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Editorial: In late spring, the reality of American life came close to home

In early June, a mass shooter drill was held on the grounds of the Greenport Union Free School District. It drew more than 240 first responders from across the region, there to learn how to react when an armed person enters a school with the express purpose of killing people.

The event was a national story acted out locally. The deaths of 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, at the hands of an 18-year-old with an assault weapon had happened just two weeks earlier. 

Taking over the Greenport school building and grounds were 62 “victims” and the first responders — law enforcement, fire departments and medical crews — from across the East End. Greenport Fire Department first assistant chief Alain de Kerillis deserves credit for helping set up the exercise, knowing full well that preparing for such a horror is better than just hoping it never happens — magical thinking that it would always occur somewhere else.

No doubt the residents of Highland Park, Ill., a movie-set kind of community on the shores of Lake Michigan, never for an instant thought such a horror would come to their town. But on July 4, as residents gathered for the traditional parade, a man armed with a legally purchased high-powered rifle opened fire, killing seven and wounding 40. Police later arrested a 21-year-old whose violent state of mind was on display in his social media posts.

If there is nothing more American than a Fourth of July parade, it is now also true, sadly, that nothing says America like a mass shooting. There have been over 300 such massacres in the U.S. just since Jan. 1, according to multiple reports. 

What shocked readers of last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, which did a story on the Greenport drill, were the many graphic photos of young people posing as students and expressly made up to look like gunshot victims. Fake bullet holes in bodies, fake blood streaming down faces and limbs.

The images are truly heartbreaking and provide a grotesque reminder of the country we are living in. In one, a young man lies prone in the bleachers of the outdoor stadium, appearing to any observer to be dead. Another shows a wounded girl, comforting another wounded girl, holding her hand as they both wait for medical help.

Because of the rising frequency of mass shootings, it is now necessary to move from a “drill” — in which students are told there is an armed person in the building and taught to hide in closets and lock doors — to a full-fledged simulation that involves applying copious amounts of fake blood to make the “victims” look like they have really been shot. America, circa 2022.

Greenport Village worked with a training company to pull this off, with students in the bleachers outside being treated for their wounds and law enforcement inside the building hunting for the shooter. The Times Magazine story made an observation that surely reflects the flurry of mass shooting incidents: “… whatever public misgivings surround simulations, demand for them from school districts and public-safety organizations is rising. [The training company owner has,] he says, more requests for them on Long Island than he can fulfill.”