I woke up this morning, pulled my iPad off my nightstand and opened Twitter to see if there was any overnight news. There was a horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas. I spun around to get a handle on the scope of the attack, the death toll and other basic facts. Then I started thinking through what has now become a basic ritual.
Who was the suspect? I hoped it wasn’t a Muslim. I also hoped it wasn’t an African-American man. Obviously, the identity of the shooter doesn’t make anyone more dead or alive. For the particular crime, the identity and even the motive is basically irrelevant. As a journalist, I shouldn’t really ‘hope’ it is or is not anyone. It is whatever it is. Is this liberal guilt or race fixation? I don’t think so. I do so for a pretty simple reason: mass violence by Muslims or black men are immediately political – and wrapped into storylines they have relatively little connection to – whereas as mass violence by whites just is. They are individual acts and unfathomable, no more addressable by policy or societal action than the obvious and inevitable fact that we will all one day die.
If the shooter is a Muslim or even more a Muslim immigrant, the attack is “terrorism” and even more than that it becomes enrolled into the catalog of threats to justify immigrant bans, surveilling or expulsion of Muslim immigrants, various military actions in the Middle East, new wars, scraping the Iran nuclear deal.
If it’s a black man it’s only slightly less political. It’s part of the rising tide of crime (statistically slightly true though greatly exaggerated) Jeff Sessions and President Trump use to inflame racial division and reignite the drug war and 80s era policing. It’s a violent turn for the rising tide of African-American protest ranging from taking a knee to protests in Ferguson and other cities.
If it is a white man, seemingly without religious views of any particular relevance to the crime or targeting people of a particular race, it’s just … a thing that happened and not something we can do anything about. It’s original sin. A troubled, distraught person. Just a crazed individual, someone who seemed normal and then went horribly wrong. Critically, it’s an individual story, isolated and untouchable by anything we can do as a society.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: when the shooter isn’t white the violence is often ‘terrorism’ and almost always political. That tells us a lot about racism and xenophobia in America. But fundamentally these are diversions. The problem is that America is the only country which is wealthy and not roiled by endemic civil conflict or war which regularly has mass gun massacres.
There are exceptions: explicitly racist murders by white men put a focus on racism. Dylann Roof’s 2015 black church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina permanently altered the debate over the Confederate flag in South Carolina. But these are the exceptions.
It’s certainly not like no one cares. Far from it. Everyone does. As I write, the whole country is in another of these spasms of shock and numbness. If you think part of the problem is guns, you’ve known since the Newtown massacre that literally no outrage is great enough for the country to rethink its march toward greater and greater freedom to arm yourself with more and more powerful weapons. We won’t even have a period of a few weeks in which there will be a push for new gun restrictions only to see it fail. Because we know no new law will be passed.
Fundamentally, we are stuck. All the massacres matter. But they’re only readily politicized along our existing paranoia about Muslim terrorists and white fears of black criminality. Since any action on guns is ruled out, we’re left with more or less emotive versions of “thoughts and prayers.” The easy availability of military style weapons is obvious and immediate cause of these massacres. Human nature contains violence, evil, senseless aggression. But that’s true in every country. We’re the only place where anything remotely like this happens on a regular basis.
But beyond guns – which are absolutely, absolutely necessary to address and dramatically restrict access to – we need to recognize that we don’t have mass violence only because of guns. We have so many guns because America is a deeply violent society. That goes back generations. We have recurrent massacres because we are awash in firearms and also because we are a deeply violent society. Nothing so deeply rooted in our culture can be easily changed. But we could change it. We cannot and do not because at the end of the day we accept it.