A million years ago, because it seems like it has been eons since anything resembling innocence paraded on the public stage, I had the honor of interviewing the philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok, PhD. She was fresh off writing Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment, in which she noted among other findings that continuous exposure to violent media inures us to violent media, specifically, and violence, in general.
The televised gunfight that triggered an adrenaline rush the first time you saw it barely stirs your heartbeat after multiple viewings. If you think movies and television have gotten more graphic and violent in recent years, you’d be right. You wouldn’t be entertained otherwise.
I got to thinking about my conversation with Dr. Bok yesterday after a madman – how could he have been anything else? – rained bullets into a crowd, killing 59 people, at last count, and injuring 527 others. How could anyone be that horribly violent?
It seems to me that Mayhem offers part of the answer, but there is another factor to consider. Desensitization has a compatriot in antipathy.
This attack – the worst ever in recent U.S. history – comes as we are losing our grip on empathy. Michigan State University psychologist William Chopik, whose fascinating study ranks nations by empathy (the U.S. is #7), notes that in recent decades, Americans’ focus has shifted to themselves more and others less. “People are struggling more than ever to form meaningful close relationships,” he said in a review of his work at MSU Today. In other words, we are losing our ability to see people as people.
That blend of antipathy and indifference is a toxic cocktail. Mix it with any number of ingredients and you get a devil’s brew that turns this country into a mean drunk.
That Vegas shooter felt nothing for Sandra Casey, a special ed teacher in Manhattan Beach, California; or Sonny Melton, a registered nurse from Paris, Tennessee. Neither they nor the 584 other people he shot were human beings to him. Maybe target practice. Maybe one last adrenaline rush before turning a gun on himself.
In the aftermath, those of us with a shred of empathy left are sickened and angry. But make no mistake, we’re inured too. Yes, this was the “worst” shooting, and like that extra burst of special effects, it moved us. But we know it won’t be the last. Not even close.
We’ll rage against feckless Congress members who tweet “thoughts and prayers” as they cash their checks from the NRA. We’ll demand that it is “finally time for reasonable gun control”—whatever that is. We’ll change our profile photos to tell the world that we “stand with Las Vegas.” The bravest of us might even talk to our kids to be sure they are “okay.”
Then, tomorrow, we’ll scan the list of the dead to make sure the friend of our cousin’s ex isn’t among the fatalities. We’ll go to work. Trump will tweet something ridiculous. A squirrel will run up a tree.
We will move on.
And that’s what is making me so goddamned angry today. We’ll move on. Because that’s what we do. Until some future news cycle brings us yet another active shooter story. We’ll want the grainy pictures to be a little clearer and hope that terrified victims will hold their mobiles a little steadier so that we can be even more horrified than we are today.
Not because we are heartless automatons who can’t be bothered to care, but because we believe we are impotent to do anything about violence, particularly gun violence, in our country. And that just can’t be fucking true.
We can tax the hell out of ammunition and limit its sale by volume and age. Make it obscenely expensive to fire a gun, just as consumption taxes made it ridiculously expensive to smoke a cigarette.
Join the NRA. Yes, you heard that right. There are only 4.5 million active members of the NRA. If that many progressives paid the $40 membership fee, we could change the agenda and finally send Wayne LaPierre straight to hell.
Make semi-automatic gun owners pariahs. If you think you need to own a powerful weapon to protect yourself from the government, you are, by definition, not a patriot. Let’s out the fuckers and shame them into surrender.
Make heroes of those who give up their guns. Champion buy-back programs that do more than swap cash for weapons, but celebrate those with the courage to give up their piece.
Amend the Constitution. It’s not an immutable document; it was designed to evolve. This country amended the Constitution to make alcohol illegal, then legal again, and thank god for that. The Second Amendment isn’t sacred; it was contemporaneous with a time when tyranny was fresh in our national memory, when reloading a musket took a couple minutes, and copy editors didn’t question the punctuation.
And maybe most importantly, put down the damn phone, turn off the TV, and talk to your kids. Really, really talk to your kids. We have got to stop raising angry young men who relate to Call of Duty better than to their classmates.
I am sad and angry. I hate the feeling. But I don’t want to lose it just yet. Tomorrow can’t be a fresh start. We have got to work like hell to become human again. Real people, enjoying a night out. People with names and families and jobs. People like us. People we can’t imagine shooting.