On the Other Hand?
I have posited that despair may be the most realistic response to America’s unhappiness and to its likelihood of finding remedies. My reasoning to this conclusion resonates with the implication of The Onion’s satirical headline following the Las Vegas killings: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” It turns out that they have used this headline five times in the last three years, each one following a mass killing, with the stories that follow modified only to register the number of victims, location, and other details. As I read the commentary following these tragedies I notice that “only nation where this regularly happens” is mentioned occasionally but almost never in the context of asking why it is the only such nation. We want to know all we can about the killer—motivation, mental condition, history—but nothing about the society that incubated him. Surely there is some connection between the alleged derangement of the killers, as well as their choice of whether and how to express it, and that of their society.
The connection isn’t examined much publicly but often is implicitly denied. One Senator who believes that legislation is helpless to prevent these killings, a man named Thune, exclaimed after Las Vegas that “I think people are going to have to take steps in their own lives to take precautions. To protect themselves. And in situations like that, you know, try to stay safe. As somebody said—get small.” Translation: “Don’t kid yourself that you live in a society of united states, a place where people and their government take seriously a degree of responsibility for fellow citizens and their ongoing random slaughter. You’re on your own here.”
One commentator, who also failed to ask explicitly about the killer-society connection, made an interesting point nonetheless:
Gun ownership is a form of expressive individualism no less than the liberties beloved in blue America, and it makes sense that a culture that rejects erotic limits would reject limits on self-defense as well. Especially since the appeal of gun ownership is also linked to individualism’s dark side — to distrust of your neighbor and your government, to the decay of communities and families, to a sense of being unprotected and on your own.” (Ross Douthat, “Why Gun Control Loses, And Why Las Vegas Might Change That,” New York Times, 10-4-17)
(I will pass over Mr. Douthat’s gratuitous insertion about liberals’ beloved liberty and strange analogizing of erotic freedom with unrestricted gun ownership since the gun people are not noticeably committed to a comparable degree of erotic freedom, and those of us who value the latter are usually quite comfortable with stringent restriction of guns.) Expressive individualism as the fragmented self-centeredness and darkness of distrust, communal decay, and isolation, which it is always vulnerable to slipping into, may be part of the explanation of why ours is the only nation where this regularly happens.