the news from home is surreal. The body count sounds like something from a video game. I’m not saying Europe is safe, happy, and nonviolent. I’m saying that the volume of mass shooting incidents adds a massive, thunderous, calamitousness to US violent crime that feels completely alien to stories about violent crime in Europe. I am saying that gun violence adds a distinct and terrifying tonal variance, not only in discussions of actual crimes committed in the US and, say, the UK, but also in the perception of potential crime.
This is important:
If I went out tomorrow night in the least safe place I could get to in a couple of hours, I’d be afraid of: beatings, bricks, knives. Getting glassed. Yes, I might be the victim of violent crime. I might even lose my life. But the threat of the sudden, instantaneous cessation of my life would probably still seem very far away. Why? Well, because I don’t live in a country where ‘7 people going about their daily lives were brutally slaughtered with a firearm,’ is front page in the papers almost every day.
That perception of threat is incredibly important. The difference between ‘I might get stabbed on the street outside my gay pub,’ and ‘50 people have been murdered in one night in a gay bar’ is important because of the lives lost, yes. It is important for the ongoing lives personally touched by grief, loss, and horror in Orlando. But it is also important for every life still being lived. It is important because of the experiences of every queer person in the two countries in question. It is important because we are talking about hate, terror, and their weapons.
Americans are being conditioned to expect this violence. To anticipate that public spaces are not safe. That college campuses, theaters, post offices, these are places where death can and will appear at any moment. It is not a unique experience, it is the experience of a country torn by civil strife, divided by politically or religiously motivated violence. Places ruled by terror.
Think about what we use public space for, inherently. For communication, for transportation, for education, for entertainment and culture. For things that create and extend community and maintain a sense of togetherness. Public violence creates a more fragmented society. People afraid to gather, and stifled in their attempts to be outside of themselves.
The thing is: some mass shootings are truly random, they’re motivated by the personal violence of the perpetrators. Many of them are not. Many of them are hate crimes. Acts of tremendous violence meant to brutalize and terrify entire vulnerable communities. They’re domestic terrorism. Acts of tremendous violence meant to change the way people behave, or make a statement about something the murderous bastard thought was important. These things go hand-in-hand. The random violence supports and extends the reach of the targeted violence.
The thing is: both the random and the targeted murders serve the same ultimate purposes, whether or not that is their intent. They condition us to live in fear… And they condition us to recognize violence as having a power that we do not know how to fight. For all the “we know how to stop this” there is in the world. For every argument that starts like mine, creating a comparison between the US and places without endemic gun violence. There is still (so far, at least) the ultimate, inescapable truth that we do not know how to implement that wisdom. We know what should be different. That doesn’t mean we know how to implement actual solutions to this problem.
And I think that that is the end goal of this horrifying machine, in many ways. The creation of a sense of helplessness in the face of violence. A crushing, if not always conscious, militating against the concept of civil society, of civil solutions. A suppression of all the mechanics of community cohesion. A drive to condition a population to fear and respect brutality, because we can, so far, find no force which can turn it back.