Americans are stubbornly unmoved by death
The scene looked heartbreakingly familiar: the rumble of tactical vehicles, the swarm of law enforcement officers, the long ribbons of yellow police tape and the eyewitness descriptions thick with residual terror. Monday evening's deadly shooting in Boulder, Colorado, which resulted in the deaths of 10 people, including a police officer, was the second mass shooting in a week.
A dreadful normalcy has returned. Muscle memory demands that we lament it − even as all evidence suggests that many of us are unmoved by death. It doesn't cause behavior to change. It doesn't shake people from their moorings at the center of their own universe. Death is not a deterrent.
In the days after a mass shooting, the nation mourns and those who died are named. The hearts of our elected officials have been broken so many times that surely they must be in shards by now. The flags are lowered to half-staff. And the president speaks. Joe Biden, a man who is expert at consoling, did the best that he could to say something true that did not sound like a cliche.
"I even hate to say it because we're saying it so often: My heart goes out. Our hearts go out for the survivors, the — who had to had to flee for their lives and who hid, terrified, unsure if they would ever see their families again, their friends again," President Joe Biden said Tuesday afternoon from the State Dining Room. "The consequences of all this are deeper than I suspect we know. By that, I mean the mental consequences − a feeling of...we've been through too many of these."
The images from these shootings can be gut-wrenching. In video and still images, people see shellshocked survivors pouring out of the school, the night club and, this time, the grocery store. There's blood in these images, sometimes even the blurred image of one of the deceased. There's nothing sanitized about them. The shooting may happen behind closed doors but the death is in the open. The terror rises off the survivors like a stench; the sound of fear reverberates.
And still the deaths don't spur action to make the guns harder to get, to make the guns less efficient. The president, some politicians and many activists cry out for "common sense" gun laws to stop the senseless death even as it seems that they are pleading with a country that's engaged in a completely different kind of calculation.
Increasingly it seems that we simply do not care about the other person, that other family, someone else's child. The self is everything. It's freedom and liberty, whims and desires. Community doesn't extend beyond one's front door. Everything else is someone else's concern.
More than 544,000 deaths in the United States due to the coronavirus have not sent everyone scurrying to protect their neighbor. The end is on the horizon and if people simply wear a mask, social distance and persevere with patience we might get there.
Yet unmasked revelers crowded onto the streets of Miami Beach. The very real possibility of death has not been a deterrent. The community didn't matter as these partyers and tourists ostensibly shot a different kind of deadly slug into the Florida air.
We have not gone numb to death. To "go numb" suggests that once there was feeling, once there was sensitivity. When was that? Perhaps it was back in 1968 when, after the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Congress passed gun laws that formed the basis of federal regulation that has been regularly eroded. We haven't cared for a long time. Not when the dying were schoolchildren, people in the midst of prayer or contented folks just living quiet lives.
Today, some in this country argue against gun laws with a ferocity that moves beyond a right to hunt rabbits, defend oneself against an assailant or one's property in the face of an intruder. We refuse to relinquish the delusion that 21st century America is a frontier town in which gunplay is a form of justice.
We are not numb to death. We stubbornly, selfishly dismiss it. We shake it off. But there is always an assault that has the capacity to brings an individual low. Some bracing gut punch that stings and startles. The pain might finally register in a way that is deep and lasting. And that person begins to feel something.
But that may require death coming directly to their own doorstep since that's the only one that, for many of us, seems to matter.
Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large for the Washington Post writing about politics, race and the arts.