Our thoughts go out to the 26 victims of the horrific shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. On the one hand, the only way that statement could sound flimsier is if it came out of a politician’s mouth. On the other hand, what else can one say, especially when the sentiment is true? The church shooting is yet another monstrous incident in what was already a nightmarishly bloody season, and we remain unable to adequately express our sorrow with language.
Who isn’t at a total loss over how to feel, what to do, how to help victims and moreover, how to live in a world where mass violence is a metastasizing cancer? We say thoughts and prayers and shudder and move on through life with slightly higher degree of fear.
America’s utter inability to do anything about this situation is as frustrating as the attacks are tragic. We know, from other countries’ examples, that by not making weaponry designed for the slaughter of all living creatures available for purchase, the magnitude of these tragedies would be seriously reduced. That, at this point, should go without saying.
And yet we are, more or less resigned to our hellish fate. The news of Sunday’s mass shooting came on the heels of the vehicular attack in New York, which itself followed shortly after the Las Vegas shootings. When we read these headlines, it feels as though an invisible wall raises inside of us that ciphers these tragedies into the abstract: death numbers, locations, the killer’s deranged personal histories. The data of the tragedies ultimately shields our minds from the emotional catastrophe that a deep comprehension of the event would bring. Very few of us know the wounded or killed. These attacks are, generally, things that happen other places. They are abstract, and awful, yet we’re helpless to do anything about them. So the question becomes, how do we stay emotionally sharp, sidestep the auto-numbing and normalization of this evil? And to what end?
Consider, for a moment, a soft thought experiment: you’re stuck at the airport. You got wheeled out onto the runway, only to have your flight cancelled. Connections missed, rehearsal dinners blown, etc…Everyone knows that feeling of airport rage. The inclination is to take out your frustration on the underpaid, verbally-battered airline representative working the re-booking desk. Now, logically, we know this is in no way his or her fault. Yet out of frustration at the airlines – an impersonal, essentially unaccountable, profit-driven machine that engages in both light and heavyweight dehumanization – our hate gets channeled toward a scapegoat just trying to do their job.
However, because most of us aren’t sociopaths, we resign ourselves to the situation and kill our feelings at the airport bar, or in our work, or playing a game on a shiny screen. We accept the fact that we’re getting screwed, but what at all can be done about it, especially when we ourselves are tired, overworked, and running on depleted emotional resources?
The airline situation reflects the epidemic of gun violence in two ways. It goes without saying that we do not suggest any kind of equivalence between routine airline snafus and mass violence, however, there is a digestible metaphor there: namely, that we know something is utterly wrong as a result of a techno-capitalist machine (whether the NRA or the airline industry) that doesn’t just let these things happen, but due to its blind focus on profit, actually facilitates awfulness. We, as private citizens, are totally helpless against the situation. We’re depressed and enraged and feel that something is deeply wrong, but instead of doing anything, we shut down and lose ourselves in activities proscribed by the powers that be, thus implicitly allowing these cycles to continue.
But, like the wanker who actually does berate the attendant, the mass killing psychopaths direct their violent rage (which often turns out to be a result of sexual frustration or macho narratives or any number of other American society-spawned problems, curdled into violent insanity) outward at the innocent. They conflate innocent bystanders with the source of their suffering. The killer’s lonely madness needs a human target.
That’s where the airline/gun-control situations begin to reflect one another: they are both symptoms of an utterly impersonal system that screws over millions on a daily basis. We can’t attack this system, so we attack other people. This tendency is evident to a lesser degree in the personally-shaming nastiness of online discourse and the partisan divisions rending this nation and to an exponentially worse, monstrous degree in outbreaks of mass violence.
Again, these metaphors are not to suggest any kind of moral or emotional equivalency between these realms. Rather, it’s just to say that directionless, scapegoat-hungry rage and numb detachment from the grim realities of the modern world go hand-in-hand. This emotional polarity is a symptom of our post-postmodern condition and feels deeply, offensively wrong. There seems to be little middle ground between our emotions: we fluctuate from impotent anger and depression to emotionally blind apathy. Nor do we have much of a choice to do anything different. We’re stuck in a dependent relationship with the system that’s robbing us of our humanity.
It’s nightmarish to think that until our basic current situation changes, we’re doomed to live with this violent curse. We trust each other less, we’re nervous in public, and it seems like we can only go further down our e-rabbit holes to distract ourselves from the onslaught of negativity in this world. Who can actually put their phone down and really care about this situation? Even if we did put down our phones, what could we ever do against entrenched lobbying, against hate and insanity itself? Do all of us have to lose loved ones in a senseless attack before fundamental changes are made?
At the rate things are going, it won’t be long before we do.
Rest in peace to those killed in Texas. May their loved ones find solace. May we take steps to rid America of this deadly social disease.
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