I have written on this site before about the chain link fence in Oklahoma City that serves as an organic, personal tribute to the victims of the bombing there in 1995, and those who remember that post might be reminded again of the space I dedicated to it in my book. It is amongst the most moving places in all of America, and I recommend that anyone in that city take time to visit it (it occupies a section of sidewalk adjacent to what it is also one of the finest public monuments I know of).
Being Las Vegas, the equivalent to this fence that was erected in the wake of the Mandalay Bay shooting wasn’t so organically wrought. The 58 crosses there sit on– what else?– green turf. At least one of the crosses memorializes a Jewish person. One of the American flags that became the first thing pinned to them commemorates the death of a Canadian. The backdrop of the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign is very strange, not so much because of its incongruence with the tragedy, but because tourists were still stopping beside it to take selfies as preliminaries to the same type of partying the city has always been known for.
None of that really matters, though. The crosses– constructed by a retired carpenter who also brought them to Orlando after the Pulse slaughter, Aurora after the movie theater shooting, and Columbine after the killings in its high school (he has constructed thousands more for other shootings, all in honor of his father-in-law, whose body he found after that man was shot in the head)– became a vessel for sorrow, this time for a pan-continental event where only a fraction of the victims were residents of the state in which it took place. Locals who normally avoid the Strip as much as possible lit candles at the site. Visitors brought flowers. Families and friends of the victims, brought to town to claim bodies and perform all of the other awful duties necessary when a loved one dies away from home, took to the site as a locus for their grief, leaning photographs against the crosses, pinning mementos and personal items to them, decorating the hearts on their shafts. It became, for all its Vegassy warts, the chain link fence of October, 2017.
In this way, I found the commemoration to be irresistibly beautiful– perhaps the most beautiful and organic thing in a city largely defined by its artificiality. Americans have a long history of fueling an industry of death when they are allowed to think about it for too long, from daguerreotypes and death masks of children to garish memorials that become more about projecting the size of a person’s proposed grief than about expressing it in the purest form possible– and that’s before the public at large decides that it is worth co-opting. But the things that inhabit the best parts of our humanity are always those that are unplanned. Those gestures that are made when the feelings are not yet compartmentalized, those commemorations that simply lay bare before any who might be inclined to look on the essence of a worldly connection between souls. The Taj Mahal is impressive, certainly. But not nearly so much as the instant of pure grief in which the idea for it was first germinated. So even in a place where the enormous and ostentatious rule, it will be difficult to transcend the cluttered humanness of 58 white crosses.