Published 29th September 2016
The latest work from Guardian editor-at-large, Gary Younge, has a simple premise: pick a random day; find the name of each child in the United States who was killed in gun violence in those twenty-four hours; investigate who these children were and under what circumstances they died; and write a chapter on each of them. With that in mind, this may be the only book you ever read in which the contents page itself gives you pause. Mr Younge’s book contains ten chapters, one of them as brief as ten pages. Just ten pages, for a life, though abbreviated, as real and rich as yours or mine.
The day Mr Younge chose, November 23rd, 2013, was atypically deadly, though not as much as one might hope; ten children died that day, while seven is the average number. All of them were male—seven black, two Hispanic, one white. On an average day, fewer would be black, more white, but young black males would remain the group most disproportionately affected by gun violence. As Mr Younge says, this book and its stories are not about race, at least not in the first instance, and yet with figures like these, race is an inescapable part of his discussion of the broader implications of America’s gun culture, of those who gain from guns and those most harmed.
In focussing so narrowly on a single day’s worth of material, Mr Younge makes abundantly clear the ubiquity and broad acceptance of the deaths of children by the American population: as he shows, in case after case, these children’s deaths are not widely reported, leave almost no trace on the popular consciousness. If a child anywhere in the United Kingdom is killed with a gun, one hears about it on the news, and of course that is as it should be. In America, if every such murder were reported nationwide, there would be no time for news of anything else. Simply by reporting on these lives at some length, then, and bringing them to public attention, Mr Younge is doing respectful and very valuable work.
It is no surprise, given the author’s background, that Another Day is journalistic in style. The sources Mr Younge is most comfortable with, and those he draws upon most extensively, are his own interviews with bereaved parents and friends, as well as others affected by these gun deaths. These interviews are presented dispassionately; Mr Younge realises, as the best journalists do, that the words of the parent or sibling or friend of the deceased are inherently arresting, and that his work can assume the considerable gravity of their words when they are offered with little narration.
“this may be the only book you ever read in which the contents page itself gives you pause”
In some cases, however, such as those of Kenneth Mills-Tucker and Pedro Cortez, Mr Younge is unable to conduct such interviews, for one reason or another. Perhaps the community that the boy inhabited has closed in on itself following his death, like a wound still healing, and a foreign journalist is not welcome. Perhaps the author has been heavy-handed in his requests for interviews, and those to whom he reaches out do not wish to deal with him.
Failing that, Mr Younge’s second line of inquiry is typically to scour social media profiles, selecting revealing Facebook posts and series of tweets. Their inclusion here is appropriate, and powerful in two ways. First, some boys’ homages to getting high and getting money remind us both of their youth and of the kinds of things in their lives that seemed like ends in themselves. It is surely bluster, for the most part, but they did not live long enough to change.
Second, the self a boy constructs on social media sometimes contrasts very sharply with the boy that his relatives and friends describe. These two pictures of a person can seem irreconcilable, as if the parents did not know their child at all. It is possible that the mother of a dead child is no good or objective judge of character. If she calls her boy an angel, we might dismiss her judgement, in a cold light, as beatification, undeserved. Far easier to pallet is an innate notion that, to some extent at least, the boy must have brought his death upon himself, and warrants only limited sympathy: if he did not want to be shot, he should not have associated with guns or those that carried them.
Ever since the massacre of twenty pupils at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, however, that presumption of guilt has become more difficult to justify. Children of six and seven possess the purest innocence and assume no guilt, and one of them have erred, and we saw them as infinite promise lost. That they should have been murdered is unthinkable. Yet many of those profiled in Another Day grew up in poor urban communities, in Chicago or Indianapolis or Newark, and they are not afforded the same presumption of innocence. Some of the boys of whom we read have criminal records for petty offences—possession of small quantities of marijuana, or else traffic violations—and the author never obfuscates or denies it. And of course it is far easier to stomach the death of somebody one sees first as a criminal than any of the blameless victims at Sandy Hook. The question of personal responsibility again creeps in: if he’s old enough to drive a car and to be arrested, he’s old enough to know better than to be around guns. But that is convenient absolution for the reader, and this book does not allow it. These are children who have died, and Mr Younge never loses sight of that. Of personal responsibility we should expect only so much, yet the harsh environment of their upbringing may have left no margin for error. For some of these boys, life was a narrow walkway between the two poles which drew them away from home: prison and death. There are innumerable historical and structural reasons why this should be so: local and federal governments have deliberately disinvested in the urban poor for decades, and this has led to the decline of schools, emergency services, teenage employment, and anything else you might care to name. Children have been willfully encouraged onto the streets, and they are expected to be arrested or die young. The tragedy, so often repeated in Another Day, is that young men and women have to make this choice in the first place.
“In America, if every such murder were reported nationwide, there would be no time for news of anything else”
In editorial passages more or less relevant to the subject at hand at a given moment, Mr Younge takes the time to quash a number of damaging, deeply rooted myths that so often come to light in discussions of American gun violence, even those between apparently informed professionals. Contrary to popular belief, far more people were killed in gun violence in America in previous generations. We do not live in an abnormally lethal time, and this may be one reason why gun deaths are not widely reported today—there is no narrative of decline. And in a memorable moment (for it only takes a moment) the author puts an end to the odious notion that ‘black-on-black crime’ should be the focus of discussion and the site of blame, rather than America’s gun culture itself. (I will not repeat the reasoning here; I could not do better.) This is the kind of understanding that is essential if a conversation about gun crime is to progress and not stagnate, as it has done for many years.
Some figures in Another Day offer invaluable insight, like the behaviour specialist Mario Black in Charlotte, North Carolina, whose work to combat gun crime in the area is extensive and impressive, and was spurred by the murder of his own brother, also in 2013. He is not the only one to have taken up the anti-gun crime cause as a result of personal bereavement—throughout the book, such people shimmer and recede across all eight states in which children were shot dead that day. Theirs is the kind of unglamorous work that does not often show its face beyond a local community, the kind that of which you do not know unless you seek it out or, as in the rare case of this book, it is discovered and trumpeted. The nature of the work here is such that there is no continuity; nobody, however worthy, is present for more than a chapter. Just as the deaths rack up, and the pointlessness of each one bores ever deeper into the brain, so too the kindness of selfless men and women buoy the spirit a little. Thanks to its unique genesis and straightforward execution, Mr Younge’s work is all about cumulative effects.
Image: Guardian Faber 2016