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CONSIDERING the frequency with which gun massacres now occur in America, the media attention they garner, and the failure of that attention either to shift public opinion regarding gun control or to prod the political system to take any action at all, the outpouring of sentiment over the shootings Friday in Newtown, Connecticut is probably best viewed as a ritualistic exercise in mass histrionics.Not for the friends and family of those killed, obviously; for them the killings are a real and horrific tragedy. Those of us who view the events remotely, however, unless we start to evince a newfound appetite for gun-control measures to prevent future mass slayings, are doing little more than displaying and enjoying our own exalted strickenness.
This is an activity at which we, as a culture, excel. Americans’ postmodern eagerness for self-aggrandising displays of grief over events that did not actually happen to us was captured over two decades ago in the still-remarkable “Heathers“; as that movie understood, mass slayings at schools provide the perfect backdrop of “senseless” tragedy against which the public can profile its own angst and bogus sorrow.
Thomas de Zengotita, in his book “Mediated“, has a nice analysis of the way the Western public’s treatment of media-transmitted tragedies evolved from Pearl Harbor through the assassination of JFK to the death of Princess Diana, as the public gradually came to see these moments chiefly as occasions to stage its own overwrought little emotional performances, like teenagers boasting unconvincingly of how upset they are by another kid’s parents’ divorce. “Princess Diana’s mourners,” wrote de Zengotita,
so many of them, so obviously exhibiting their grief, not even pretending that they weren’t exhibiting it, understanding that this was their role, in both the sociological and theatrical sense, understanding that they were there for this purpose in service of the Global Show that their very presence was inciting, producing and promoting in real time…
From the American side of the Atlantic, what appeared ludicrous about Princess Diana’s mourners was that the story they had immersed themselves in had nothing to do with them. The cavorting of all these rich and decadent people, the fact that one of them had an affair and died in a car crash—how could they be under the illusion that they had any connection to this? They could have no effect; there was nothing to have an effect on; it was a sad, senseless story that happened to other people.
The killings in Newtown, of course, appear just as “senseless”, if one insists on ruling out the idea that such episodes might be forestalled by limiting people’s access to firearms. Indeed, it’s most convenient for media purposes when such tragedies are truly “senseless”; it lends them a nicely wistful aura, and makes it easier for the grief-performing public to spin them in whatever creative fashion they like. (See Ross Douthat’s weepy response, which tacks clear to Dostoevsky and Ivan Karamazov. Alack, the death of innocents; is God even possible in such a world, and so forth.) And as of last Thursday, we certainly appeared to have given up any pretense of trying to prevent future school massacres. The New York Times op-ed by Gregory Gibson, whose son Galen was killed by a college shooter in 1992, strikes an appropriately bitter tone.
In the wake of Galen’s murder, I wrote a book about the shooting. In it I suggested that we view gun crime as a public health issue, much the same as smoking or pesticides. I spent a number of years attending rallies, signing petitions, writing letters and making speeches, but eventually I gave up. Gun control, such a live issue in the “early” days of school shootings, inexplicably became a third-rail issue for politicians.
I came to realise that, in essence, this is the way we in America want things to be. We want our freedom, and we want our firearms, and if we have to endure the occasional school shooting, so be it…
More horrible still — to me at least — is the inevitable lament, “How could we have let this happen?” It is a horrible question because the answer is so simple. Make it easy for people to get guns and things like this will happen.
“Eventually I gave up.” This, from a man whose son was killed. We sure did right by that guy, America!
It’s not entirely out of the question that the US will actually make some kind of renewed push to address its mass gun shooting problem this time around. Michael Bloomberg, one of the few major elected officials in the country who enjoys the respect of both Democrats and Republicans, is making a huge push to embarrass other politicians into taking up the issue, and his preferred solution seems to be pretty far out on the anti-NRA side of the spectrum, including enforcing existing background-check laws and reviving the assault-weapons ban, which would have made illegal the .223 Bushmaster rifle used by the Newtown killer. And in his memorial-service speech last night Barack Obama crossed a new rhetorical threshold by asking: “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” Mr Obama was clearly taking direct aim at the ridiculous but widely embraced argument that private firearms are crucial to protecting Americans’ civil rights.
But a more serious effort to save the lives of some large fraction of the 30,000 people who are killed by firearms every year in America would have to involve aggressively reducing the number of handguns in circulation. This is impossible, because there are something like 300m handguns out there in America by now, because many gun owners (including, apparently, the Newtown killer’s first victim, his mother) are fanatically committed to keeping these life-threatening toys around the house, and because Supreme Court precedent now holds that the second amendment guarantees an individual right to gun ownership. (The fact that it’s protected by the second amendment, of course, doesn’t have much bearing on whether it’s ethical. The constitution protects many forms of reprehensible behaviour.) Even reinstating the assault-weapons ban looks like a tough political hurdle at this point. So unless the American people are willing to actually do something to stop the next massacre of toddlers from happening, we should shut up and quit blubbering. It’s our fault, and until we evince some remorse for our actions or intention to reform ourselves, the idea that we consider ourselves entitled to “mourn” the victims of our own barbaric policies is frankly disgusting.
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