What it means to be ‘surprised’ by the massacre in Highland Park

No place is safe, but every place should be

The July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, Ill.,  exposed an empathy gap in America, Curtis writes. Above, people lay flowers and cards near the site of the massacre.  (Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
The July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, Ill., exposed an empathy gap in America, Curtis writes. Above, people lay flowers and cards near the site of the massacre. (Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Posted July 14, 2022 at 6:00am

Why do I know that Highland Park, Ill., was the backdrop for “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” a 1986 John Hughes movie starring a young Matthew Broderick as a cheeky teenage suburbanite who misbehaves? It’s because so many articles recounting the horrific Fourth of July shooting at the town’s annual holiday parade mentioned it.

The reference was used as an emblematic totem, shorthand that tracked the comments sprinkled through the articles and tweets launched that day: “probably the last place we would expect this” or “just inconceivable in a community like Highland Park.”

I mourned along with the country at the heartbreaking details, the child left without parents, the grandfather in an extended family, now left without its patriarch, the mother hit as she ran with the daughter who saw her go down but who kept running to save her own life.

Will this country ever be rid of the senseless gun violence that stains a quintessential Independence Day celebration, with marching bands, floats and children toted in strollers and wagons? Will there ever be a consensus that pushes politicians to change laws that allowed a 21-year-old suspect to obtain authorization to purchase weapons at an even younger age, with a co-sign by dad, even after incidents that drew law enforcement to the home?

Apparently not until America decides enough is enough and makes elected leaders pay a political price, which has not yet happened.

But while I mourned, I also realized, and not for the first time, that Americans mark tragedies in different ways, with wide-ranging levels of empathy, that deeply felt emotion that allows you to look into the faces of those whose lives are forever changed by violence and feel the same pain, maybe because those people remind you of you.

As a country, we’re definitely not there yet. That’s why I understood when I read the reactions of some who lived mere miles but a universe away from the July 4 tragedy.

“They have a lot of resources there in Highland Park,” Chicago resident Bobbie Brown told The Washington Post after a man was shot days before the holiday in her neighborhood, in broad daylight. “Our babies see people get shot while they’re at a playground, and there’s no counseling. They have to suck it up and deal with it.”

It’s not that she wants less for Highland Park. It’s that she and her neighbors want the same — the same rapid police response, the same therapy dogs, the same urgency to apprehend the perpetrator.

The same empathy.

I understand her pain because I feel it every time — and there have been too many times to count — my old West Baltimore neighborhood is dismissed as “The Wire” by people who should know better, as though that is shorthand enough, as though that is all it is, as though it is a place where families and children treat violence as if it doesn’t matter because they are “used” to such things happening.

Just as I know about the place Bueller chose to have his mostly harmless misadventures and why many may judge a disconnect between his town and bullets, I know that when violence hits cities and neighborhoods like the one I called home, there may be horror and sadness — but no surprise.

Sometimes, unfortunately, there is even rebuke, as though the people who lived in “those” cities somehow are to blame, that until “they” clean up their own house, no one else need notice or care.

When former President Donald Trump described Baltimore — more specifically, areas then-represented by the late Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings — as “disgusting, rat and rodent infested” and tweeted that “no human being would want to live there,” I felt hurt most of all for any children who lived there, children who would never be too young to sense what their president thought of them.

Trump was not alone, though, in that sentiment.

To many Americans, the children in cities scarred too often by violence are hardly thought of at all, and when they are, they are not seen as innocent kids who also look forward to barbecues and parades and play dates on playgrounds, where they deserve to be undisturbed and carefree.

They don’t see children who line up with their own bikes and wagons, anxious to enjoy holiday events, who line up for ice cream when the music-playing trucks roll by, children whose fathers treat them to parties with backyard wishing wells and colored streamers, as mine did to create a mostly concrete wonderland.

“They” are communities filled with concerned leaders and everyday citizens making change and making life better for those who live within and beyond their boundaries. And when gunshots ring out on those streets, the children are just as scared and scarred as any child anywhere would be.

Yet, politicians still dismiss those communities, those children, with some screaming the quiet part for all to hear, like Trump-backed Blake Masters, a Republican candidate for the Senate in Arizona, who this year blamed “Black people, frankly,” for gun violence.

After an 18-year-old white, male adherent of the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory was charged in the murders of 10 African American supermarket shoppers in Buffalo, after a white, male shooter apparently decided to unleash his rage in the town where he was nurtured, where the citizens knew him and shopped at the family store, reality may have begun to sink in for those who thought they had found their own “Mayberry,” as a Highland Park ice cream shop was called.

All of us, as Americans, with American problems to overcome, are more alike than we may have thought. Andy’s “Mayberry” was never real. And “nowhere” has ever truly been safe.

But everywhere and everyone deserves to be.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.