No matter how one tries to avoid a reality that day by day edges toward insanity, the guns always go off. People lose hope not suddenly, but slowly, as if it’s slipping from their hands, fading from their consciousness. Public trust and safety become distant histories. More and more, people prepare for their fears, shut the doors of their houses, gird themselves against the American terror. People’s lives are increasingly insular, private, dedicated to families, friends, fishing. They wait quietly for better times, then the sounds of the shooting ring out again and they know they will long wait.
As I rode my bike around Washington D.C., along the Potomac River, I passed the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts then turned toward the Mall, leaving the Lincoln Memorial behind me. I noticed that the 50 flags surrounding the immense Washington Monument were at the half mast. The country was still mourning the deaths of the students and teachers who were massacred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on 14 February. At nineteen minutes past two o’clock in the afternoon, an Uber dropped 19-year-old Nikolaz Cruz off in front of the school. He was carrying a backpack and a longer duffle bag. Cruz entered the school, home to nearly 900 students and 30 teachers, activated a fire alarm, and began shooting indiscriminately at students and teachers with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, multiple magazines in tow.
The carnage lasted six minutes and left 17 dead. Much more were wounded; scenes of terror and stampeding panic were recorded on student phones as they ran for their lives, screaming as violent death approached. Later, the survivors recounted the events with astonishment: a troubled kid shooting madly with the type of sophisticated assault weapon used in contemporary battle, and which hardly fit his teenage frame. It was an AR-15, police reported, a gun model designed in the 1950s, and much improved during the Vietnam war. The AR-15 was designed to kill people effectively and quickly. An angry Cruz bought it a year prior to attacking his former school, from which he was expelled. He knew about the AR-15 because it has been used in other mass shootings around the country. Months ago, he declared that he wanted to become a professional school shooter. He needed a tested weapon that would not let him down at the crucial hour.
I stopped my bike to think. So, an American teenager can walk into a shop and buy himself a super-killing gun, while still prohibited from ordering himself a beer because he is “under-age”? In theory, Cruz could walk into a bar, order himself a drink and, when refused, get angry enough to buy himself a gun, walk back to the bar, and kill the barman. Cruz killed many because of an anger, a conflict with his social environment, that is exacerbated by the absurdity of America’s trivialization of both guns and young Americans (usually men) with the potential to wield them. His country allows him, or any other teenager in a conflicted emotional state, to reach quickly and nearly effortlessly for a gun; for a killing spree that may match and quell his anger; for a trigger releasing a tirade of bullets; a trigger he hopes may so too release something far more endemic within him, and our society. Then, after the authorities sanction kids to kill and be killed, the whole country mourns the fallen victims. How often must the cycle repeat itself before the hypocrisy is acknowledged?
My eye caught a dark brown, modern building to the left of the Washington obelisk, its flags snapping in the wind. Opened in September 2016, after decades of hesitation, the National Museum of African American History and Culture soon became a landmark, directly confronting the steep, sharp symbol of white power opposite it. Visiting this museum is an overwhelming experience comparable only to the Holocaust Museum as both display excruciating evidence of sanctioned brutality and the persistence of our inhumanity.
The history of the slave trade, the exploitation, torture, and killing of black people, is borne of the same inherent cruelty as the persecution of Jews, and countless other human histories of subjugation, dejection, violence. But, while America became a safe haven for the Jews, it was the killing field of Africans and their descendants. Consequently, hypocrisy prevails as in the previous case: those who killed ask for forgiveness by building a museum-monument for those they killed. It is the same mechanism that, across the great ocean, the Catholic Church also perfected with its polished liturgy over the centuries. It is less obvious, better spoken of and less bloody, but not less perverted. You sin, you confess, you repent and the Church forgives you, so you kill again.
After the killing in Florida, America entered into the familiar ritual of fear, sorrow, prayers, and pledges that something has to be done so such killing will never happen again. A few are thinking hard about why this is happening in America and not in the other countries. Umair Haque, a consultant, and social-media maven attempts to explain why America is the most uniquely cruel society in the world:
America was a strange, improbable combination of things, singular in history. A Promised Land —but one for the despised. Waves upon waves of them washed up on its shores. First, the Puritans, mocked and loathed in England. Then peasants and farmers and outlaws from across Europe. Then the Chinese, Japanese, Latinos, and today, Muslims.
These emigrants all tended to share a common trait. They were at the very bottom, the lowest rung, of social and economic hierarchies in their own countries. All of them. That has changed a little recently — but America was founded by and for the despised, loathed, hated. People referred to as trash, nobodies, serfs, exiles, outcasts — who were never given an ounce of respect, dignity, or even belonging, in their societies of origin.
There were no aristocracy or gentry that emigrate to America. No British Lords, German Counts, and Italians Barons. Who crossed the Atlantic were German peasant, Irish villagers, Swedish farmers, the dwellers of Italian slums. People from the very lowest stratum, the oppressed and the subjugated, came to this Promised Land.
So first the English and French settlers supposed that this New World was theirs (and began a kind of genocide against its natives, of course). But it wasn’t just the natives that they came to hate, for threatening their natural right to this Promised Land. It was the next waves of settlers, too. The English settlers hated the French. The French hated the Germans. They all hated the Irish. The Irish hated the Italians. And so on. That much is historical fact.
Haque says that this pattern of emigration is unique in the world. After the first wave of settlers — the British, who moved in and dominated their way to the top, above the natives and blacks — came a new wave, the Germans. They too were punched down and, in turn, they began punching. And so the Irish, the Italians and the rest of the emigrants to the present day fell into this pattern. This did not happen elsewhere in the world, in Europe, Asia, South America, where the hierarchies are long established, broken only by revolution. Americans were taught to take out their anger, rage, and fear on those less powerful than they, the most obvious and immediate subordinates they could find, the most simplistic power they could reason. Such discrimination was institutionalized, normalized. Cruelty was becoming a way of life from the beginning, writes Hague.
Mass school shootings? America can’t ban guns, says Haque, so have the kids perform “active shooter drills” and America once again follows the same pattern of punching, all the way down to its little six-year-olds, 20 of whom were killed in a 2012 school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Nothing changed then either.
This tradition is strong but there is also the conviction that the institutions are infallible, that their American purpose is higher than the safety of children in American schools. “It is all that Americans expect from each other — and give to each other. That is the terrible burden of a Promised Land: that history’s despised warred among one another for domination of. The problem is this. A society of people punching one another down must collapse,”Haque concludes in one of his dramatic appeals to his fellow Americans.
I share part of Haque’s conclusions. In my not-so-long American experience, I remember a ten-year-old kid, a New Yorker, who moved back to his country, which he hardly knew after living in Asia for five years with his parents. Coming back, he went to an American school for the first time. There, after a few weeks, according to his teachers, he started to misbehave. In reality, he was a kid who needed to adapt to a new environment; he was asking questions and became argumentative because of his confusion. The educators did not listen or try to understand, they isolated him, and threatened to expel him from this fine and expensive New York elementary school. I was shocked that even a liberal school in the heart of Manhattan implemented the such a backward strategy, of isolation, for a slightly “derailed” child rather than extending him help, courage, dignity.
My strongest experience with this repressive culture was when I wanted to bike across the Washington Bridge for the first time and, because of the bad traffic, I found myself on the side of the bridge, its bike lane closed. I had to drive my bike in heavy car traffic. It was scary, but there was no way I could turn back. That is, until a few minutes later, when a police car stopped, ordered me to disappear from the road or else threatened to arrest me for trespassing. No matter my attempted explanation–that I did not see the sign, that, of course, the mistake was mine–no advice or assistance could be mustered from this public servant. The police van could’ve taken me to the other side of the bridge. I came back home much later full of little scratches and injuries, dirty from the fences and barriers I had to climb in order to get off the bridge. It would’ve been easier to have thrown my bike into the river rather than lifting and pushing it around the barriers I needed to climb. I opted not to. And I learned the lesson that confirms Haque’s theory: we live in a society that leaves fundamental conflicts unresolved, and weapons easy to buy. It’s a society that does not educate and aid, but punishes; where its members prioritize survival because of their fear, who accept the status quo, and the hierarchy and bigotry that accompany it, convinced that their country must not be failing them, even if it fails others. A model that should not, can not be changed, for all its promise.
Here are two examples of how this American mindset has been enforced and consolidated. The first is of Jack Shafer, a singular institution himself of American journalism, who in his column for Politico, wrote the following: “The Parkland shooting was no more deadly than the previous attacks, and it was hardly the first time a school had fallen into a killer’s crosshairs. It wasn’t even the first mass shooting of the Trump era—gunmen recently struck Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Las Vegas, extinguishing a total of 83 lives. That this shooting, as opposed to the others, would move public and political opinion comes as a surprise.”
My jaw dropped when I read this phrase, which implies that the Parkland shooting is something normal, perhaps even somewhat below the standard. Shafer, I think, is not an NRA supporter like the President of the United States. But in this fragment of thought, there is a symptom of a greater ailment: the liberal writer who accepts mass shootings as a part of society, so much so that he attempts to reason why this shooting is more effective in instigating collective social protest than the others. Does he not consider it is simply one, two, ten too many? I cannot bear even the minimum of compliance with a gun law that is required of citizens in this country, who can own, carry and use guns with unprecedented autonomy. Not a bit. The maximum effort should be made to take the guns away from the street and let the police and army handle them (though this, too, has proven its own fatal dangers). But perhaps this is the only way to break the vicious circle of fear and violence, the only way that teachers and policemen will serve society again in their roles, and not as part of this repressive apparatus only. How do we get there?
A few days after the Parkland mass shooting, CNN organized a “town hall” meeting during which Marco Rubio, a senator who is one of the major financial beneficiaries of the NRA, was put in the corner by heavy, direct and merciless questioning from survivors of the shooting. Would he be ready to renounce the money he receives from the NRA, he was asked several times. Rubio would not. What he offered to do instead was support the ban of high-volume ammunition magazines for assault weapons. “It may not prevent an attack, but it may save lives in an attack,” he said, suggesting that three or four lives might have been saved in Parkland had there been some restriction on magazine size.
It seemed that almost no one noticed the deadly dose of cynicism in the words of the politician. We could save three to four lives in a school, but we cannot guarantee the safety of the other 13 because we do not want to refuse the money of the gun lobby and will do nothing to take guns from private citizens on the street.
Two weeks after the shooting, the gun debate started to slow. Among the politicians, at least. Some are pleased that the issue finally reached the White House, with President Trump promising, during an embarrassingly confusing televised debate, that his administration will tighten gun control and limit the possibility of purchase for those under 21. Nobody really believes anymore what this President is saying, and certainly, no one can tell what effect it will actually have on national policy.
Something is moving nevertheless. The students from Florida took things into their own hands and organized the “Never Again” gun-violence-resistance movement. To get an idea of this generation’s determination and maturity, listen to the Alfonso Calderon in this short interview with CNN. On the 24 of March, there will be the massive demonstrations in Washington, New York, and other cities, organized by the movement. Under the pressure of this movement, public opinion and viral social media, a long list of corporations are now severing the special and privileged business relationships they held with the gun industry.
It will be these youngsters, who refuse to continue to be the target of wild guns and the young men wielding them, who will decide the fate of this country. Expect the next vote, by the end of this year, to be exceptional. The mass shooting survivors who are raising their voices, and being heard, are determined to vote out the accomplices of the gun lobby.