After the Nov. 4 massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a number of media sites had headlines and stories constructed around this horrible truth: Two of the most murderous mass shootings in modern American history happened just 35 days apart.
Fifty-eight people were murdered and hundreds wounded on Oct. 1 at a music festival in Las Vegas, and at least 26 people — including an 18-month-old — died Sunday as they sat in their small-town church during services in Texas.
Eighty-four people murdered by two gunmen. In five weeks. Two killers whose motives don’t seem particularly clear and who both took their own lives after their slaughter was complete. They can’t be questioned about why they did this, can’t be put on trial, convicted and punished. Nothing can be learned from them.
So, as a consequence, people reach for explanations and put out the now uniquely American cliché that “our thoughts and prayers” are with the families of the dead.
If the killers had pledged loyalty to ISIS, these slaughters would have resulted in battle cries out of Washington and pledges to keep these murderous religious zealots out of the country.
Without that, what do we as a country say about the Las Vegas killer, Stephen Paddock? Or Devin Patrick Kelley, the Texas killer who was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force and served prison time for beating his wife and cracking the skull of his infant stepchild?
With these two men, there are no countries or religious beliefs to assail. There is no target. So without that, they must have been nuts. Seriously mentally ill? They have to be to do what they did. But not so mentally ill that they couldn’t purchase assault weapons and massive amounts of ammunition. Kelley was found to have had 15 magazines capable of holding 30 rounds each. Do the math. And it was an error that kept his conviction off a federal database where he might have been blocked from purchasing a military-style assault rifle.
Mental illness is becoming a kind of fallback explanation for massive body counts. How mentally ill was Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who murdered 20 children — ages 6 and 7 — in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012? His ever-so-supportive mother bought him the weapon he used. Who do we attack for his crime?
Beyond that, how mentally ill do you have to be to believe the Newtown slaughter never happened? Alex Jones, whose name is frequently in the news these days, has said the Newtown massacre never actually occurred — it was, in his words, “completely fake.” For the parents of the victims, you lose a child to horrific violence and then this man says it never happened? You didn’t bury your child?
How truly sick. And how sick that as a country we seem to be growing inured to this violence. It’s becoming some sort of normal. If children murdered in an elementary school did not sicken the country to the point where our elected leaders would be at near desperation to find some sort of answer, anything to get it to stop, then what will it take?
With so many of them, answers to the American mass shooting epidemic don’t seem obvious anymore. As a country, our leaders can’t even agree on what is the common good, on what would keep us safe. Our political system is so polarized and our leaders so contemptuous of each other, and so completely beholden to their largest contributors, that the best interests of the public are not even an afterthought.
So-called bump stocks — the kind Paddock used in Las Vegas to turn 12 of his weapons into something closer to machine guns — remain legal except in Massachusetts. We don’t even pull those off the shelves. We don’t do anything.
An elementary school, a music festival, a rural church, to name just a few everyday places where everyday Americans go about their lives, were disrupted by gunfire and death in numbers out of a war zone. Followed by yet another “breaking news” alert on cable television.
Then “thoughts and prayers.”
In 1970, Dee Brown published his epic book on the Indian wars, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” The book ends with an account of the murders of 300 Sioux men, women and children in December 1890, in what is today South Dakota. One day someone will write a book about the mass slaughters of our time, “Bury My Heart at Newtown.”
Photo credit: Daniel Oines/Flickr