Friday, December 14, 2012

Bigger and Bigger, You and Me

You don't need me to lifehack this shit for you, presumably, but here is a thing to do on one of those days when some robustly armed narcissistic mutant turns peak military kill-technology on a crowd of innocents: stay the hell off of social media. This isn't the worst advice most days, and should be even more so on days like today that are so much worse than most. Today a 20-year-old in Connecticut killed his mother, took her car and her .223 assault rifle, drove to an elementary school, and killed 18 children and a handful of teachers, a principal and a school psychologist, then killed himself. This is not even the first time this week that something like this has happened, as a similarly well-armed kid killed two and shot others at a mall in Oregon, then killed himself. That was four days ago. Everyone caught something of a bleak break in that case, as the shooter's gun jammed and as police had trained for just such a scenario and responded quickly.

That this is the sort of thing police must train for is sobering enough. That it keeps happening is sobering enough. That every time it happens it is followed by queasy condolences and teary commemorations and nothing at all else is the worst. Well, it's not the worst. The worst is individuated, unimaginable, crushing, and it's happening in Connecticut today and Oregon earlier this week and Colorado before that and Arizona before that, and there is nothing much to say about it except that it is terrible. That is one kind of horror, and that it is not ours in particular is occasion to feel whatever we may feel about that. A guilty blessedness or big-hearted anger or nothing much in particular.

But that is what one person feels. It's relevant and revealing as far as that goes, but only that far. The fact that this keeps happening, and happening everywhere -- in gun-saturated states like Arizona and gun-averse ones like Connecticut and everyplace in between -- suggests that this is not a one-person issue. This is a problem for all of us, everywhere. And what spending time on social media in the wake of something like this reveals, the killing thing, is how profoundly difficult it is to think of these shared things in that way.

What you get, on Twitter -- in this case and, in general -- is the one-person bit. One side abstracts the other unto/into parody: kooks and communists, gun-nuts and libtards, grenades into opposite trenches forever. Crack that nightmare ceiling and we're still there: the robust defense of abstractions, one way or the other -- rights or non-rights, bickered and dickered over until muscle failure -- and various huffy responses to other huffy responses. A cycle of individuated offense, impregnable, forever and ever. There are ghouls with spammy Twitter feeds looking to leverage it; there are the inspirational fake-celebrity feeds popping off ponderously on it, an army of Not Really Will Smiths getting serious about a really real thing; there is some two-fisted foof from Esquire bringing the fatuous Writerly Imagery that no one needs at this moment; peevish strident certitude on peevish strident certitude. All of them on their own turf, tooth and nail after their abstractions of choice. Little arguments to distract from the big ones, everyone great and small letting their personal trolls out. 

Yeah, that never got answered. It's not about answers, really. It's about assertions, and it's about on to the next one. Points and points and points, fresh takes and bold stands all the way into this endless living oblivion; this violence and these deaths as a fact of life, everyone getting very sad when the situation demands, which is often enough that you'd remark upon it. Nothing changing, or even really coming terribly close to changing. All these values that can't or won't reconcile with others, and the colossal waste of real human lives as the collateral damage from all that righteous abstraction.

As it happens, I've filed a .223 rifle. I wrote about it a little bit last year, in something I wrote about the tenth anniversary of September 12, 2001. It's a terrifying and weirdly exhilarating experience; it's quite a machine, and it kicks out the endorphins whether you want it to or not. I believe that there's no reason why a non-infantryman should ever hold one of these weapons; a lot of Americans are broadly cool with that, and with making the ownership of such a weapon somewhat harder. 

I don't trust President Obama, who did seem legitimately moved -- and maybe legitimately chastened by what a decade of tactical neglect on this issue has given us all -- to do much beyond responding to this, as he put it, as a father. As a father, he is doubtless painfully aware of the stakes today. But if he wanted to react to this as a President and as a politician, he would have to negotiate with people whose sole selling point to their constituencies is their supreme intransigence. To have that discussion, and win it, Obama would have to set out to sell something that people may not want to buy; he would need to ride for a value beyond mature and equitable process, which seems to be the value he relates to most innately. He might lose. That last bit has, for the most part, been enough to keep him out of similar fights in the past.

This is a failing on his part, or would be. But the greater failing is ours, and it's there on Twitter and Facebook and anywhere else online where we can declaim into ether. Guns kill people. People kill people. Our desperate false certainties and righteous umbrage and personalized pieties, our dedication to not talking about what is: all of these things are killing us. There is indisputably a problem, and we can either solve it or we can't.

But we -- not a nation of lone strapped-up heroes defending shrinking homesteads, standing our ground and wild of eye and scared as shit, but a nation fully and full-stop -- will have to be the ones to solve it. It's not about me or you or our various offended values or deeply held personal beliefs or feelings or metaphors on the issues of the moment, although of course good luck with all those. It's about us, kids and grown-ups, armed and un-armed, all of us together and working to prevent the devastation to come, or it's all of us lost in it, hunted by what we are too vain or blinkered or scared to face. It's as big as all of us, no smaller. It can be figured out, but not if we can't talk about it.


  1. Personally, I think it's futile to see a tragedy like this and think that you could write a few laws and put an end to them.

    The gun genie is just too far out of the bottle for that. Even if you didn't have the 2nd amendment, even if you didn't have the SCOTUS ruling that individuals have a right to the weapons, even if you lived in a world without an NRA or one without republicans, there are just too damn many guns out there.

    No law, no policy, none that I can conceive of at any rate will change that equation. I don't see any way to get that genie back in that bottle.

    That's why I so abhor the knee-jerk reaction to gun tragedies with calls for gun control. I just think it's not only politically implausible, but logistically impossible. I find it to be wasted energy.

    I'd rather the energy went in directions that could have a real chance at preventing a tragedy. Identifying and assisting those with demons that might lead them to such a bleak course of action.

    If I thought gun control would be a panacea for ending tragedies like this, I'd be right there writing my representatives along with the rest of the gun control types. I just don't think it would put an end to these kinds of tragedies any more than passing a law would stop the tides. The tides don't care about our laws, and folks that are going to shoot up a school or a mall then off themselves don't give anymore care to our laws than the tides.

  2. The good thing, if there's a good thing here, is that I think we're really close on this, Wes. You and I are broadly on different sides of the spectrum, but provided we're all cool with spending the money necessary, doing something to improve the treatment of the mentally ill -- to make it less backbreaking for the families and bearable in general; the de-stigmatization is another case -- it seems like most everyone realizes that's a thing worth doing. The gun control bit is different, but not that different. There is a class of weapons that makes this kind of massacre very easy. I've fired that weapon and I bet you have, too; you know what it's like. You can't stop madness, or the force of chaos in the world. But we don't need to make it so nauseatingly easy for them to get their hands on weapons like the one that did this. So much of this is hard; politics is hard, and it probably should be hard. But that bit, to me, seems easy.

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