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I write this morning following a night that suffered yet another American mass shooting, the thirty-sixth this year. This one in Maine, a place that, in its largely rural, wooded, northern nature is not so dramatically different than Montana, where I live, which is another reminder, as if we needed such reminders, that evil exists everywhere and no one is immune to erratic violence by virtue of location, lifestyle, economics, or demographics. The unpredictability of such murders is one of the elements that causes so much omnipresent fear and anxious suspicion, even as our culture is so saturated with the regularity of mass shootings that we risk becoming numb to their impact. Too often we turn the page. Too often we fail to think about the victims or their families, likely because to do so enacts such a toll on our own mental health. In the case of last night’s event, we do not yet know the number of victims, let alone the identities of those killed and injured. Of course, one question is, once we do know the names of those we have lost, will we take the time to learn their stories? Will we reach out to help care for the loved ones they have left behind?
As I write, the perpetrator is still at large. A person of interest has been identified, and that person, if he turns out to be the murderer, fits all too familiar patterns among incidents that hold few patterns: male, white, middle-aged, employing an assault rifle. There are exceptions of course. But they are exceptions only. The truly unpredictable is the indiscriminate nature of these killings, which often include children and the elderly and regularly take place in places that are hallmarks of normalcy in our lives—schools and churches, grocery stores and movie theaters, dance clubs and bars, parties and concerts, and now, apparently, a bowling alley. The “normalcy” and the regularity with which ordinary people are killed in ordinary places means we all face choices, whether we see them as choices or not, to either become so paralyzed by fear of the unknown that can occur without warning in known places or to build psychological buffers that threaten to create a different kind of paralysis, one more like the numbing effect of undergoing a dental procedure or localized surgery where the source of pain is detached from the rest of our ability to be receptive. We become conditioned to violence like citizens of warzones. Of course, we do not live in a warzone like those we struggle to imagine, let alone make sense of, for we do not awaken daily in Gaza or in Ukraine, which makes our acceptance of such an epidemic of violence from within a place with more freedom, more resources, more opportunities for education and pluralism and safety all the more perverse. We are divided in our political stances on the weapons used to kill dozens of people in seconds, divided in our beliefs about causation, and united only in our heartache and in our inability to understand such anger unleashed upon strangers.
When I was teaching in Colorado twenty-four years ago, I can recall with clarity the moment the first of several students appeared in my office to ask, “Have you heard about the shooting that is happening at Columbine High School? That’s where I graduated,” she told me. “I have so many friends there and I don’t know what is happening to them.” The chill and the despair and the impotency I experienced as she told me about her friends has never left me, has never softened in the years and with the countless shooting since. Yet I am as guilty as the next person to hear the news story or read the headline or have a friend or loved one say those words, “Have you heard…?” and think, not again, and then move on about my day. The reality is there is little individuals can do to stop this rising tide of violence. We can, and I have, implored those who represent me to ban assault rifles, to pass stricter gun laws, to expand outreach and fund free mental health services. We can support community organizations that bring people together rather than those that push people apart. We can form support networks for friends with heavy work demands or other circumstances that need more loving resources for their children. We can act with more regular kindness to strangers. I try to do these things. I have written about such violence before, within novels and about moments of my own life when people I love have had family members taken by violence and moments where people I grew up with have participated in potentially deadly criminal acts. Asking for change from elected officials, appealing for compassion for others, maybe even using the voice of writing…these are worthy actions. Alone they do not address a fundamental fracture that is present in the American psyche or help me understand the full range of cause for what makes my country the scene of mass killings at rates unimaginable elsewhere around the world. Why are we this way? What is present in the national zeitgeist of the past quarter century to explain it? Why are we raising so many men who grow up to be serial killers?
I’m as guilty as anyone for not having any answers. I wish I could say differently. I am embarrassed that I feel weary by all the killing. We have factors present in our culture that, if addressed, could help curb the deadliness of the actions taken by those with deadly intent, definitive things like admitting, once and for all our collective rights as defined by the second amendment should not extend to weapons developed for armed combat, no more than we let individual citizens possess tanks or nuclear submarines. My closest friend, a man I respect more than nearly anyone on the planet and who may be the kindest person I have ever met, owns an assault rifle. I do not understand why. The real answer is simply because he can. He is the least likely person I have ever met to deploy the weapon in an act of violence, but his right to own such a weapon also ensures the right of the men who kill strangers en masse with the opportunity to do so. We must address the dominance of guns in our culture, just as we act to change the national abandonment of meaningful mental health care that has origins dating back to the midpoint of the last century. Rather like the opioid epidemic, there are actions we can take that can reduce the scale of this epidemic of violence, though we must be willing to admit that those actions, even if taken, cannot fully address root causes. We must ask, why are we a culture so prone to violence?
I do not believe in any easy answers to such a question. I believe those roots are varied and overlapping and have numerous tendrils present in unique aspects of American history and its economic and social development. There are roots, not a taproot. I dismiss canned notions that I view as corollary or symptomatic rather than revealing causation, explanations like the violence present in our media as a cause. That said, I will not dismiss it as a factor, and that gives me pause, both as a fiction writer and as a media consumer. We cannot blame the commonplace violence present in our books, songs, movies, and television shows as the cause behind the actions of those who are clearly unstable, but we cannot dismiss that constant exposure to a thing does not alter our perspective on it. If I say, or write “fuck” with enough regularity (and I am guilty of both), the potency of the word to shock others is diminished. If I witness enough murders in my entertainment mediums of choice, I do not believe I am more likely to commit murder but I do believe that something in me as been reduced, that some manner of revulsion has been deadened. It has been troubling me for some time that the “one episode per night” indulgence that my wife and I impose on ourselves in the evenings after long and stressful days at work in pursuit of some mindlessness, nearly always involves television series that are gratuitous in their violence and overwhelming in their depiction of murder. Over the last many weeks, we have gone back a few years and, sparked by the praise heaped upon it by critics, have been immersed in Eastern Kentucky crime via the series “Justified.” More bodies accumulate in nearly any episode than many of us might have the equivalent count for in good friends over our lifetimes. And yet I keep watching. Why? Not for the violence. And not for the logical fallacies that accumulate as fast as the dead. I respect the writer, Elmore Leonard on whose short story the show is based, and there are elements of character and even humor and the differentiation between justice and justification for actions taken in the absence of justice that I appreciate. But why am I not more shocked at the killings? Why am I not more offended by the ready presence of murder or the charisma of some of the murderers? These are questions I ask myself with increasing regularity. Do I “justify” my entertainment choices by not reading books of the same nature as the television I consume? Is there a dearth of television that is not steeped in violence? Why are there so few television writers producing work that, if employing violence, do so in a fuller examination of its context and its realism as a series like “The Wire” did so astutely? Is the current state of television writers’ rooms reflective of what is deemed sellable and reflective of consumer demand or does it mirror the larger cultural obsession with violence and its normalization? In what world do we accept that the January 6th attack on the Capitol building as anything but a violent rebellion? Has repeated exposure numbed us to the impacts of violence? Am I, in my patterns of entertainment consumption, contributing to a larger problem?
My choices of television entertainment will not convert me into a killer. Nor did they likely do so for the actual killers whose names are often remembered in the collective consciousness while those of their victims are not. I do not believe a television show or a book or a lyric or a politician’s speech led a man in Maine to murder strangers. But all of those things may have either contributed to the culture that helped shape him or be reflective of the underlying culture that helped produce the speeches and books and scripts. What I don’t want to be is numb whether as a means to escape the forces around me that leave me heartbroken or within the creative acts that can offer a place to escape within. Escape, while understandable, is insufficient. We have to stop turning away and start turning toward. For me, in this moment, that includes not just examining my own choices but renewing a commitment to attempting to be one tiny counterforce to evil, as often as I am able and in whatever small measures I am capable. To do so will not prevent the next Columbine or Sandy Hook or the shorthand reference that will surely emerge from Lewiston, Maine. I can, perhaps, offer a ripple in the sand that alters the path of one grain carried on the wind through the help I provide a student, in a message of compassion interpreted by a reader, through a gesture of kindness to a stranger, by acting with love and compassion in the presence of hate and indifference.