The people of Hartford, Connecticut can rest easy. They needn’t look to the skies and wonder if the Americans are coming.
Had their town been located, let’s say, in Africa or Asia, they might have had reason to worry. Had 59 Americans died on Sunday from weapons made in any town in nearly any other country, the B-2 strikes would have already left behind a smoking ruin.
In 1986, Reagan targeted Libya after the West Berlin discotheque bombing which killed 3 and injured 230. In the wake of 1998’s bombing of American embassies, Clinton ordered Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on the Al-Shifa chemical factory in the Sudan. Two protracted wars followed 9/11 before we entered into the age of perpetual engagement with drone strikes tracking the tide of America’s threat level. This is the American doctrine of killing those that would take its citizen’s lives. You just don’t harm Americans… Unless, of course, you happen to be an American. Then, it seems, it’s your constitutional right to amass 23 semi-automatic guns in a hotel bedroom with which you then slaughter as many innocent citizens as you can from the 32nd floor.
It’s why the Colt factory in Hartford, where the now ubiquitous AR15 assault rifles are made, is safe from reprisals by this American president who otherwise gets so red faced about travel bans and the need for a huge beautiful wall separating the United States from Mexico. On matters of Dreamers, drug arrests, disaster relief, North Korea, the military budget, and even the way the police treat suspects: Trump is all about the safety of his “folks”. It’s just on the matter of guns where he’s less inclined to get involved.
This we knew already from the Bataclan attack in Paris which left 90 dead. The solution posed by the then-candidate Trump was the arming of civilians. By that logic, the nearly 600 people injured yesterday should have been ready to return fire. To Trump, that many people shooting wildly into the Mandalay Bay hotel would probably sound like safety.
Trump’s easy fixes are no more rational than the other myths around guns: that they’re the tools of the pioneer and offer much-needed protection from bears or the British. In the US, this debate has long since become meaningless. The chance for gun reform exists in the ever receding moment after every atrocity. In the complex equations of American politics, 59 deaths mean no more than the 49 killed by Omar Mateen in the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. Republican politicians understand human psychology better than they know the bank account numbers of their NRA donors. They know that the public care less than they overtly claim to care. These moments recede. They need only wait for the public’s attention to wander.
That isn’t to dismiss the sorrow we feel when these events happen. That’s not to demean to sympathy shown, even if some of it verges on the platitudinous. This isn’t to make light of Jimmy Kimmel’s tears or the tears of anybody who felt grief at these terrible events. It’s just that the modern condition is to live in a world that extends far beyond the reach of our emotions. Empathy requires specific detail in order to work. We need to know (or think we know) the people we mourn.
There was a telling moment a few weeks ago when MSNBC anchor, Stephanie Ruhle, started to cry during a live news broadcast. She was reporting the story of a young girl called Frida Sofia who was trapped beneath a “strong table” in the rubble of her school which had collapsed in the Mexican earthquake. As she recounted details of the rush to save the schoolgirl, Ruhle began to sob as, no doubt, did many viewers. It would later emerge that Frida Sofia was a fiction, most likely the fabrication of a Mexican TV station seeking higher ratings. We had, in other words, shed tears about an illusion. This difference is important to remember given that Ruhle did not, I notice, cry during coverage of the Las Vegas attack yesterday.
This is the habitual danger of mass shootings. All too easily we ignore the details in the face of the numbers. Speaking of “59 dead” is easier than talking about Angie Gomez who was only 20 and studying to become a nurse. It is easier than trying to understand the death of 29 year old Sonny Melton who saved the life of his wife as they fled the shooter. And none of this is the same as looking at the photographs and recognising in their lives some small detail of your own. That empathy requires acts of imagination and association that are almost entirely missing from the political process once the moment has receded.
Culturally, our diet is emotional sugar: high-fructose short attention span headlines with immediate payoffs. You want love: look at the looped GIF of the cute panda momma cuddling the baby panda. You want excitement: watch the cyclist nearly get mashed at the road junction by the out-of-control lorry. You want sorrow: take a quick hit but don’t make it last longer than the next commercial break.
In a population of 323 million, very few are going to know somebody killed by guns. It’s unlikely to be their sister or brother, mother or father. The pain is acute for a few but the majority remain aloof and feeling through gestures. What do they really know of the pain behind the statistics?
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At times it feels pointless to rehearse what is so often said: that US gun deaths vastly outweigh the deaths by terror. Terrorism, it’s said, offers the potential for huge losses of life if any one incident succeeds yet didn’t Las Vegas just expose the squirrely meat on that lie? The headline figure of 59 dead is shocking but what really chills the bone are the number of people injured by a single gunman in a period of nine minutes. But for the grace of (let’s not embarrass ourselves by calling it “God”) a few wind fluctuations and the shooter’s aim, those 59 could well have been 500. The potential for mass slaughter is appalling.
Americans know this but rarely do they feel it enough to force a change. The majority get angry and want action but that anger only lasts for as long as the news cycle allows it. Meanwhile, the gun lovers stay passionate and invest money into that passion to ensure that their opinion is always heard. Every year the NRA raises $400 million through membership alone. America might begin to change when the antigun lobby is as powerful or, rather, as rich.
Until that day, the very sad truth is that we will be here again. There’s too much money in gun politics for this to be any other way. Their immediate battle is to see Congress pass new laws permitting gun suppressors (often called “silencers”) and lobbyists are already claiming that they don’t actually reduce the noise from a gun by any meaningful amount. “It’s only a few decibels” they say, eager to have suppressors deemed legal. Their arguments sound reasonable if you don’t understand that decibels are a logarithmic scale and every ten decibels represents a tenfold increase. Logarithmically, “a few” can be a lot and suppressors do work. They could also have made the events of Sunday so much worse.
And such events will continue to get worse because Americans are no more serious about gun laws than they are about their freedom. Henry Ford once said that you can “have any car so long as it’s black”. In America, you can now have your freedom but only so long as that freedom means worshipping god, guns, and the American flag. Just don’t expect the freedom not to get shot. in Trump’s America, that would probably amount to being unpatriotic.