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Covered in chum.

2016 June 12
by constantia


Every now and then, I think about Sandy Hook or Isla Vista. Sometimes, I think about Columbine or Virginia Tech, San Bernardino or Charleston. There are a lot of mass shootings to remember.
I think about people who get shot because of who they are, and those who get shot because of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. I think about the mass shootings and the plain ol’ murders. I think about the women that get killed by angry exes, and the people that die because of their race, who they love, or how they worship. We sure do love to kill each other, us humans. I think about the “bear” drills they have at my daughter’s school, staged to discreetly teach the kids how to respond to a shooter on campus. I think about the time we got patted down before we went to see the re-release of Aladdin at the El Capitan in Hollywood, or the terror that crept into my heart when there was a rumor that the San Bernardino shooter was near my kid’s school and several of the neighboring schools were on shooter lockdown.

Now I’m thinking about Pulse.

I don’t think stricter gun control is really possible in this country. It’s an unpopular opinion, I know, especially at a time like this. I used to believe that effective gun control legislation was possible, and then I watched as we enacted near-useless feel-good gun laws in response to tragedies. It’s too ingrained in our culture now, this gun lust. The bulk of our mythology is wrapped around guns. We love the idea of revolution in this country – it’s the core creation myth of the United States, after all – and so many of our American gods and heroes are gangsters, rebels, and cowboys. We love the fuck out of guns. It’s part of our national identity, and sometimes I think we wouldn’t know what we were without it. From this, we spawned the twin myths of the Good Guy With a Gun and Guns Don’t Kill People, and those are invoked with absolute certainty bordering on religious fervor every time another tragedy hits the news. I am not a cynical person by nature, but I am a pragmatist: the guns are here to stay.

So, what do we do?

There was an article last year in the New Yorker that stopped my breath when I read it. It’s funny how some of these moments stick with you forever: I was on a plane when I read it, and the hopelessness and dread that I felt was so stunning that my brain seems to have taken a snapshot of that moment. The article is called Thresholds of Violence, written by Malcolm Gladwell. It almost shattered my hope. It talks about the epidemic of school shootings using the Granovetterian Model, “to think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before.” And suddenly, it seemed like we were on a trajectory of horrific inevitability.


I think that we’re experiencing a low-grade nationwide anxiety disorder at this point. Nowhere is safe, and the precautions we are capable of enacting are meagre protection at best. You’re not safe at school, at home, at Disneyland. Your church could be shot up or your nightclub. You can be targeted because of your gender, race, religion or sexuality – OR, you can be shot at random in a dark movie theater. Your age or privilege cannot save you, and lord knows that if we were going to come up with a solution, we would have done it after Sandy Hook. If we still cling to our guns after children are massacred, there is nothing that can pry them out of our hands.

It’s not hyperbolic to say that in the United States, you are pretty much ripe to be shot to death anywhere at any time, regardless of who you are. How can we not be anxious? We’ve been compartmentalizing and suppressing terror for so long. How do we keep going, day after day, increasingly numb to tragedy because it is ever-present? Accepting the constant possibility of senseless death because that’s simply how it is?

A tangent:
When I was in Zihuatanejo many years ago, I had a near-death experience. Is that the right phrase for it? Put bluntly, I thought I was going to die. I was snorkeling with Ted in an inlet where shark attacks had happened recently. There was a point where I had drifted too far from the boat. Neither Ted nor our guide were anywhere to be seen, and I was rapidly becoming exhausted by the weight of the water in my dreadlocks. Staring at the boat, I honestly wasn’t sure I could make it. I looked at the beach, which was also too far, and there were vultures circling the hill on the shore. My hair swirled around me, and I realized I had surfaced in a splotch of chum, and there was chum all over my hair. I would have laughed if I’d had the wind left in me. Too exhausted to swim, nowhere to go, sharks in the water, chum in my hair, and vultures discreetly waiting for me to pay the price for a combination of bad choices and bad fortune. It was the first time in my life where I had to say to myself, “Well, this might be it: your last bad idea. Try to get to the boat, and if you don’t, make your peace with God.”

The specter of gun violence is akin to the sharks in the bay – they probably won’t kill me, but there’s always that chance – I’m exhausted, and the boat seems so far away. Maybe all we can do is swim for it, covered in chum, and hope we make it.

The gun mythology in the United States is strong, and it takes a long time to supplant old gods with new ones. We can’t remove these weapons from the equation, so what’s left for us to do to stem the rising tide? I was talking to a friend earlier today about our murder fetish in the US and what can possibly be done about it. I think all of us grownups might be doomed, because while we’re getting wiser and kinder with each passing year, the infection in our generations is already present. But we might be able to save our kids and the generations after us. People like to wave their hands and vaguely blame all of these murders on some ephemeral “mental illness”. Hatred, isolation, and fear is what drives these killings. Maybe we can teach our kids not to hate, and in a few generations’ time, we just won’t need to murder each other with such frequency. It sounds like I’m oversimplifying things, but I’m not. It is the only solution that I can see. Raise our kids in kindness, and do all we can to ensure that they feel safe. Teach them acceptance and compassion both for themselves and for others. Teach them to respect themselves and each other – to respect life itself – and teach them to reject hate, xenophobia, and bigotry. Teach them not to see the world as a monstrous place filled with faceless enemies. Maybe we can teach them something that so many of us in preceding generations are still trying to grasp: that their life isn’t any more or less valuable than anyone else’s, and everyone deserves a chance at happiness.

It’s worth a shot, right? I mean, surely it can’t hurt to try. If we can’t magically get rid of guns, maybe we can eliminate some of the sickness that drives people to use them.

Maybe we can do better?

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