The Twilight of Our Candlelight Vigils
There was a school shooting in my hometown yesterday. Perhaps you’ve read about it; perhaps not.
I was first made aware of it by my good friend Russell Saunders, who sent me a text from the other side of the country to make sure my boys were safe. They were. Troutdale, the Portland suburb in lockdown at the time, was on the other end of the Rose City from my family and some fourteen miles from our own school district. I sent a text back to Russell reassuring him and returned to my work. I made a mental note to maybe look at the news feeds later in the day when there might be more reliable information available.
Later that evening a friend of mine mentioned the shootings in passing. It was a luxuriously warm and sunny Portland evening, and he and I were catching up over drinks on an outdoor patio of a tony downtown café. We’d already touched on quite a number of topics — careers, family, movies, music, writing. Others too, I think. He had spent that morning working out at the Edgefield, a funky and delightful brewery-slash-hotel in Troutdale not that many blocks from the shootings. When he first heard the news there were erroneous reports of multiple shooters, and he briefly considered how close the possible manhunts might come to where he was. And then, like me, he set back to work and forgot about it.
Later when I got home from drinks I glanced at the news feeds to see what we now knew about the school shootings, if anything. It took a little bit of searching. Eric Cantor had lost his primary run, Ted Cruz had renounced his Canadian citizenship, and it was a pretty big day for Bowe Bergdahl speculation. Another school shooting just didn’t have the juice to cut through all the clutter on such a news day. I found some reports eventually, of course, and made note of them. And then I opened Mail and began returning emails.
As I said, there was a school shooting in my hometown yesterday. Perhaps you’ve read about it; perhaps not.
In the end, I think it was Adam Lanza that finally broke us.
I can still remember the sense of shock we all felt in the waning days of 2012 after Lanza opened fire on the children and teachers of Sandy Hook elementary. I recall the collective numbness, the palpable sense of national loss. “So terrible was the slaughter,” I wrote at the time, “that it might well be ‘game changer’ in terms of how we view our cultural relationship with guns. If it isn’t enough to change the game, it’s hard to fathom what we’d have to live through that would be.” The one possibility that hadn’t occurred to me at the time, the one so terrible as to be unimaginable, was that we might decide to simply begin to accept these tragedies as part of our background noise — that mass shootings would be something we’d eventually treat much the way we do heavy traffic reports, or the closing numbers of the Dow Jones on a day when trading is down.
Not that we ever took mass shootings that seriously, when you think about it. What have they ever been, really, other than an opportunity for to showcase our wisdom? Bullies, too many guns, not enough guns, heavy metal music, video games, emo culture, Dungeons & Dragons, Right-wing, Left-wing, parents who spank, or an overly permissive society that coddles its children — whatever we’ve disliked, whatever part of our community we found annoying, we’ve always used shootings first and foremost as a tool to convince ourselves and others that we were right all along. We follow mass shootings with gun bills that we know will be ineffective because they might give us a slight advantage come election time if our enemies vote against them. We stoke the fear mass shootings engender to sell even more firearms with the focus entirely on volume, with little or no care as to the character or mental state of those we are making more dangerous. We put warning labels on music we don’t particularly care for, knowing that it will do nothing of substance rather than pad our public resumes. We all lament that we really should do more about mental health, but ultimately we can’t be bothered.
Last year I read the book Columbine by Dave Cullen, and tonight I will pick it up for a second read. Published a decade after the iconic shootings that devastated the unincorporated suburb of Denver, Colorado, Columbine is a phenomenal piece of journalism, written in an era where news more often than not demands that facts defer to narrative. What you learn when you read Cullen’s book is that almost everything you think you know about the Columbine tragedy is wrong. Our common knowledge of the subject is made up of bits and pieces, all proffered by outside sources with no access to the facts immediately after the shootings and all crafted — intentionally or subconsciously –to be tethered to preexisting culture-war narratives. The actual story behind Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and their horrific crime is far more complex and far less willing to be pigeonholed into world-view affirming sound bites. And because it eschews all of our easy answers, it is far more terrifying as well.
During those weeks when the Columbine shootings dominated our news 24/7, there was a profound sense that something was terribly wrong. Rampage shootings seemed to be on the rise, especially those taking place on school campuses. In the 1990s, the decade that was capped by the Columbine massacre, there was an astounding thirty-six school shooting in the United States — a gut-wrenching average of more than three a year. Put in those stark mathematical terms, it was a situation so heinously ghastly that it was all we could talk about. Every time a new shooting occurred, we would stop and mourn together as one nation, crying out to the heavens with anger and pleading. Thirty-six! In just ten years!
In the short eighteen-month span since Adam Lanza finally broke our will, there have been sixty-two school shooting in the US.
Now, we are accustomed. Now, we are acclimated. Now, we care little for these shootings, save their ability to break up otherwise slow and tedious news days. Worse, I have a growing sense that we collectively look forward to them.
Consider: When news about a mass or rampage shooting breaks, it follows a now-predictable pattern. The number of assailants originally reported by TV outlets looking to keep viewers tuned in will be exaggerated when compared to what we will eventually discover the actual number to be. So too will the death toll. We stay tuned in so long as it appears that toll might rise. When the tide of speculated deaths begins to recede — from fifteen to three; from twenty-one to two — we lose interest. Moreover, there’s almost a sense of disappointment. Co-workers and people next to you in line at our coffee shops will dig their heels in with the higher numbers — “no, I have a friend who lives near by, and she says it’s higher than it is right now” — as if we’re trying to will the spectacle to be somehow greater, somehow more impressive, that we might bear witness today to not to a cliché but to history.
True story: Last month open carry protesters began filming themselves going into public, family-themed restaurants sporting loaded long guns, including AK-47s. In a country that has seen a school shooting a week, not to mention various other rampage mass shootings at malls, grocery stores, outside apartment buildings, and seemingly countless other venues, the protesters are visibly amused in their own videos to see people frightened, even as they use polite language and call women “ma’am.” The strongest lobby in Washington, after an initial “wft?” came to their defense and praised these actions.
Interestingly and perhaps ironically, this powerful lobby also supports the passing of Stand Your Ground laws, which state that should customers feel reasonably threatened by a group of men entering a business with AK-47s, they can use their own concealed firearms and kill them.
True Story: On April 10 of this year, protesters from around the country stood to defend rancher Cliven Bundy against federal agents who wanted Bundy’s cattle off of federal land. These protesters came with firearms, set up armed roadblocks, and put some men and women in sniper position to meet federal agents. After the federal government decided to step down lest things get ugly, the protesters maintained the roadblocks, stopping and sometimes allegedly threatening ordinary citizens merely trying to pass though. As this was happening, the nation’s highest-rated cable news network as well as various highly-visible elected government officials lionized the protesters.
Two months later, one of the protesters went on Facebook asking gun-supporters for an AK-47, saying that the Bundy standoff was the “start of [the] revolution.” Shortly thereafter, he and his wife opened fire in a Las Vegas pizzeria, killing three men in a politically driven murder-suicide spree. After killing one of the victims, who was a police officer, the couple placed a Don’t Tread on Me flag on the body.
Here is a video of that supporter being interviewed but a TV news station during the Bundy Standoff:
True Story: One year ago today, a Texas jury acquitted Ezekiel Gilbert and thus cleared him of any wrongdoing. Gilbert had hired a prostitute through a San Antonio escort service and paid her in advance for a half hour of her time. At the end of the half hour, they had not yet had sex and so he demanded either “free” extra time or a full refund. When she refused and left his home, he followed her and shot her in the back of her head with an AK-47. Gilbert’s defense was based on the Castle Doctrine, a legal defense that permits certain types of killings that is growing in popularity in the US.
I have no illusions that the stories I present are anything but anecdotal, but it is hard to shake the feeling that they are somehow connected to both the increase in mass shootings and our growing indifference to them.
Troubled people and oddballs are nothing new, even armed ones. When I was a younger man, however, we as a society were wary of them. A man carrying an AK-47 into a McDonalds would have merited both a call to the police and the community red-flagging him out of the corner of its collective eyes. The same would have been done with a woman setting up a sniper position at a protest, or a man posting a sign that he needed high-powered weapons for a “revolution,” or a man who kept firearms to give payback to ladies of the night. Now a growing segment of our society not only defends and encourages these people, they make them out to be folk heroes. A surprising number of political and leaders and pundits in this country did not simply tolerate Cliven Bundy; they looked to create a mythology around him.
This is what I have always believed: That no matter what we do and what measures we take, there are always going to be some small number of men and women whose brain chemistry is off just enough to let them kill others without discrimination.
This is what I am growing to believe: That those mad-hatters aside, we actually create more of them when we create subcultures that lionize all of the anti-social behaviors that lead up to the inevitable tragedy. I’m sure, in other words, that our society had nothing to do with Adam Lanza deciding to open fire in Newton. I’m increasingly less sure that we aren’t entirely culpable of Jerad and Amanda Miller doing the same in Las Vegas.
I’m not sure there is an answer for the Adam Lanzas of the world, but I believe there might be one for the Jerad and Amanda Millers. It might not be as simple as we ‘d like to think, nor as obvious or easy as we’d wish to pretend — but it’s there somewhere, just the same. If we wanted to, we really could find that answer.
But that would take a level of caring that I’m not sure exists any longer.