Jen Doll is a former staff writer for The Wire. She is the author of Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest.
The problem is not that the rest of the world seems so meaningless, it's how numbed we've become to the horror stories in our midst.
On July 20 we woke up to the news that a 24-year-old man had killed 12 people and wounded countless others in a shooting at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. I think it's fair to say a lot of us were stunned. There have been mass shootings before in America, and globally, of course, but this one seemed to represent a bigger, more terrifying reality, not least because of the sick intersection of entertainment and murder. On that day, I wrote a piece about how futile it feels at times like these to sit in front of a computer and type out words in the face of horrific tragedy.
That July 20 was a summer Friday, like today, a day in which you'd hope news might be slow and silly, focused on questions of summer etiquette or pop culture or entertainment. Maybe some politics, maybe someone making some silly gaffe or another. But our Fridays, and our weeks, haven't really been like that this summer. While failing to garner the focused and for a week or so sustained news attention of what happened in Aurora, there have been shootings in Chicago. There have been shootings in Seattle. A shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. A shooting near Texas A&M, and one at D.C.'s Family Research Council. Around America, more and more shootings. These have been shootings that have led to injuries and numerous deaths—tragic, accidental, purposeful, stupid, and as people say, "meaningless," except to the people whose loved ones no longer exist. The problem, these many shootings and short few weeks later, is not that the rest of the world seems so meaningless, it's how numbed we've become to the horror stories in our midst.
In Times Square earlier this month, a guy was shot by NYPD officers after he brandished a knife and, they say, lunged at him. He was killed. Crowds were there to witness the occasion. Afterward, blood was reportedly on the street for several days. Today, another summer Friday, approximately one month after we learned the name James Holmes, there was another shooting "in broad daylight," in the middle of pedestrian-clogged Midtown Manhattan, near the Empire State Building. One man was killed, 9 people were reportedly injured, and the gunman was eventually killed by police as well. There was, briefly, a striking, shock-blood-red image on the home page of the New York Times of the victim [extremely graphic, link here]. It's since been replaced with a slightly less dramatic image, though still chilling, of a cop leaning over a body. The question is: What is happening to us?
People argue that we obviously need better gun control. It's hard to reasonably counter a statement like, "If fewer people had guns, there would be fewer people shooting them." What if there were no guns? We'd find other ways to kill each other, sure, but the scope and scale would be different. But this is not a post about gun control, it's about the hopelessness and powerlessness we feel in the wake of these instances. Guns are a means by which we make it easier to hurt each other. We should make it harder to hurt each other; we should also figure out why we do that stuff in the first place. That's really difficult though, maybe impossible, so instead we rage about idiot legislation or lack thereof; we rage about the "politicizing" of issues that, of course, are political issues to start with. Pro-gun people become even more firmly entrenched and defensive and sure of "rights"; anti-gun people can't understand why they don't see what appears pure fact. Could we all just please stop shooting each other? And then, one eventually tires of outrage, and that's an even more terrifying thing. When incidents like these fail to horrify, when we simply nod our heads and say, Oh, yeah, I heard the shootings in Chicago were pretty bad this summer, and then go about our daily lives, maybe that's the deepest failure we show as humans.
A sick twist about this, too, is that for a shooting to really capture us, to make us stop and think, it must be ever bigger, more cinematic. It must include, say, the Empire State Building, or the opening night of the year's biggest blockbuster, or violence at the hands of the NYPD. As soon as we find out, as with the story of today's shooting, that the dispute involved a disgruntled man who had been fired and who shot his former coworker, that is, as soon as the mayhem becomes mundane, we start to compartmentalize. This is not as harrowing, somehow, as a shooting in which a man walks into a movie theater and kills 12 random strangers. Similarly, when shootings are not "mass" but are related to, say, drug deals or other criminal acts; when they are committed by fringe characters upon one another; when they are between people who are related or married and in abusive situations; when there is some sort of motive we can place upon the event that cuts us out of the equation, we feel a little bit better, or safer, and we move on.
Even when we blame the NYPD for excessive force, or for being, as we see it, careless—Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told the press that he thought some of today's wounded were hit by bullets from the officers' guns—somehow it lessens the impact of knowing that guns have killed yet another person or people in our society. We can parse out our concerns and that makes them easier to handle, less impactful. Then there are the seasonal blames. It's summer, right? People are more angry in the summer, more prone to violence, and things will cool down when our world cools down (climate change notwithstanding). We just need to get through another week, or month.... But, of course, we're just putting off the inevitable. Even if this were true, summer will come again, along with the related upswings in violence.
Now we're in an election year, just months away from November, and yet, the discussions have steered notably far from issues like gun control, instead focusing on "women's issues" and ridiculous statements made about things that aren't, actually, key voting issues in the first place. Maybe neither candidate has the courage or inclination to delve into the question of guns, or, more broadly, of societal violence with any depth, because it's bound to be a stew of ideologies and passionate, not always rational, argumentation. And because we just don't have easy answers why, or fixes for those problems. But not talking about it certainly does more harm than good. Maybe that's an argument for why we do need to look at the photos, however jarring.
The Onion ran a piece just yesterday titled, "Nation Celebrates Full Week Without Deadly Mass Shooting." Its subhed, following today's Empire State shooting news: "UPDATE: Never Mind."
Never mind is pretty much exactly the problem. We have to keep hoping and trying and also try not to forget, because along with not addressing the cause of the violence and what makes it so extreme and, yes, mortal, the worst thing is just going about our lives, not worrying, not even thinking about it, until the next tragedy occurs.
Photo credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Ths post originally appeared on The Atlantic Wire.