It should include the names of every victim of gun violence, which is, of course, impractical, but that is the point. This memorial is supposed to be finished only when America’s grotesque gun fetish cult finally yields to peace.
There is an obvious and necessary site for the memorial: the triangle of land cut into the north side of the Capitol Reflecting Pool at the base of the Capitol, land bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue, Constitution Avenue, and First and Third Streets NW. It’s the last big open space near the Capitol.
And the new memorial must be close to the Capitol, close enough to engage and shame the men and women who work there every day.
Year after year, decade after decade, armed violence remains our greatest source of national grief and humiliation, a battle we are losing every hour, with an incalculable toll if measured in the one term that matters, namely misery. All of this could be stopped and we could join the multitude of other countries, many of which are developed and prosperous democracies, where this scourge is unknown. We could, were it not for the gun lobby and its dominance over enough elected officials to thwart all reasonable gun control efforts.
The plot on the northwest side of the Capitol Grounds has the symbolic resonance and density that the mall’s original designers would have intended. A gun violence memorial located there would provide symmetry to the north-south axis of Union Square, site of the brooding and powerful memorial of Ulysses S. Grant. Thus, it would balance the message of growth and fertility embodied in the United States Botanical Garden, which is located in the mirror plot along Independence Avenue. One side of the square would be a memorial to the death; on the other side, a garden of life. And between them, a reflecting pool and a reminder of the civil war, a war of fratricidal carnage that we fought until the end, unlike our time of self-destruction.
Finally, a major World War I memorial in the nation’s capital
The memorial would also be contiguous, at its southeast corner, with the Peace Monument, erected in 1878 and intended as a Civil War memorial. Atop this 44-foot-tall marble sculpture, the figure of Sorrow hides his face, weeping on History’s shoulder. At its base are the figures of two small children, representing Mars and Neptune. But forget their allegorical meaning. Whether they’re just children, like the children who died in Newtown, Conn. Like the children who died in a fourth grade classroom on Tuesday in Uvalde, Texas.
Visitors to the new National Gun Violence Memorial will be able to gaze up at the Capitol and ask questions prompted by the ancient Peace Monument: Why can’t the United States of America protect its children? Why do we continue to use weapons of war to make war on ourselves? Why have we committed to a doctrine of self-destruction, when we once thought we could argue with history and define our own destiny? Why does Grief never take a vacation?
And what would this new memorial look like?
Gun violence memorial suggests what a covid memorial could look like
There is already a Gun Violence Memorial Project, designed by MASS Design Group and concept artist Hank Willis Thomas, which was installed in Chicago and is now on view (until September) in Washington. It offers a very sensible possibility of what the new national memorial might look like. It includes four house-like structures made of glass bricks, with niches in which families of gun violence victims can place keepsakes of their lost loved ones. On the scale of a necropolis, he might make a good impression, a modernist Hooverville of death in the shadow of our great national charnel ground of inaction.
But he would also need a center of interest, a place to speak in public and to gather. The bottom line is that the new memorial forces all of us, and especially our inept politicians, to move beyond the generalities and obscure obscurities they have used for decades to perpetuate this endless and chaotic civil violence. It should be a place where thoughts are specific and prayers are articulated publicly.
No politician can come and just repeat the platitude of thoughts and prayers. What exactly are you praying for? And does your religion allow you to ask God to fix things that you could easily fix if you had the courage to do so? After every mass shooting, turn on the brightest lights, turn on the microphones, and don’t let any political leader making the symbolic pilgrimage escape the real truth at a site sacred to those who suffer.
This should be the obvious place where the President, after yet another massacre like the racist murder of 10 African Americans in Buffalo less than two weeks ago, goes to do his statement, and say his prayers (if he is religious). Let the procession walk up Pennsylvania Avenue, reversing the direction of the inaugural parade, to symbolize the destruction of our own power, the uselessness of political leadership in a culture bought and paid for by the gun lobby.
If the memorial is classically designed – and perhaps that will speak best to the public who needs to hear this message – let it be etched not with vague platitudes but with very specific pleas and demands. Our poets will say it better, as they dress the words to this effect and chisel them on the frieze: Here we mourn those who died because we were powerless to help each other.
No matter the style or peculiarities of its design, the main thing is that it stands out in the landscape. It must be large enough that no tour bus can pass without someone on board asking: What is this? Why is he there? Why are they still pounding names on his wall and how can we stop them?
Perhaps there should be a bell, a huge dark bell loud enough to be heard inside the Senate Chamber. Let it ring once for every gun death in the United States that day. With well over 100 gun deaths a day, that would mark at least quarter-hours. Make it the Liberty Bell, the genuine Liberty Bell, and ring it until it breaks. Because who can say that we are free when we cannot free ourselves from this self-immolation?
There are enormous obstacles to creating new monuments and memorials in Washington, a process that takes years. This particular plot of land is at the end of the National Mall, in an area controlled by the Capitol’s architect and subject to a complex process of surveillance.
But the new memorial should be defined from the start as a temporary structure, to be demolished as soon as it is completed – perhaps when gun deaths fall below some designated daily toll, ideally zero, but at least least something that is not an international embarrassment. And hope it’s over. Let’s hope that one day, for a whole day, the bell never rings, and that the masons chiseling names on the walls can lay down their tools.