Lessons from El Paso and Uvalde: Tragedy can change our hearts, if we let it.
I was living in El Paso, Tex., on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, when at 10:40 in the morning a young man began shooting people in the Walmart in the Cielo Vista Mall. As news of the rampage spread across the city, stores and restaurants abruptly closed. People called relatives and friends to make certain they were safe. Even on the other side of the city, the streets were mostly empty by noon.
Inside the Walmart, 20 people lay lifeless in the shopping aisles, and two more would die of their injuries in the coming days. Eight of the dead would later be identified as Mexican citizens. A pall of stillness descended upon El Paso—and upon Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city just five miles from the shooting site. Time stopped.
A pall of stillness descended upon El Paso—and upon Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city just five miles from the shooting site. Time stopped.
That night I stared out my bedroom window as lightning raced across the El Paso sky. A summer desert monsoon followed. Rain spattered against my window, rinsing desert dust from the glass. But no celestial tears could wash away the blood and carnage of the El Paso nightmare.
The following morning, I woke to the news of a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, in which nine more people had been killed. It seemed that America had gone mad.
Catastrophic events leave an individual, a community or an entire nation in shock. They can cause a rupture in the flow of time that disorients and then moves individuals and communities to reconsider the world around them and their place in it. This epiphany can lead to substantive change in a community. I call this experience an “interruption,” a term coined by the late German theologian Johann Baptist Metz. Metz viewed history not as a linear progression but rather as a series of catastrophes coming one after another.
Catastrophic events can move individuals and communities to reconsider the world around them and their place in it.
Mass shootings, like the murder of 19 children and two of their teachers in Uvalde, Tex., three months ago, frequently cause such interruptions. So do terrorist attacks like the ones on Sept. 11, 2001. The shock of an interruptive experience awakens people and makes them revisit serious questions. How can we prevent future tragedies? How can God allow such a bloodbath? Who can be held accountable, and who will pay, for acts of violence?
Awakenings of this sort can also change people’s hearts, dissolving apathy and stripping away callousness, offering a renewed perspective on life. An interruption is nothing less than a spiritual experience, though a dark one brought on by crisis and trauma. I compare an interruption to the lightning bolts out my window that night in El Paso—the flash ignited across the dark desert landscape that, for an instant, stops time and lays reality bare.
I had gone to El Paso as part of my 20 years of research into violence; in particular, I was studying the construction of the massive, expensive border wall that the Trump administration had said was needed because of unauthorized migrants crossing the border and narco-related violence spilling over into the United States. Yet when violence struck El Paso on Aug. 3, it came from within the United States, motivated by hatred of Latinos by a deranged, white supremacist. In other words, the violence that America seeks to escape is not extraneous. As for Uvalde, we may never know the intentions of the shooter, but once again, the violence came from within. No border wall will protect us from the real threat of our national self.
No border wall will protect us from the real threat of our national self.
Our nation had been “on hold” regarding gun control for decades. Only the interruption of Uvalde—and concurrent violent tragedies—was able to end the long political impasse, and the gun control measure recently passed by Congress is still inadequate. (Meanwhile, on the same day that gun reform was passed, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down New York’s gun law, limiting the ability of other states and local governments to restrict guns outside the home.)
While some of us would like to blame others for violence in the United States—perhaps migrants—the El Paso and Uvalde interruptions forced us to come to terms with perpetrators of violence who are “home-grown” Americans, including white supremacists as well as disturbed individuals with access to deadly weapons.
So while we are grateful for any progress on gun control, the United States must take more substantive action, or violence will continue. For now, with the passing of limited gun measures and the Supreme Court ruling, we simultaneously have taken a step forward and backward. Sadly, other violent interruptions are undoubtedly forthcoming, and more people will die.