US mass shootings are a symptom of a sick society
Here we go again: Mass shootings in the US, leading to the most predictable of responses and a free-for-all blame game, while everyone in a position of power distances themselves from responsibility. As usual, for a few days the carnage of innocent people is the center of attention, everyone talks about it, politicians offer their “sincere” condolences and prayers to assuage family and public grief, but it is always someone else’s fault. And by the time those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are buried, public interest is dying down, and nothing, absolutely nothing, is done about it, and people wait almost fatalistically for the next mass killing while refraining at any cost from criticizing and upsetting the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.
Nevertheless, while they wait for the next inevitable bout of carnage, Americans may wish to pause for reflection and take heed that this is a unique, American phenomenon of random outbursts of extreme violence, mainly by young males, of an unprecedented frequency that far exceeds the experience of any other country in the world, that is fueled by hate and in recent decades has become firmly entrenched as a pathological element of American society.
The deaths of 31 people in two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, were not isolated incidents, and it is hard to see why there is not a genuine nationwide debate on how to prevent the next massacre.
Most of the reactions are along party and ideological lines — Liberal vs. Conservatives, Democrats vs. Republicans and Right vs Left — and there is a failure to agree on a course of action. However, it was the tone from the White House that was slightly surprising. No, I don’t believe President Trump is changing, nor do I believe he will stop inciting violence against minorities, immigrants, political rivals and anyone else he just happens to dislike. However, I think it is now possible to detect a degree of panic in the White House over this issue. There was a sense of urgency in the administration’s reaction, and for someone who tends to dismiss all criticism, Trump was very much on message in his speech in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.
But the more the president and his aides protest their innocence and deny any link between their unabated incitements against Hispanics and those Hispanics who were on the receiving end of the shooter’s actions in El Paso, the more they give the impression that they understand only too well that the brief period of time between this mass shooting and the last round of Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant outbursts was bound to implicate him and his presidency.
Let me be clear: Putting all the blame on Trump for these tragic incidents would be too easy, too partisan and completely inaccurate. It is 20 years since 12 students and a teacher were killed by two other students at Columbine High School in Colorado, a watershed in terms of awareness of the unbearable ease with which arms can be acquired and used by young men to randomly kill scores of others, then in most cases turning the gun on themselves. Since then, over 187,000 students at 193 schools have experienced a school shooting. This decade there has been a distinct increase in mass shootings, and since the horrific Sandy Hook attack in 2012 there have been more than 2,000 such incidents in which nearly 2,300 people have been killed and almost 8,400 wounded. It would be foolish to put the entire blame on the current administration for this type of violence, but at the same time it has done nothing since coming to power to stop it, and by being generally divisive and particularly inciting violence against minorities and refugee communities, the president is creating a conducive environment for these atrocities. In the sick minds of white supremacists Trump’s language could be translated into permission, even encouragement, to harm members of those communities.
But the more the president and his aides protest their innocence and deny any link between their unabated incitements against Hispanics.
In his response to the most recent massacres Trump condemned “racism, bigotry and white supremacy.” Hard to disagree with, but one wonders if his words were not also a note to himself. His apparently more practical solutions — early warning mechanisms to identify would-be shooters; ending the glorification of violence in video games; tightening mental health laws, including “involuntary confinement” in some cases for those identified as mentally disturbed and prone to violence; and preventing access to firearms for those “judged to pose a grave risk to public safety” — may demonstrate some change of heart, especially since that last measure implies a degree of gun control, which Trump and most of his fellow Republicans have always vehemently opposed. Such a measure is the most commonsensical move, at least to reduce gun-related deaths, and there is also research and evidence from US states with stricter guns laws which suggests that curtailing access to guns, most definitely assault rifles, is effective.
However, restricting access to weapons is necessary, but insufficient. It is of paramount importance that the US rid itself of the misconstrued idea that the Constitution gives anyone a unqualified right to bear arms, since it doesn’t (such a right is given in the context of a “well-regulated militia”). Moreover, the country needs to address deep-seated social issues and divisions in which uber-capitalism leads to the worshipping of individualism and patriotism at the expense of society. For those alienated from and neglected by society, who happen also to be fascinated by violence, and who in their desperation seek one chance of glory, mass shooting can be a last resort. For the US, mass shooting is not just a problem, but a symptom of a society that is deeply unwell and in dire need of healing.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg