I woke up that morning to a barrage of text messages from friends. “Are your family members okay?” “Did you hear the news?” It was 10 a.m., and I was contextless. I went to Twitter and saw it trending: the name of my hometown. It would take only seconds for me to find out why. Earlier that morning, a man armed with an assault rifle and unreasonable rage killed seven people and injured many more.
The Fourth of July parade, which takes place annually in the downtown central strip of Highland Park, Illinois, is an activity that every person in the area has participated in at some point in their life. Sitting in the front row with a ribbon in hand, children wave as the procession begins. Local businesses pass through the crowds in cars decorated accordingly. The high school band plays, the occasional beauty queen waves, and families set up their camping chairs in prime spots, sometimes as early as the day before.
The fourth of July parade is, in many ways, the annual culmination of what can only be perceived as the American dream achieved, a portrait of suburban contentment and family life, a cheerful ritual of normalcy sandwiched between humid summer days. The parade is where people come to remember why they chose to raise their kids here. The parade, like many other parades and traditions, is an emphatic ode to being alive.
There’s something admirable about the persistence of certain landmarks to an area, even if those landmarks are not much more than a Dairy Queen and a waterless fountain that for the past twenty-plus years has served more as a weekend playground for local children. During the hot weekend nights of summer, the line to enter the ice cream shop stretches down to the street corner, almost touching the train tracks. Going to the Dairy Queen is a guaranteed way to run into someone you know.
Named Port Clinton Square, that patch of downtown where the parade takes place is heavily frequented, even when not by reason of holiday events. A block down from the Dairy Queen is the hot dog shop where my dad worked as a teenager, and then my brother. On most Saturday nights, the restaurant closes to host bar and bat mitzvahs, the Jewish coming of age celebrations for early teenagers that nearly every kid in town has either had themselves or attended.
At the height of its affluence, in the early 2000s, the downtown stretch had a Saks Fifth Avenue, an Anthropologie, and a sprawling, two-floor Borders bookstore with its own cafe. In spite of change, some businesses have remained steady: Walker Brothers pancake house, which serves superior chocolate chip flapjacks. Goodies, the candy store my grandmother goes to when she wants to mail me treats. A local beauty store and pharmacy. And the outdoor apparel store whose roof the shooter is rumored to have been standing on when he took aim at the unassuming victims below.
Although no community is immune to violence, many would like to believe their home is impervious to it. For decades, and for as long as I have known it, Highland Park has been an ideal portrait of suburban Chicago life. Families can choose from a multitude of synagogues, and the public schools—even when not ranked—are better than most. Highland Park is not the expected setting for mass violence, or really violence at all, but the town has witnessed its fair share of disorder.
During physics my freshman year of high school, I sat next to a shy but friendly fourteen-year-old who would become my occasional lab partner. He was a good kid, funny and mildly charming. In 2018, he was sentenced to 54 years in prison for the murder of a fellow local and Highland Park high school graduate. The motive was said to be an attempted robbery of a relatively small amount of cannabis. It’s unclear who out of the three in the car actually pulled the trigger, but the culpability was assumed equally.
More than a few friends and acquaintances of mine also engaged in behavior that would ultimately lead to their downfall or, in the worst instances, death. Any drug capable of being ingested could be secured fairly easily, and teenagers and parents alike both partook. One of my teenage crushes, a sensitive boy with blonde hair that poured onto his forehead and fell slightly over his eyes, lives now in a drug-induced but permanent state of psychosis.
Other people I hung around with have died as a consequence of their own careless, reckless behavior. Most households were nuclear and stable, but some were unspeakably broken. I smoked cigarettes with friends and their parents, who didn’t seem bothered by the constant camaraderie and chaos happening in their bed and living rooms. Some parents hosted parties for their kids, supplying them with liquor and whatever other supplies were needed, ignorant or simply indifferent to potential consequences. In 2007, parents in a neighboring town were convicted after two high school students died as a result of driving under the influence. The teenagers had been drinking at a party at their house just minutes before the crash.
Some people made it past their bad decisions, and some didn’t. Some people attempted suicide, and some were successful.
One of those people with several failed attempts would go on, in 2022, to take seven lives and disrupt many more.
I don’t know the shooter but I do know his family, and just about everyone else in town does, too. The former owner of a popular convenience store, his father had previously attempted to run for city council. The shop with the deli counter is where kids once piled in after class to stock up on candy and bic lighters, a sort of local 7-11. Many late nights were spent sitting in the small dining section of the store, for friends who had nowhere better to be. The shop, named after the owner, did good business for the duration of its operation.
At eighteen, the shooter’s father sponsored his gun permit application, allowing him to build an arsenal of weapons in the home that he lived in, including the AR-15 style gun that would be later used in the shooting. The five guns in his possession were all purchased legally, a right protected by the constitution.
When a man, and particularly a white man, commits a public act of mass violence, it is often assumed that they were victims of something else: bullying, social isolation, parental neglect. None of these things excuse their actions, yet we still seek to place justification, motive.
But the reality is that there is no room for rationale. There is no sufficient reason anyone should do what that twenty-one-year-old did that morning of July fourth. Plenty of people experience bullying and alienation, me included, but the majority don’t resort to violence. People who are victims of great mental anguish typically don’t wish to inflict pain on anyone but themselves. Most people who are suicidal are not homicidal. Most people who are hurt do not want to hurt others.
Months later, there are still no answers as to why this person did what he did.
That day, I scoured my social media for firsthand accounts of the shooting. Two hours behind in California, I woke up to texts from friends asking about my family, my aunt and uncle whose house is just blocks from where the scene unfolded. I scoured social media, wanting to know details more than I have ever wanted to know details before, and watched in real time as the suspect was searched for and eventually apprehended.
I read about a young woman who, as gunfire came raining down, was forced to let go of her mother’s hand to keep running. Realizing her mother had been shot and fatally wounded, she made the impossible decision to physically release her. I stared at images of the decades-old city benches that wrap around respective trees and noted the pools of blood solidifying at their base. I read and I looked and I listened and I was so desensitized to violence, the gruesome and horrific but normalized violence, that I didn’t even think to cry.
I don’t cry. I am disturbed but my affect is blunted from the countless shootings that have occurred in the years before and since my leaving. Everyone talks about the incident as though they are surprised, and as much as I want to be surprised, shocked and stunned, I’m not. Nothing about this is surprising. Occurrences of mass shootings stopped being surprising in 2012, after a gunman took the lives of twenty children and six adults, and nothing in our government changed.
Every day when I leave for work, I am reminded of some people’s propensity for violence, and the possibility that I could very realistically be impacted by it. I drive the mile from my house to campus, and remember that no place in the country, no matter how idyllic, is immune to violence and atrocity. Each semester, I enter my classrooms and plan my safety strategy. We are not required to do so, but I cannot avoid the mental construction. I teach in classrooms full of eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-olds, all of whom have grown up in an era that is unmistakably permeated by the consequences of gun violence. I want to protect them. I want to keep them safe.
I carry an extra T-shirt in my bag where I used to carry band-aids in case I need a tourniquet. When an extra door to my classroom is incapable of being locked, I call public safety and demand they fix it. I am secretly thankful for my classroom’s undesirable location in the basement of the old science building, due to its seclusion from the rest of campus. If something were to happen, I’d like to imagine we are safe here, far enough away from potential targets.
I want more than anything to remember a time in which violence was inaccessible, mythical. But I was born in time for the opposite. In this era, no one—no pristine community or idolized town—is immune to the impact of weapons that were designed only to kill, to hollow out bodies from the inside in a matter of seconds. No one and no place is immune to that kind of corruption of humanity.
The future of the fourth of July parade remains unknown, although it is likely that something else will take its place. A decades-old tradition enjoyed by generations of families has been violated, perverted. Three weeks after the shooting, I traveled to my hometown and drove through the spot where it happened, where in a few short minutes, countless lives were altered irreparably. I hid my face from my husband as, for the first time since it happened, I felt like crying. I can’t explain my resistance to doing so. Maybe crying didn’t feel earned for me. At one point, this had been my community, my center, my home, but it wasn’t anymore.
Afterward, we returned to my parents’ house, the house I grew up in and that they were in the process of selling, and I realized it would probably be years before I came back to my hometown, if I ever do.
Story Image Credit: Thomas Hawk / Flickr Creative Commons