It should include the names of every victim of gun violence, which is, of course, impracticable, but that is the point. This memorial is meant to be finished only when America’s grotesque fetish cult of guns has finally yielded to peace.
There is one obvious and necessary site for the memorial: the lopped-off triangle of land on the north side of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, at the base of the Capitol, a plot bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue, Constitution Avenue and First and Third streets NW. This is the last, large open space close to the Capitol.
And the new memorial must be close to the Capitol, close enough to implicate and shame the men and women who work inside it on a daily basis.
Year after year, decade after decade, gun violence remains our preeminent source of national grief and humiliation, a battle we lose every hour, with a toll beyond calculation if measured in the only term that matters, which is misery. All of this could be stopped, and we could join the host of other countries, many of them developed, prosperous democracies, in which this scourge is unknown. We could, were it not for the gun lobby and its dominion over a sufficient number of elected representatives to thwart all efforts at reasonable gun control.
The plot on the northwest side of the Capitol grounds has the symbolic resonance and density that the original designers of the Mall would have wanted. A gun-violence memorial situated there would give symmetry across the north-south axis of Union Square, site of the brooding and powerful memorial to Ulysses S. Grant. Thus, it would balance the message of growth and fertility embodied in the U.S. Botanic Garden, which is sited in the mirror-image plot along Independence Avenue. One side of the square would be a memorial to 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 actually fought to an end, unlike our ongoing age of self-destruction.
Finally, a substantial memorial to World War One in the nation’s capital
The memorial would also be contiguous, on its southeast corner, with the Peace Monument, erected in 1878 and meant as a Civil War memorial. Atop this 44-foot-high marble sculpture, the figure of Grief hides her face, weeping on the shoulder of History. At its base are the figures of two tiny children, representing Mars and Neptune. But forget their allegorical meaning. Let them just be children, like the children who died at Newtown, Conn. Like the children who died in a fourth-grade classroom Tuesday in Uvalde, Tex.
Visitors to the new national memorial to gun violence will be able to look up at the Capitol and ask questions prompted by the old 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 once we thought we might wrangle History and define our own destiny? Why does Grief never take a vacation?
And what would this new memorial look like?
A gun violence memorial suggests what a covid memorial might look like
There is already a Gun Violence Memorial Project, conceived by MASS Design Group and conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, which has been installed in Chicago and is now on view (through September) in Washington. It offers one very sensible possibility for what the new National Memorial might look like. It includes four, house-like structures made of glass bricks, with niches in which the families of gun-violence victims can place mementos of their lost loved ones. Scaled up to a necropolis, it could make the right impression, a modernist Hooverville of death in the shadow of our great national charnel house of inaction.
But it would also need a focus, a site for public speaking and gathering. The essential thing is that the new memorial force us all, and especially our feckless political leaders, to get beyond the generalities and obfuscations they have used for decades to perpetuate this endless and chaotic civil violence. It must be a place where thoughts are specific and prayers are articulated publicly.
No politician may come and simply repeat the platitude of thoughts and prayers. What, specifically, are you praying for? And does your religion allow you to ask God to fix the things you might easily fix if you had the courage to do so? After every mass shooting, turn on the brightest lights, power up the microphones, and let no political leader who makes the symbolic pilgrimage escape speaking actual truth on a site sacred to those who suffer.
It should be the obvious place where the president, after yet another mass killing like the racist killing of 10 African Americans in Buffalo less than two weeks ago, goes to make his or her statement, and say his or her prayers (if he or she is religious). Let the motorcade travel up Pennsylvania Avenue, reversing the direction of the inaugural parade, to symbolically enact the undoing of our own power, the uselessness of political leadership in a culture bought and paid for by the gun lobby.
If the memorial is classical in design — and perhaps that will speak better to the audience that needs to hear this message — let it be engraved not with vague platitudes but very specific pleas and demands. Our poets will say it better, so let them dress up words to this effect and chisel them on the frieze: Here we grieve those who died because we were impotent to help ourselves.
Regardless of the style or particulars of its design, the essential thing is that it impose itself on the landscape. It must be large enough that no tour bus can pass by without someone on board asking: What is that? Why is it there? Why are they still hammering names on its wall and how can we make them stop?
Perhaps it should have a bell, a huge, somber 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 more than a 100 gun deaths per day, it would mark the quarter hours, at least. Make it the Liberty Bell, the actual Liberty Bell, and ring it until it shatters. Because who can say we are free when we cannot free ourselves from this self-immolation?
There are huge hurdles to creating new monuments and memorials in Washington, a process that takes years. This particular parcel of land is at the end of the National Mall, in an area controlled by the Architect of the Capitol, and subject to a complex process of oversight.
But the new memorial should be defined from the beginning as a temporary structure, to be demolished the minute it is finished — perhaps when gun deaths fall below some designated daily toll, ideally zero, but at least something that isn’t an international embarrassment. And let’s hope it is finished. Let’s hope that one day, for a full day, the bell never tolls, and the masons chiseling names on the walls can put down their tools.