“I’ve never been in this frame of mind,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Thursday, two days after a gunman killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in the small Texas town of Uvalde. “I can’t get my grandchildren out of my mind.”
Manchin and nine other senators have gathered to try to find some sort of compromise on gun legislation that could pass the fractured Senate. According to Punchbowl News’ Jake Sherman, Manchin said this time “feels very different.”
“It feels a little different,” Manchin told NBC News’ Vaughn Hillyard four years ago, a little more than a week after a gunman killed 14 students and three staffers at a high school in the Florida suburb of Parkland. “I’ve got little grandchildren also in the school systems, and I understand the concerns that every parent and grandparent has.”
In his play “No Exit,” where three damned souls are locked in a room to torment one another for eternity, Jean-Paul Sartre famously described hell as “other people.” Neil Gaiman, in his aptly titled short story “Other People,” saw that everything needed for perpetual agony was already inside us. Hell, in his telling, is being forced to watch our own life’s failings and cruelties in an unblinking, unvarnished loop, seeing how each selfish or malevolent act radiated outward. That pain, collapsed back inward, is punishment enough.
The common theme is the nightmare that comes from a static universe, one defined by the inability to change what has already been done. Sartre’s characters either yearn for their fellows to absolve them of their sins or, knowing no absolution is coming, fully embrace their crimes and wickedness. There is no room for the change that would free them from their gilded cage. Gaiman’s unnamed narrator finds that time folds back in on itself during his sentence; over the course of forever, he has become the tormentor he first encountered upon reaching hell, repeating the process of self-destruction over and over again. The unrealized urge to change the past, change the pattern, change ourselves to erase the judgment and the horror of what has been done drives home the agony felt.
Manchin was reportedly distraught in 2012 after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in the small Connecticut town of Newtown. “He was always so pro-NRA, and all of a sudden, he’s sitting there crying, ‘Nobody kills babies — they killed babies,” a Manchin staffer told Mother Jones of her boss’s reaction. Manchin sponsored legislation with Sen. Pat Toomey. R-Pa., to expand background checks. It died on the Senate floor thanks in part to the National Rifle Association’s lobbying.
Toomey and Manchin are now sitting in a room with eight other senators to find some kind of compromise that would expand background checks. The NRA’s members just met in Houston, a few hours’ drive from the school where 19 children had been murdered. The NRA will likely work against any bill that the senators manage to craft, recruiting just enough Republicans to kill it on the Senate floor. This is the feeling of crushing hopelessness that Gaiman and Sartre sought to evoke, playing out in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.
The New York Times’ Jay Caspian Kang said last week that Americans “have created a museum of unbearable sorrow” to hold our memories of the mass shootings that have become a fact of life here. “With each tragedy, it gets a bit denser with new names, new unsatisfying explanations and new photos of the deceased,” Kang wrote. “When we’re grasping for something to say, they are the things we touch.”
And what is a museum except another closed loop, another unchanging snapshot of what once was. Maybe at the time each artifact was crafted, there was a vision in mind for another, better future. That at some point there would be no need to document the myriad ways that humanity can hurt one another and yet prove indifferent to the pain of the collective, so long as the right individuals still remain untouched.
But we keep finding the need to create more art to act as a salve for those wounds, more memes, as Kang describes them, so that we can find some shared touchstone each time the unthinkable happens again.
It is my dearest hope that we find a way out of this unending Tartarus that a callous minority of Americans have created for us, that having reached the depths of the pit as Dante once did, we can come out on the other side wiser. I don’t know what the alternative is. I don’t know how I’ll be able to take Manchin six months, two years, a decade from now describing the feeling in the aftermath of yet another mass killing spree as feeling “different.”