill O’Reilly said two years ago after 58 people died and over 500 were wounded in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, a thing that has hovered like smoke over every mass shooting since.
“This is the price of freedom,” he said.
Which is, of course, ridiculous. Canada is free. Australia, Spain and Finland are free. As the nation that gave us the Magna Carta, England might fairly be said to have invented freedom.
None of them has anywhere near the level of gun violence America does.
But it is not the inaccuracy of O’Reilly’s statement that gives it such grim resonance in the wake of this triple suicide. It is, rather, the substance, that idea of paying a price for so-called “gun rights.”
We think of that price in terms of fallen bodies, blood shining on asphalt. Truth is, that’s only the beginning.
Long after the bodies have been recovered and the asphalt scrubbed, after the media fold their tents and the nation turns its restless attention elsewhere, there are people left learning to walk again, or talk again. And there are families with holes shot through them, hearts that grieve behind sunny smiles, invisible wounds bleeding. Because each bullet that finds flesh injures not just its victim, but everyone around her until eventually, the whole country is walking blood stained and wounded.
We have second-graders with PTSD. We have preschoolers practicing active-shooter drills. In South Carolina, a 7-year-old survivor takes to pulling out her eyelashes and clawing her own skin. In Arizona, a 4-year-old cries “active shooter” as fireworks burst overhead. In Florida and Connecticut, three people are dead by their own hands. This is our new American normal.
And for what?
“This is the price of freedom,” O’Reilly said, trying to imbue mass murder with a sheen of patriotic sacrifice. His absurd words reflect a nation that resolutely refuses to do anything but think and pray about an ongoing national disaster. We regard gun violence like earthquakes and windstorms, acts of God we cannot prevent, but only learn to live with.
But gun violence is no act of God. And we can’t live with it. That’s the whole point.
“The price of freedom,” he says. Well, that price keeps going higher.
And whatever we’re buying, freedom isn’t it.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.