Sept. 11, 2001, awakened me to the awfulness possible in this world. Working at home, I watched the terror attacks unfold on live TV. What happened that day was so absurdly profane, so catastrophic and ghastly, that it eclipsed the limits of my comprehension and imagination. I was numb, feeling the need to do something, anything, but not knowing what to do. Without really understanding why, I hopped in my car and drove to the South Florida Blood Bank. I was surprised and pleased to find a number of other people who had the same impulse, coming together to make a positive difference in the face of evil. About one hundred people gathered that afternoon, trying to donate blood for a tidal wave of survivors who never showed because they didn’t exist.
What happened in Las Vegas Sunday night awakened those feelings once again. Caught between grief, outrage, despondence, and powerlessness, I have fallen back not only on my spirituality but also on my academic training, which often comforts me as much as my Presbyterian-turned-Unitarian-Universalist worldview. Mine was a reflective upbringing, in which using both hemispheres of the brain—the scientific and the religious, the reason-based and the faith-based, the “rational” and the “irrational”—were not mutually exclusive. I’ve always admired the old axiom about feeling with your mind and thinking with your heart.
More than a decade ago, Harvard professor Katherine Newman wrote a book called Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings (New York: Basic Books, 2004), in which she identified the five necessary ingredients in any school shooting: 1) marginalization, 2) psycho-social problems (i.e., mental illness), 3) “cultural scripts,” or pre-knowledge of similar incidents which serve as blueprints for would-be gunmen, 4) lack of supervision or surveillance, and 5) guns. Take away any one of these ingredients, she argued, and the mass shooting will be averted.
Newman’s criteria suggest that there are multiple paths to ameliorating the problem of mass shootings, or rampage killings, or whatever we choose to call the appalling occurrences that regularly steal lives in the United States. It was this understanding that led me to write the following letter(s) to my U.S. Senators, the Honorable Bill Nelson [D – FL] and the Honorable Marco Rubio [R – FL]:
Dear Senator Nelson and Senator Rubio,
Mass shootings are America’s number-one public safety issue. They can happen anywhere, anytime, anyplace. None of us are safe. After Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, San Bernandino, and elsewhere, the massacre in Las Vegas is almost unbearable.
Please, take action of some sort, on some level, on any front—whether gun control or mental health intervention or something to build community and spread love to prevent these tragedies from recurring. Something. Anything.
Whether such pleas will have an effect this time remains to be seen, but I am, for the moment at least, hopeful.
One thing is certain. The only way to ensure the occurrence of another shooting in the future is to do nothing at all, to continue to wish that such happenings will magically cease—a strategy that has proven ineffective in the wake of Littleton, Blacksburg, Aurora, Newtown, Orlando, and other massacres. The familiar pattern of shock, grief, and return to normalcy yields more of the same. And it is shameful to allow such killings to become the new normal in American society. Other nations have found ways to reduce the likelihood of mass killings. The United States, a resourceful and innovative nation known for its inventions and entrepreneurial spirit, should be able to do so too.
Evil can and does find a way. The 2011 bombing and shooting spree by a single gunman that left nearly 100 dead in Norway shows that even progressive nations with tight gun control laws can fall prey to the terrorism of lone individuals. But to resign ourselves to the inevitability of such crimes is unimaginative, un-American and, for lack of a better term, evil in and of itself. Our nation lacks what I have called “viosense,” a knowledge of and self-awareness about heightened levels of intrapersonal violence and ways to combat it. Perhaps viosense can help the United States claim a place alongside other developed nations that have effectively dealt with this issue.
Something I realized while researching and writing Reload: Rethinking Violence in American Life (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2010) is that random violence is not random at all: it’s generalized. Violence directed at no one in particular is violence directed at all of us in general. Mass shootings are now endemic to American society. They are not spotty and erratic. They are anywhere, anytime, anyplace. As such they demand a collective response, a nationwide outcry against.
Some have argued for a moratorium, a silent period of apolitical grief and mourning in which we refuse to discuss political solutions to gun violence. Such a request might be reasonable if collective focus did not inevitably slip into disinterest and inaction in the wake of such tragedies. I wonder if those same voices would truly find another time more suitable for debate, or whether in fact they would find any moment of reasoned debate and discussion displeasing and disruptive. Perhaps it is not the timing but rather the topic itself that rankles their sensibilities. One might reasonably inquire when a better time would be. I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in which he addressed those critics who found his nonviolent protests untimely. “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well-timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation,” he wrote, continuing:
For years now I have heard the word “Wait”! It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”
Rather than wait for a “better” time to discuss mass shootings, perhaps we should do it now, before our collective attention wanders. It seems, in fact, that the only time mass shootings enter public dialogue is during a brief period immediately after such tragedies. Perhaps we might agree that there is no “good” time to discuss gun violence, that mass shootings—like racial segregation—are an inherently disquieting and discomforting topic. Perhaps, however, we might also agree that the only thing more disquieting and discomforting would be to stand by mutely, waiting for the next mass shooting to occur.