the system

America’s Impenetrable Fog of Innocence

A woman mourns the victims of the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, in May 2022.
A woman mourns the victims of the mass shooting in Buffalo. Photo: Libby March for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Even if Robert Donald were the rare 75-year-old who watches livestreams on Twitch, he would not have known that the video broadcasting at around 2:30 p.m. on Saturday had anything to do with him. The footage was from a camera attached to a person’s head and showed their point of view as they got out of a car, made their way through the parking lot into a Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, and started shooting people with an assault rifle. Donald would not have recognized the Bushmaster XM-15 he sold earlier this year, partly because it had been modified to hold more ammo and a racial slur had been painted on the barrel. “I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Donald told the New York Times, explaining that he did not even remember the person who bought the rifle. “But I feel terrible about it.”

Donald’s response — an uneasy mix of shock, innocence, and guilt — is as familiar as it is peculiar. We have long grown used to the tiresome debates over what makes this country exceptional, yet here we have an example of an atrocity that, in the particular way it happened, could have happened only in the U.S. That it is not recognized by many Americans like Donald for what it is — one of our defining failures — proves that any full accounting of this place’s singular violence is drowning in delusion and denial.

The chain of events that ended with ten corpses on the floor of a Buffalo supermarket may be foggy for Donald, but it was clear to the alleged shooter, Payton Gendron. A 180-page manifesto that the 18-year-old seems to have written details a trip in January to Vintage Firearms, the gun store Donald owns, where the rifle was purchased for $960. It explains the meticulous process by which the gunman targeted the Tops store on Jefferson Avenue, a three-hour drive from his home in Conklin, because the demographic data showed it would have a lot of Black customers. The manifesto alludes to a reconnaissance trip Gendron took the day before the killings in which he spent hours watching the supermarket and taking mental notes about its security.

He was naturally acquainted with the many American teen gunmen who came before him, so Gendron took the precaution of wearing body armor and a tactical helmet, which shielded him from the bullets fired by the guard he knew would be there. There may be several countries where he could have gotten his hands on a firearm and launched a killing spree, but there are few where his stated source of inspiration, 28-year-old Dylann Roof, was so likely to be a close contemporary. His spiritual forebears in Oslo, Norway, and Christchurch, New Zealand, each committed mass shootings in countries where shootings almost never happen, but Buffalo’s was the 198th mass shooting in the U.S. between January 1 and May 14 alone. The victims swallowed their final breaths at the same time that an unidentified man who has opened fire on three Korean-run businesses in Dallas since April was still at-large. One of Gendron’s backup firearms was a Savage Axis XP semi-automatic rifle his father had gotten him for Christmas when he was 16 years old.

And there are few countries where the conspiracy theory that appears to have inspired the massacre, known as the “Great Replacement,” would also be a dominant talking point on the country’s most-watched cable-news network. When Gendron inveighed against the mythical plot by Jews to replace non-Jewish whites with racial minorities, he might as well have been channeling Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who delivers a version of the same message to more than 3 million viewers on a given night. The very process by which Gendron chose his target is indebted to America’s particular history with race. Food deserts in majority-Black regions are not naturally occurring phenomena but the product of decades of discrimination. The Tops market on Jefferson exists only because segregated residents had been agitating for nutritious groceries for years before it finally opened in 2003.

Few countries, and maybe none, routinely treat this collection of facts as acceptable. The price of American freedom is the likelihood that Andre Mackniel could go shopping for a birthday cake for his 3-year-old son and leave in a body bag.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about it is how many people live in the same fog that shrouds Robert Donald. Any effort to determine responsibility is hard when the foundation of the whole enterprise is irresponsibility. The proliferation of guns in the U.S. is justified through a culture of blamelessness regarding guns. By the time a trigger gets pulled and someone gets killed, the act has become so disconnected from every step before it that a solemn headshake and an assertion of personal absolution is all many people can muster.

The result is a sense that this kind of violence is elemental. Mass shootings are rare enough in the U.S., and firearms rampant enough, that the gap between them gets offered as evidence that the former do not represent a crisis. The consequences of actions taken by the lobbyists, manufacturers, and gun fetishists, and their organs in elected politics and their propagandists in the media, start to look like laws of nature. When a segregated ghetto is mired in gun violence, blame lies with the culture of its residents. When a lone gunman shoots up a supermarket, blame lies with the pathologies of sick individuals. The Americans in thrall to these ideas are like Donald — rattled and anxious but confident in the end that they are innocent. They may wonder briefly, as the blood dries, if they could have done anything differently, only to reach the conclusion that this stuff just happens, and move on.

America’s Impenetrable Fog of Innocence