July 21, 2012 · 3 Comments
By Marie Burns:
“Tragedy” is one of the most misused and overused words in our public discourse. Yesterday I attended President Obama’s homage to the victims of the Aurora, Colorado shooting. During his remarks, sensitive and heartfelt as they were, the President used the word “tragedy” three times. He called the murders a “tragedy for the people who knew them and loved them, for those who are still struggling to recover, and for all the victims of less publicized acts of violence that plague our communities every single day.” In his weekly address, released this morning, Obama repeated the sentiments he expressed yesterday, again invoking the word “tragedy”: “if there’s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s a reminder that life is fragile.” Really? Is the “fragility of life” the central lesson of the murders in Colorado? Mitt Romney used the word “tragedy” only once in his statement on the shootings, but his view was not much different from the President’s: “Today we feel not only a sense of grief, but perhaps also of helplessness. But there is something we can do. We can offer comfort to someone near us who is suffering or heavy-laden. And we can mourn with those who mourn in Colorado.” Really? Are we as a people helpless against random acts of violence?
In classical literature, “tragedy” is self-inflicted. As defined by Aristotle and exemplified in Greek drama, the tragic hero is a king or leader of good character “whose misfortune is brought about by some error or frailty.” Aristotle used the term “hamartia” to describe the hero’s fatal flaw.
But there were no tragic heroes in Colorado – certainly not the alleged shooter James Holmes and not the victims* nor their loved ones, either. The “heroes” are instead President Obama, Mitt Romney, state governors and the hundreds of legislators in Congress and state legislatures who have knuckled under to the National Rifle Association, the rest of the gun lobby and all opponents of sensible, life-saving gun control measures. So, yes, the Aurora murders were a tragedy, but it struck me as I sat listening to Obama deflect blame for the Aurora theater killings to “evil … beyond reason,” that I was watching the tragic hero himself. In 2008, candidate Obama advocated for “permanent reinstatement of the expired assault weapons ban, and Attorney General Eric Holder in 2009 indicated that the administration would lobby for a bill. But that never materialized and the White House has avoided talking about it…. In an op-ed for the Arizona Daily Star two months after Tucson, Obama avoided calls for tighter controls, even though shooter Jared Lee Lougher passed checks and legally purchased his weapons.” Amy Gardner of the Washington Post reports,
In the Illinois Senate and the U.S. Senate, when his constituents included crime-weary residents of inner-city Chicago, Obama was a vocal advocate for stricter gun controls. He even mentioned his support for an assault-weapons ban during his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
But as president, Obama has focused primarily on improving enforcement of existing laws. The Justice Department on Friday released a background memo detailing the administration’s efforts to make required background checks more thorough. Examples include better reporting of arrest and conviction records and of people who are prohibited from buying guns for mental-health reasons.
The administration has made little mention, however, of a priority Obama promised on the campaign trail in 2008: extending background checks to sales at gun shows. The checks are not required in some states.
During Obama’s presidency, there have been four major mass shootings: “Binghamton, N.Y. (2009); Fort Hood, Texas (2009); Tucson, Ariz. (2011) and now Aurora, Colo.” (Gavin Aronsen of Mother Jones reports that “Since 1982, there have been at least 26 mass murders across the United States.” Aronsen even provides a handy interactive map you can use to find out the where, when, who and how many victims.) In addition, “Every year there are 30,000 gun deaths and 300,000 gun-related assaults in the U.S.”
Mitt Romney, if not heroic, is as afflicted as Obama. In 1994, Romney supported the Brady Bill (requiring a 5-day waiting period and background checks for the purchase of handguns). In 2002, while running for governor of Massachusetts, Romney said he supported “tough gun laws” and pledged not to “chip away at them. I believe they help protect us, and provide for our safety.” In 2004, he signed a permanent assault-weapons ban in Massachusetts. “Deadly assault weapons … are not made for recreation or self-defense. They are instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people,” Romney said at the signing ceremony. But in August 2006 he joined the NRA, and by 2007, Romney’s stance on gun control had “evolved,” like most of his positions on controversial issues: “When it comes to protecting the Second Amendment, I do not support any new gun laws including any new ban on semi-automatic firearms,” he said in late December 2007. Today he opposes “adding more laws and regulations that do nothing more than burden law-abiding citizens….”
The New York Times editorial board, which has consistently and repeatedly supported gun control, gets it right again today:
Politicians are far too fearful of the gun lobby to address gun violence, and, as a society, we keep getting stuck on a theoretical debate about the Second Amendment, which keeps us from taking practical measures that just might help avoid the all-too-frequent tragedies like the one in Aurora….
The country needs laws that allow gun ownership, but laws that also control their sale and use in careful ways. Instead, we have been seeing a rash of ‘stand your ground’ self-defense laws, other laws that recklessly encourage the carrying of concealed weapons and efforts to force every state to knuckle under to those laws. Assault rifles like one used by the killer in Colorado are too readily available, as are high-capacity ammunition clips.
The editors point to remarks by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who fingers both of our “tragic heroes”:
Maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they’re going to do about it…. Romney passed a ban on assault weapons back when he was governor and now he says he’s against it. Of course, he’s done that on almost everything. Obama, when he was elected, said I want to reinstate the ban on assault weapons and he’s never done it.
The editors of the Washington Post take a similar stance:
There is no rational basis for allowing ordinary Americans to purchase assault rifles. They’re not necessary for hunting, and they’re not needed for self-defense…. It’s disappointing that the president doesn’t couple his words of comfort with some reminder of the common-sense regulation that could make such tragedies less common. The politics of guns will never shift if people are too cowed or dispirited even to join the argument.
Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker finds fault with President Obama, too:
The truth is made worse by the reality that no one – really no one – anywhere on the political spectrum has the courage to speak out about the madness of unleashed guns and what they do to American life. That includes the President, whose consoling message managed to avoid the issue of why these killings take place. Of course, we don’t know, and perhaps never will, what exactly ‘made him’ do what he did; but we know how he did it. Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened last night—as they will when it happens again. And it will happen again.
The reality is simple: every country struggles with madmen and ideologues with guns, and every country – Canada, Norway, Britain – has had a gun massacre once, or twice. Then people act to stop them, and they do – as over the past few years has happened in Australia. Only in America are gun massacres of this kind routine, expectable, and certain to continue. Does anyone even remember any longer last July’s gun massacre, those birthday-party killings in Texas, when an estranged husband murdered his wife and most of her family, leaving six dead?
Should this young man – whose nature was apparently so obvious to his mother that, when a ABC News reporter called, she said ‘You have the right person’ – have been able to buy guns, ammunition and explosives? The gun lobby will say yes…. That James Holmes is insane, few may doubt. Our gun laws are also insane, but many refuse to make the connection. The United States is one of few developed nations that accepts the notion of firearms in public hands. In theory, the citizenry needs to defend itself. Not a single person at the Aurora, Colo., theater shot back, but the theory will still be defended.
And Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic provides the “script treatment” for Ebert’s “movie” in a piece on “the template of our grief”:
First we get the shaky camera phone videos and the tweets. Then the distraught eyewitness interviews and 911 call recording. Quickly, the shooter is identified. Politicians issue statements of shock and sorrow. The shooter’s parents, if interviewed, are confused and abashed or else hide. The social media forensics begin. People with the same or a similar name as the shooter are harassed. There is speculation he is part of a right-wing group, or an Islamic terrorist, or a former Army veteran. The FBI and the armed forces check their records and issue denials or confirmations. Calls for better gun control efforts are issued once again. Defenders of the Second Amendment fight back immediately, or even pre-emptively. The victims of the shooting are blamed in social media for being where they were attacked. More eye-witness interviews. The shooter’s parents are castigated. Survivors speak. Warning signs are identified as the alleged shooter’s past is plumbed. We ask if violent movies are to blame for his actions. Or cuts to mental-health services. And talk about what kind of country we are, if we have culture of violence. The death toll fluctuates. International voices from countries where guns are heavily regulated shake their heads at us. People leave piles of flowers and teddy bears at the shooting site. There are candlelight vigils, and teary memorials. Everyone calls for national unity and a moment of togetherness. Eventually, the traumatized community holds a big healing ceremony. It is moving, and terribly sad, and watched by millions on TV or online. A few activists continue to make speeches. The shooter, if still alive, rapidly is brought to trial. There is another wave of public discussion about our failures, and the nature of evil. Politicians make feints at gun-law changes, which fail. And then everyone forgets and moves on. Everyone, that is, except the survivors.
Yes, we have seen this movie before. And we know there will be sequels.
New York Times columnist Gail Collins, too, sees the presidential candidates – like other elected officials – as captives of “a rich, fierce, loopy lobby.” Collins remarks that “One of the terrible things about talking to gun-control advocates is that so many of them are relatives of gun violence victims.” But Collins also illuminates a mistake that gun-control side makes: “They’re uncomfortably aware that they might appear to be taking political advantage of a national tragedy.” There’s that word “tragedy” again, appropriate, but perhaps also misunderstood. Of course, “taking political advantage of a tragedy” is not the invention of the victims of gun violence. E. J. Dionne writes in today’s Washington Post,
Anyone who dares to say that an event such as the massacre at a Colorado movie theater early Friday demands that we rethink our approach to the regulation of firearms is accused of ‘exploiting’ the deaths of innocent people…. The gun lobby goes straight to the exploitation argument – which is, of course, a big lie…. We never allow an assertion of this kind to stop conversation on other issues. Nobody who points to the inadequacy of our flood-control policies or mistakes by the Army Corps of Engineers is accused of ‘exploiting’ the victims of a deluge….
Right on cue, “Luke O’Dell, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a Colorado-based group that fights gun control measures…, said that Mayor Bloomberg’s call for a discussion of gun issues was ‘exploiting the blood of these innocent victims to advance his political agenda,’” John Schwartz of the New York Times reports. O’Dell also claims that “private gun restrictions may well have had ‘tragic consequences’ in the shootings. He noted that the theater chain that owns the Aurora movie house bans firearms on the premises, and said that if other patrons had been legally able to carry weapons, the death toll might have been less.” Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker asks, “How does one argue with someone convinced that the routine massacre of our children is the price we must pay for our freedom to have guns, or rather to have guns that make us feel free?” Dave Weigel of Slate tries to do it with, you know, facts: “The shooter made a series of smart tactical decisions that minimized the risk of anyone stopping him.” In an earlier post, Weigel refuted the assertions of Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) that “a brave citizens could have stopped [the shooter] James Holmes…. You’ve got dark, panic, an enclosed space, and some kind of painful gas. No one’s in any position to get the jump on the shooter. No one has a place to hide from him – he has a perfect vantage point of every seat. And he’s wearing protective gear. So, I think the answer for Gohmert is: No. No one was in an ideal position to pull a Dirty Harry….”
But of course Weigel’s arguments are as much a part of the familiar script as are Luke O’Dell’s and Louis Gohmert’s apologias for our peculiar American insanity. And none of the editorials I’ve read, in the New York Times or elsewhere, addresses actual insanity, which is the direct underlying cause of almost all mass murders. Both Obama and Romney spoke about “evil,” but neither spoke about the insanity that underlies many an evil act. Nidal Hasan, the lone suspect in the Fort Hood murders, will reportedly launch an insanity defense when his trial begins next month. A judge has deemed Jared Loughner, the alleged Tuscon shooter, too mentally ill to stand trial and his lawyers are fighting the forced medication he is undergoing; he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. (The gunman in the Binghamton, New York massacre killed himself.) Sketchy reports suggest that James Holmes, the alleged Aurora shooter had recently become a loner and was acting strangely – early signs of schizophrenia.
The onset of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder occurs most commonly in people between the ages of 16 and 30. Young men – sane and insane – have such a propensity for destructive, anti-social behavior that it is considered “normative.” “Acting out” is a right of passage for millions of young men. “Juvenile offending is disproportionately committed by young men” and “one third of all of suspects arrested for violent crimes are under [age] eighteen.” In other words, random acts of violence are “natural.” Obviously, most such acts fall far short of mass murder, and many factors can mitigate their occurrence. One of those factors is gun control. Putting guns and automatic weapons in the hands of young people creates a statistical certainty than gun violence will occur. Lax firearms laws in the U.S. virtually guarantee the deaths of thousands of innocent people. The Aurora shooting is not an anomaly; it is an expected outcome of our laws.
Most U.S. states have adopted a standard of law that the criminally insane are not legally liable for their crimes. So if a person is incapable of understanding the nature or quality or wrongfulness of the acts he commits, is he evil? I’m not so sure. But I am sure that sane people who create circumstances that make such “evil acts” inevitable are themselves “evil.” As Bill Moyers put it last night, “The NRA is the best friend a killer’s instinct ever had…. The NRA is the enabler of death – paranoid, delusional, and as venomous as a scorpion. With the weak-kneed acquiescence of our politicians, the National Rifle Association has turned the Second Amendment of the Constitution into a cruel hoax, a cruel and deadly hoax.” These “enablers of death” know the consequences of their actions. They can punctuate their arguments with talk of “freedom” and “Second Amendment rights,” but they know quite well that their success leads to the loss of life – and “freedom” – of the victims of gun violence. They also know the Founding Fathers did not write the Second Amendment as a license to kill strangers in a theater or young people like Trayvon Martin who “look suspicious” to gun-toting vigilantes. The Second Amendment should not trump the principles on which the nation was founded: “unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The NRA, its political toadies and other weak-willed politicians are co-conspirators in the taking of the lives, liberty and happiness of shooting victims.
We should not place all the blame on the candidates or even on the NRA. Charles Blow of the New York Times explains why neither Obama nor Romney will stand up for victims and potential victims of gun violence: In his column today, Blow writes that a “2011 Gallup poll, in a reversal from previous polls, found that most people are now against an assault weapons ban. (In general, the desire for stricter gun control laws has been falling for the last two decades.)” Amy Gardner of the Post adds that “A 2010 Gallup survey shows that support for greater gun restrictions has fallen 34 percentage points over 20 years, while support for fewer restrictions or the status quo has grown by about that amount.” She notes that the NRA’s “4 million members … live in critical swing states, such as Virginia and Ohio, that are likely to determine this year’s presidential election. There is also the reality that no gun-control measures could pass through Congress, where Republicans control the House and where, even in the Democrat-controlled Senate, support for gun rights is strong.”
Politicians are seldom heroic, and their fatal flaws are too often reflections of our own. Sure, real heroes stand up against popular opinion and public pressure, and some real heroes are willing to risk their jobs to do the right thing. If Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are not heroes, each would be more inclined to advocate for sensible gun laws if his advocacy would help his candidacy. Since both have favored gun control laws in the past, when it was politically expedient to do so, both would favor them again if the American people insisted. (To get Mitt to commit, gun control would have to be immensely popular, as his base is skeert to death of having their guns pried from their cold, dead hands.) In their quests to win in November, Obama and Romney – like most politicians – are followers, not leaders.
The shootings in Aurora present a notable opportunity to lead – to bend rather than bend to public opinion. It is a special opportunity for Obama: the NRA and right-wingers have been accusing him throughout his presidency of planning a stealth attack on the Second Amendment and gun ownership. The fact that Obama has done next to nothing – in fact has signed pro-gun legislation into law – has not deterred them. And Mitt Romney has endorsed the NRA’s conspiracy theory. If the President is going to be accused of planning to do something that is good for the country, he might as well do it. He could sneak gun control policy into his economic plan. After all, “firearm violence may cost our country as much as $100 billion a year.” Gun control as deficit reduction plan. How’s that for stealth?
That will not happen because Americans will not demand it. As long as it doesn’t touch us personally, we treat murder — even mass murder — as something akin to entertainment. We chat about it. We watch the news to learn more of the gory details. We look for stories in the press. We vicariously share the pain of the victims’ families – oh boy, another sobbing mother; let’s watch her bawl. We garner some momentary outrage at the perpetrator, some communal agreement that we cannot fathom his actions, some individual bravado about what “we would do” to confront him. Then, on November 6, we will go out and vote for candidates who piously pledge to preserve our right to bear arms. And we will feel ever so good about ourselves for fulfilling our civic duties, even better if our gun-lover beats their gun-lover.
Gail Collins writes today, “Everybody, including the gun control advocates, knows that nothing will change unless the people decide to do the leading.” We as a people are not the chorus in a long-running American tragedy. Democracy has made us the leaders. As such, we have become one colossal tragic hero: a fatally flawed gargantuan willfully ignoring our glaring transgression. You might call us the United States of Hamartia.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com
*Update: surely some of the victims of the Aurora shootings did act heroically. What I meant to convey here — and did so inartfully — is that victimhood itself is not heroic and random victims of violence are not “tragic figures.” I did not mean in any way to disparage acts of courage by victims of the shooter.