I’ve sat facing my computer a few times since those school children were massacred, attempting on each pass to write something that expresses anything honest about the slaughter, about this horror show that we call modern, post-millenial America. Elsewhere, I have read the words of people who are so devastated by this event that they cannot think of what to say, or who to blame, or how to bring our country to some better place. As if words or ideas are no longer sufficient or useful against something as elemental to our society and culture as firearms.
For me, this isn’t the problem. For me, the struggle goes to an opposite extreme. Each time I start to write about this tragedy, my head begins to hurt. And too soon, I sense that all of the contempt and bile I feel for America’s continuing worship of the gun will pour out onto the digital page, that any meaningful argument I hope to express will be lost in my low regard for those in my country — leaders and followers alike — who demonstrate such cowardice in the face of the continued bloodletting.
It is all of a piece: The mass murders by damaged citizens allowed easy access to lethal weapons. The absurdist argument that more guns carried everywhere — into schools and malls and theaters and restaurants — will produce safety. The pretense that weapons in the classroom — handguns within reach of children; teachers armed and ready for firefights — is some sort of insightful, plausible solution, rather than evidence of moral bankruptcy and a nation in decline. The stand-your-ground laws adopted in state after state, and a gun lobby that no longer even has the need to hold to its empty credo that guns don’t kill, people do. Now, we are excusing the people as well, eschewing even the personal responsibility that conservatives so often exalt. Now, guns don’t kill and neither do people. Now, shit just happens, with our freshest legalisms simply rationalizing our preference for pride and property over human life.
On television the other evening, I caught a glimpse of a drama in which some future America was overrun by zombies, a thrilling narrative in which survivors could only rely on force of arms to keep the unthinking, unfeeling hordes at bay. And I realized: This isn’t mere entertainment, it’s national consensus. More than that, it’s a well-executed and starkly visual rendering of the collective fear that governs us. We know that they’re out there: The less human. The poor. The godless. The frightening other. And they want what we have, they are going to take what we have, and they understand nothing save for a well-placed bullet. It’s my understanding that the show I encountered is quite popular; in this America, it may even be called populist in its argument — a morality tale that speaks to why we must arm ourselves, and carry those guns with us, and stand our fucking ground; it declares that we can’t rely on collective, utilitarian will to achieve a safe and viable society, that government by the people and for the people is, at this point, an empty catchphrase for fools and weaklings. No, our future is every man for himself, and a gun in every outstretched hand, and if a classroom of six and seven year olds is the requisite cost every now and then, so be it.
The president asked for the flag to fly at half-staff, a symbol of mourning reserved for extraordinary events, for the deaths of heroes and grievous national tragedies. I understand the worthy sentiment, but something in the act itself makes me want to call bullshit: What happened at that elementary school is no longer extraordinary at all. Yes, it is horrifying and, by standards, even remarkable within the context of a daily, or even weekly news cycle. But extraordinary? The national flag is usually brought to half staff for ten days of mourning. Does anyone firmly believe that the United States can, in its current pathology, go anywhere near that long anymore without someone using a gun to take lives of innocents on a wholesale basis? Somewhere, a shopping mall is about to be shot apart. And another school. And then a sporting event or street parade. And somewhere in Florida or any number of other states that now devalue the act of homicide, another young black kid is playing his radio too loud or walking in the wrong subdivision ready to be confronted. Admit it: If the interval for national mourning is a week and a half, America has no business raising its flags ever again.
I know. Too much anger and despair. I should have walked away from the computer, and left this to folks more measured and thoughtful. There are better voices, to be sure. In fact, here’s the best: If you read just one thing more about what kind of society accepts the slaughter of its children as a political and cultural inevitability, let it be Gary Wills. What follows from Mr. Wills is real clarity, and an honest verdict on what has become of the American experiment: