Looking back, it appears that the mass murder of school children in Newtown, Conn., was, in fact, a turning point for our country. It was not, however, the turning point that many people hoped for and the gun supporters feared.
Instead, it has become the event that made clear that nothing is going change. That this is how we live now and will live for the foreseeable future. That there is no “last straw.”
This is also the prism through which the world sees our country. But that is a matter of small consequence for those who exert power and influence in this area.
Immediately after Newtown, there was the“let’s change the subject” moment and talk about mental health, this at precisely the time that mental health budgets continued to be slashed across the country. Hey, maybe a new database will do the job. At least that will allow members of Congress to campaign as if they are doing something, while, at the same time, staying off the NRA hit list. Or even better, get campaign funds from them.
As details emerge on the current massacre, it is quite certain that the mental health and database and communications issues will again take center stage, at least for a couple of news cycles.
The Navy Yard shootings in Washington, D.C., further reinforced the reality that this is how we are going to live. Everyone now knows that there will be another one somewhere within the next few months. The only problem is that they are unscheduled, but even this doesn’t prevent us from no longer being surprised or shocked. Mass murders are now increasingly like multiple-alarm fires, the exception being that these fires are becoming less and less frequent.
Like mass incarceration, extreme inequality and widespread joblessness, we get used to it. As Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina, “There are no conditions to which a person cannot become accustomed, especially if he sees everyone else living in the same way.”
The most compelling evidence of our desperate situation is the television coverage, which is now pretty much scripted for these events. The mix includes “on the scene” reporters asking inane and unanswerable questions (“Was it terrorism?”) to fill airtime; the studio-based anchor trying to project gravitas and keep the audience from switching channels; and the pseudo-experts, increasingly ex-military and FBI people now cashing in at “security” firms – all talking about everything except the ubiquity of guns.
Despite the supposed horror and magnitude of the situation, we are not spared the barrage of commercials interspersed between reports on the carnage. Somebody has to pay the bills. For the inured, it isn’t even jarring anymore to hear, “but your erectile dysfunction, that could be a problem of blood flow.” So could multiple bullet holes.
The two-days-after talking heads discussion focused on President Obama’s supposed insensitivity and “tin ear” in going forward with his speech on the economy. This criticism may be legitimate, but, if ever there were a group of people who needed to look in the mirror, it is the pundits launching these criticisms.
For example, on CNN, the ever-preening Wolf Blitzer referred to some sketchy information being delivered by the “correspondent” on “the scene” of the massacre as “fascinating,” his exact word. “Fascinating” is not a word that most people would use to describe mass murder. But there it was.
Pretty much everywhere, we had the now standard American confusion of the terms “victim” and “hero.” Rather than any mention of guns, there was the now obligatory homage to the “first responders” and the great job they were doing in picking up the bodies. And through it all there was the feeling of a one- or two-day story, the funerals likely being the “put the story to bed” point.
Because the victims are often white and not poor, the shrug threshold has not yet reached the dog bites man level of young black men shooting one another. But that is the trajectory. Even The New York Times only gave the story a one-column lead on its front page: “12 Shot to Death By Lone Gunman at a Naval Base.” It did mention that the Navy Yard is only a half-mile from the Capital, but did not note that this was the same Capital where Congress resolutely refused to take any action on guns in the aftermath of the Newtown slaughter.
The only discordant note to the day’s mix of briefings and empty commentary was the extraordinary statement made by Dr. Janis Orlowski, the head of trauma at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. It was a powerful assertion that what is happening is not “normal,” even if it seems that way. And it was a plea for action, although she did not give specifics. It will be interesting to see if Dr. Orlowski is also a one-day story, likely painted as a “liberal” who should stick to her medicine. Other than her statement, it was business as usual.