Why would an 18-year-old kill?

The murder of 10 in Buffalo leaves the riddle of how hate infects the young.

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Flowers at the Chicago Botanic Garden Saturday evening, about the time an 18-year-old was murdering 10 people in Buffalo, New York.

Flowers at the Chicago Botanic Garden Saturday evening, about the time an 18-year-old was murdering 10 people in Buffalo, New York.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Eighteen.

Do you remember being 18? I do. Graduating from high school, going to prom, spending one last summer in my hometown, Berea, Ohio, baking biscuits at a Bob Evans restaurant. There were worries — I’d be going to college in the fall, living in a four-man dorm room. What about the mini-fridge? What if we all rented one? Then we’d have four.

When news of the shooting in Buffalo broke Saturday night, everyone grabbed a fact that seemed most important and waved it around. Ten people dead! A supermarket in a Black neighborhood! Toxic white supremacism seemed to motivate the alleged shooter! A lunacy once on the fringe of American society, now planted and growing at the center of the Republican Party.

The preparations this guy took — that helmet and body armor, which kept him from being wounded by the store security guard. He drove 200 miles. With an AR-15 rifle, of course. Few people even mention the gun, because it’s such an accepted part of American life. That would be like pointing out the air he breathed. Air is everywhere; everyone has access to it. Guns too.

Me, I kept thinking about his age: 18. To be that young, and throw away not only all those other lives, but your own too. To spend your whole life in prison, probably. Worse than being dead. And for what? To scratch your itch for two minutes.

Think of all the lives he destroyed or altered. Not just the dead: the wounded, the grieving, their city. I almost included us, too, in the circle of the harmed. But that’s bombast. These shootings are both shocking and routine. The Buffalo shooting was Saturday evening. I’m writing this Sunday morning, but first sincerely wondered whether by Monday this will fade so much as to be not worth addressing. Old hat. No, I think I can slip it in before we move on and forget all about it.

I focus on the apparent shooter’s age because it’s the aspect I can most relate to — I’ve never been to Buffalo, or shot anybody, or wanted to, or been shot. But I was 18. Sitting in Introduction to Russian in the fall. Shto eta? Eta capoosta. “What is this? This is a cabbage.” Russia seemed a direction I might want to go. Because at 18, you can go anywhere you want. Not everyone knows it. Not everyone has the same resources. But most 18 year-olds have choices.

To make this choice.... The hatred is just completely alien to me. Where does that come from? Yes, Fox News. But what makes a person believe it, act on it? Haters hurt other people, but they also hurt themselves, even if they never kill, even if they just spend their lives staring fixedly at the object of their loathing. How much of our national discourse comes from broken people desperately lashing out at others they feel they are somehow entitled to hurt?

Such a lovely day Saturday. My wife and I headed to the Chicago Botanic Garden before dinner. Along with half the North Shore, it seemed. But the place is so big, 385 acres, it gets populated, but never crowded in a bad way. And the people — old, young, every race, every ethnicity, every bit as gorgeous as the flowers. Watching them is part of the fun.

“I like how you hear languages and don’t even know what they are,” I told my wife, as I tried to identify the snatches of conversation floating by in the fragrant air. Romanian? Urdu? Farsi? How can you hate anyone for being different? Difference makes them interesting.

Babies in strollers. Grandmas in wheelchairs. Several wedding parties. Women in saris, kimonos, prom dresses. Young men in tuxes. On the way out I checked the time on my phone, and an alert shouted that something bad had happened in Buffalo.

You don’t have to go that far to find shooting. Within an hour, a 16-year-old would be shot and killed at The Bean, the mirrored heart of Chicago. One of several children killed by guns in and around Chicago this weekend. The youngest was 9.

The war in Ukraine made me wonder when our deep divisions and dehumanizing rhetoric would bring that kind of violence here. And the truth is, it’s already begun.

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