Something is berserk in the Empire.
Yet another guy has gone off the rails, run amok in a shooting storm that so far has left one dead and three injured, this time at Seattle Pacific University.
It’s barely been a week since the country was uncomfortably chuckling at The Onion’s subtly caustic piece, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The post sharpened the already biting edge that sliced through the aftermath of Elliot Rodger’s murderous spree in Isla Vista, California, but now it’s proved nothing short of prophetic. Whatever chuckling there was is stifled, because now it’s happened again.
How many times will we have to behold a shooting at a school – or a mall, or movie theater, or place of business, or neighborhood in Chicago or Detroit – and say “again” again? We’ve said “again” too many times already.
Deep, deep inside the American cultural gears, an intricate, vital piece has gone haywire. Our society – not all of it, but a large part – is in pieces, lying on the bathroom floor of the democratic, industrialized, “free” world with still-smoking shotgun shells littered all around.
We used to chalk this kind of thing up to national tragedy. That was a conscious decision after Columbine (which was itself preceded by many other American mass shootings). President Bill Clinton said the massacre “pierced the soul of America.” And he was right.
But now we’ve been pierced so completely that the wound is our primary feature. The injury is how people know us and how we know ourselves. We are numbed, calloused, scarred so deep you can see clean through us. There’s nothing deliberate about our reaction anymore. We subconsciously turn to our picket lines, our slogans, our coldly infinite comfort that “Yeah, this sort of thing happens from time to time.”
Our resilience is in danger of turning into apathy.
You watch enough school shootings, you see enough mugshots on the news, you read enough psychobabble from killers’ manifestos and YouTube channels, and it makes you begin to think it was inevitable.
And pretty soon you don’t just think it; you know it.
You know it’s so inevitable there’s no use in being afraid anymore.
Kids might have been scared once — maybe some still are — but many of them are beyond being scared now. They know if it happened there, it can happen here. You don’t do anything about it because there’s nothing you can do. You just keep going to class, playing sports, hanging out on the quad. You don’t think, “Could a shooting happen at my school?” because you know it could. This is something you just live with.
It would be shameful and downright wrong to compare American campuses to actual battlefields, but it would also be a lie to say that most students haven’t thought to themselves, “Where are the best exits in the event of a shooting? What would I use to defend myself? What would I do at the sound of gunfire?”
When my parents were in school they watched videos of what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. When I was in college I sat through a video that told me what to do if a shooter shows up, where to run, how to hide, and, as a last resort, how to fight back.
Are these videos ridiculous? Are they anything more than paranoia?
What does it matter? The fear is legitimate and the danger is real.
* * *
So we’re on fire with anger about Seattle Pacific, but inside we’re mostly cold about what comes next.
It’s sort of amazing how glacially cold we are. So frozen in our watchtowers that we already know the whole script, memorized as it is from all the previous bloodbaths.
“He’s a wacko! He’s a terrorist! Some undiagnosed mental illness is behind it. Blame America’s epidemic of harmful psychiatric drugs. Or the inevitably long train of parenting mistakes. He was probably a spoiled brat. A punk with too many excuses.”
“It’s so senseless. Why didn’t we see the warning signs?”
“He must have played violent video games. He was probably bullied as a child. He saw Hollywood glorifying violence and thought he’d try being famous for a day.”
“The media needs to stop sensationalizing these stories or it will just create more copycats.”
“How long till we bury more kids? How long before we do this again?”
Am I crazy? Isn’t this exactly what we’ll say?
You know the lines. The ones that will be spewed from podiums and talking heads and in cafeterias.
Isn’t our foreknowledge a sign that we’ve come to accept this? Not in the sense that we tolerate it, but that we see it as part of normal life in America. We almost pawn it off as, “It’s not pretty, but this is part of who we are.”
We’ve seen so many shooters that we’ve profiled them. We’ve actually stereotyped these people. They have a “type” now; that’s how big the mass-shooter sample size has grown. How is this even possible?
It’s possible – and it’s our reality – because of something in our society, but also because of something in our souls.
And the national reaction, while not nearly as horrific as the bloody tirades that spawn it, is itself a sort of crime.
We jump to our chants and talking points. That’s right; we’re so used to these reigns of terror that we have established “talking points” about them. And every tragedy is in a sense cheapened because it is, today, instantly politicized.
We’ll mourn the fallen and lament the catastrophe. We’ll write long stories about how the shooter was crazy or sick or abused. We’ll drown out applause and honor for the heroes of the day who pepper-sprayed and subdued the attacker, and restrained him until police arrived, by engaging in a hyper-conceptual “gun debate” at 30,000 feet. We’ll talk almost cavalierly about “the problem.” We’ll too often refer to it as “another school shooting.”
And all of this is scary.
At least, it should be.
That it’s necessary for universities and elementary schools – freaking elementary schools! – to have “Active Shooter” plans is scary. That comment threads on newspaper articles about the shooting will start into tirades about gun control and arming citizens within three or four comments, dominating the bottomless scroll with vitriolic daggers darting back and forth from safe political trenches, is embarrassing. That some are coming to view mass shootings in America almost like natural disasters, like they’re just bad luck, only adds tragedy to tragedy.
This is not “bad luck.” This is the darkness of the human heart.
And at the core of it – and, frankly, even from the more distant perspective of observers watching on television – what happened at Seattle Pacific is not political, is not a platform, is not another point on the police blotters. A man with a life and friends, a mother and father, goals and hobbies and so much to offer, is now dead. Others are wounded. Still more are traumatized and left grieving. We can’t throw up our hands for them; we need to reach our hands out.
This is all deeply personal. This is all life-changing, whether it changes the nation or not.
So before we dive into our second amendment rants, throw petitions at Capitol Hill, and turn the NRA or “people kill people” into yet another hashtag; before we make scapegoats and feed our suspicions and theories; even before we cast light on “who the gunman was,” we should step back and kneel down to pray for those killed, injured, terrorized, and grieved by what’s happened. Take a minute – maybe a day, maybe a season – to think about the school (and not just the idea of the school, but the school itself), and what this means for the students, staff, and families there. Think about Seattle.
Most of all, think about zooming out slowly.
Our instinct has become one of cynics and veteran victim-watchers. To cast judgment and feed stereotypes and establish trends. To make political statements, as though Seattle Pacific were just another symbol.
But it’s not just a symbol. And the events there are not just a story.
This isn’t just another school where another shooter killed more people. This is true, personal, real life: this is a day and a moment that will alter everything for some individuals, for a campus, for a city.
Then, once we’ve really cared for, and loved on, and given to, and shared with the community whose heart was broken, then we can ask ourselves the nagging question: “Seriously, how much farther do we have to fall?”
We thought something would change after Columbine. After Atlanta. After Meridian. After Capitol Hill. After Lancaster County. After Virginia Tech. After Fort Hood. After Tucson. After Aurora. After the Sikh Temple. After Sandy Hook.
But what’s changed?
And I don’t just mean in terms of legislation. I mean as a society. As people who want to live safe, happy, free little lives in a country that shines so brightly, but smolders so painfully.
How can we return to decency? How can we reconnect children to families and churches, schools and communities? How can we prevent the decay of goodwill, and sow again a harvest of nonviolence? How can a society that has been the cause of so much hatred and destruction become a society that protects, upholds, ascends?
I don’t know what The Answer is. But I just don’t think it’s ultimately found in lawyers or psychiatrists or politicians. I don’t think it’s found in new drugs or more cops or even fewer guns.
I think it is deeper than that.
I think genuine love, deep care, and sincere respect go a long way. But you can’t legislate that.
I think bearing witness is more important than bearing arms. But you can’t enforce that.
I think there is so much misplaced hope that needs to find a truer home. But you can’t require that.
I think this social problem is really a soul problem. But you can barely even say that.
So what can you say?
Well, you can say what President Clinton said after Columbine. I think it is true and applies today, after Seattle Pacific, and tomorrow, after the next great, terrible chaos. He said:
We cannot do what we need to do in America unless every person is committed to doing something better and different in every walk of life, beginning with parents and students and going all the way to the White House. For the struggle to be human is something that must be a daily source of joy to you, so you can get rid of your fears and let go of your rage and minimize the chance that something like this will happen again.
So do something better. Do something different. And I would add, have a very good hope.