The Worst Until Next Time

Paul Krugman, who is wrong about things slightly less often than he is right about things, was very wrong about something today.  “Unless you were a victim or were close to a victim,” he tweeted, “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.”  With all due respect to the victims of the horrendous mass killing in Orlando, and to the family members who must number in the hundreds, that couldn’t be more wrong.  It is about us.  It is about all of us.

This is not to say that it is more about the victims, and who they are.  Intersections of cruelty are stamped all over the massacre at Pulse.  Without question, it is very specifically about gay men, who, after untold oppression over millennia in every part of the world, have barely had a chance to celebrate a handful of decorative legal victories in America before they are now asked to cope with this.  There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was the gay community that was targeted in Orlando, and that the murderer chose to target them because they were gay, and that it is they and their loved ones that will bear the enormity of the pain of this unforgivable act.  It is absolutely and unchangeably more about them.  But is not only about them.

It is not only about women, though it is certainly true that women have been a disproportionately specific target of killers filled with boundless rage and no limits. It is not only about children, although it has been shown to a depressing degree that even the youngest and most blameless are not immune to these acts of savagery.  It is not only about Christians or Muslims or atheists, about liberals or conservatives, about people who support abortion rights or about people who pay their taxes, although all of these groups have been the victims of armed killers at some point in the past. And although whenever one of these mass killings occur, which they do with a numbing regularity, we search for some commonality in the nature of the perpetrator, there is never one to be found.  They have been of every race, every faith, every ideological tendency.  They have used guns, true, but they have also used knives and bombs and cars.  They are not even exclusively men, though they are overwhelmingly so.  What they have in common is only this:  an unstoppable desire to kill, to kill as many people as they can, to kill until they cannot kill anymore, regardless of the consequences.

While gays were targeted this time, and children or women or Muslims or liberals may be targeted next time, what is truly horrifying about the mass killer of the modern age is that no one is safe, and anyone may be the next victim.  One of the reasons we ignore slow-moving disasters like the one occurring in my own home city of Chicago (where more than five times as many people have been killed as died in Orlando in just a handful of neighborhoods on the South Side) is because they are remote, distant, detached from our daily experience.  We may mourn for the victims; we may recognize the racism and poverty and indifference and ruin that are behind their deaths; we may even think it a greater tragedy because it is more easily prevented.  But we do not fear it the way we do a mass shooting because, justly or unjustly, we are extremely unlikely to become its victim.  Unless we are poor and black and confined to the war zones in Englewood and Austin, we will be at no threat from their guns.  The terror of the mass shooting, and the reason we have every right to think it is about us, is because it can literally happen to anyone, and has.

Just as there is little unifying pattern to the killers, so too is there little common cause among the victims.  Often the only thing they have done to fall afoul of a maniac’s wrath is to go to school, show up for work, take in a movie, or be in a particular place at a particular time.  The horror of the rampage is that there is no predicting it, no escaping it, no preventing it.  We may have conversations about how to mitigate it — and many of those conversations, especially about under what possible circumstance it is desirable for an ordinary citizen to have access to assault rifles, multiple firearms, or huge stockpiles of ammunition, and why we do not make the bar for owning a deadly weapon just a bit higher than the ones for owning an automobile, running a restaurant, or adopting a child, are decades overdue — but we cannot shake the dread that there is no stopping this kind of thing, that it is somehow an inherent factor of the American character:  that this is who we are now.

I have no easy answers for why this is the case.  I think it is petrifying in its complexity, playing into so many aspects of life in the U.S. — our love of individuality and personal freedom, our blood-soaked history and inability to come to terms with the historical crimes we have committed, our lack of faith in community and our often-justified fear of authority, our toxic masculinity, the clash between our religious freedom and our deeply fundamentalist nature, the base and omnipresent corruption of our political system and our resistance to making decisions that require too much effort on our part — that we prefer to talk rather than to decide, because we know those decisions will end up costing us something we don’t care to give up.  I also think that we exert so much effort on finding commonalities amongst the victims or the killers because it’s a quick and easy way to have our biases confirmed and not have to face the heinous contradictions involved:  that, for example, in the Orlando case, it can both be an act of terror and not an act of terror as we understand it, or that it can simultaneously be not about the Islamic faith and not not about it as well, or that separating a religious or political motivation from a psychological one is like separating the mind from the body.

What I know is this:  today belongs to the victims who died, innocent people who were singled out for murder by a man who, whether he was evil or insane or ideological or neither or all of those things, was outraged by their homosexuality.  That cannot and should not be extracted from the story of Pulse, the most deadly mass murder in American history until the next one.  But it should also not be said that this is not about us.  It is about all of us.  And until all of us figure out a hard answer to this most impenetrable of problems, as long as any other ordinary day can turn into a mass casualty situation anywhere and for any reason, it will continue to be about all of us.

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