I’ve not written anything for a few days because, well, I’ve been trying to organise what I think about the awfulness of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. Trying, also, to find a way of writing about it that seems appropriate. There are moments, I think, when a too-polished piece of prose risks seeming distastefully narcissistic, too close to being from the School of Martin Amis. I remember Amis describing the “sharking” trajectory of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center more than a decade ago and thinking that, as apt and vivid as the image was, there was something unpleasant about it. Something that suggested the author was too admiring of his own imagery. The event made self-consciously fine writing seem superfluous and even oddly obscene.
And yet writing nothing is not quite possible either. We have, after all, been here before. For me, it was a cold, damp, spring morning in Blacksburg, Virginia five years ago. Recalling it now, it is the quiet I remember most. Hollow-eyed students, numbed by the horror of it all, gathered in Virginia Tech’s public places, offering each other what comfort they could. No-one spoke at much above a whisper; no-one knew what there was to say. Telling the story never felt so intrusive, so unseemly, so pornographic. The bald facts were – or should have been – enough. As a reporter, I felt guilty just being there.
There have been other mass shootings since and there will be others again. Ranking these horrors is grotesque but this massacre in Newtown is even worse, if that can be said at all, than all these previous miseries. If my experience is at all common, you will have seen parents, wherever in the world they live and whatever their nationality, posting messages on Facebook or Twitter giving thanks that their children were safe that night. It was awful and it made me cry.
There is a craving to make sense of the senseless. In such circumstances is it surprising that people lurch towards extreme reactions? So you have – to pick only two examples from many – Mike Huckabee blaming godless America or Adam Gopnik suggesting every gun owner in America shares responsibility for Adam Lanza’s actions.
Perhaps. But it is more probable that these like, again, so many reactions to the Sandy Hook horror, signify little more than the suspicion that if the world – that is, if other people – were more like me and shared my preferences (which are not, you understand, prejudices) then matters everywhere would be better arranged.
There is rage aplenty and just as much wishful thinking too. Again, how could there not be? Viewed from overseas, of course, it is not so much these American tragedies themselves that provoke disbelief, rather the American response – or apparent lack of one – to them. How many more people must die before, as the likes of dickheads such as Piers Morgan argue, America “gets serious” about gun control? Why, to put it bluntly, are Americans so thick?
But reality is stubborn. The (London) Times, for instance, editorialised that the Second Amendment “ostensibly protects the right to bear arms“. There’s no ostensibly about it. The Amendement does just that and no amount of sophistry about the Founding Fathers’ intentions or the difference between muskets and semi-automatic firearms can change that. The Supreme Court agrees. This is settled law. Arguing that, somehow, it should not be places you in the same category as those people who once began any discussion of the Northern Ireland peace process with the observation that Northern Ireland “should not” exist or that if it were born today it would have looked very different. But it did exist and it wasn’t created today. Regrettable or inconvenient as this may have been, it was the way it was. And is. So with the Second Amendment. (This doesn’t mean all guns are legal. Not at all. Machine guns have been banned for decades. Further restrictions are also possible; prohibition is not.)
For that matter, it seems to me that if you place a high value on some parts of the American Constitution – the First Amendment, for instance – you cannot be surprised if other people place an equal value on parts of the Bill of Rights that you may, personally speaking, find less appealing. It is, in the end, a job lot that, sensibly, is exceptionally difficult to amend. Sensibly, because if it were easy for you to amend the parts you find distasteful it might be equally easy for others to amend those parts you prize most dearly.
Even so, there are things that may be said. One of them is that America’s gun owners have often been poorly led by their erstwhile leaders. The NRA’s members are frequently better than the NRA’s leadership. This may not be a high bar to clear. Even so, it is worth bearing in mind that actual members of the NRA tend to be responsible gun owners who may not merit – at least as individuals – the vitriol poured upon them by so many this week.
Nor, despite the impression given by the international media, are American guns the sole preserve of right-wing lunatics. True, conservative households are more likely to possess guns than liberal households but almost one in three self-identified Democratic homes contains a gun and nearly 60% of those in rural areas do so. So do nearly 40% of Democratic households in the mid-west and south. “No guns” is a fantasy.
There are things that could be done that might lessen the prospect of further horrors on this scale. The political kaleidoscope may have been shaken. Certainly it seems that way. If even Joe Manchin, a Democratic Senator from West Virginia, is prepared to countenance new legislative measures then so may others. Many, probably most, gun owners would agree (in principle) with many of the ideas suggested this week even as they – and we – know controlling the sale of high-capacity magazines or especially-powerful ammunition would most probably make only a marginal difference to the number of people killed in these shooting sprees. Creating a system to track private gun sales would help too but it, like every other conceivable or feasible measure proposed this week, can’t guarantee anything. Nevertheless, making an effort to make it more difficult for guns to be owned by people who should not own them is now worthwhile, necessary and urgent.
After the Virginia Tech shootings a friend of mine, then working on Capitol Hill, was partly responsible for persuading the NRA and gun control groups to each support the creation of the National Instant Check System (they did). He points out that during negotiation about the bill it wasn’t the NRA who were opposed to putting people receiving anti-psychotic medication into the checking database, it was advocates for the mentally ill. That doesn’t mean the NRA is perfect or even perfectly responsible, merely that it’s more complicated than simply blaming the NRA or gun-owners. (The interests of gun owners are not, it should be clear, the same as those of gun manufacturers.)
Sometimes it seems as though we must endure the same old, shop-soiled arguments over and over again. It really is true that Virginia Tech’s prohibition of guns on campus helped the gunman slay so many of his fellow students as he did. You really could plausibly claim this as a case where outlawing guns ensured that only outlaws had guns. There was no-one able to shoot the gunman. And, naturally, we have heard this argument again this week. But I think it’s plausible to argue that there’s a trade-off here.
That is, in exchange for minimising the likelihood of regular, gun-related murders we acknowledge (alas) that extremely rare, extremely-terrible incidents will be even more horrific than they might otherwise be. This is a pretty grim conclusion but, on the balance of probabilities, it’s the safer option. More guns does mean there will be more gun crime. Arming teachers (as some now propose) is a counsel of despair and not just because, even this week, schools are still safe places for children. A 9/11 for schools? Please, let us hope not.
There isn’t, at least not in the United States, a legislative response to Sandy Hook that can do anything other than make it marginally more difficult for these events to occur or, perhaps, help minimise the number of victims killed when they do occur.
And so our loop returns to the initial, unanswerable question why? These horrors happen in other countries too – Germany, Finland, even Britain – but they unquestionably happen more frequently in the United States than elsewhere. And they do so even when you control for the number of households which contain a gun (which is not quite the same measurement as guns per capita).
So why? What is it about America that makes it different? Any attempt to answer that question is necessarily speculative. Moreover, like most great American problems (and virtues) any mono-causal explanation should be considered suspect.
But if it is the culture, stupid, what is it that makes American culture so different, so extreme, so exceptional? I think, like many American stories, the cocktail of history and myth plays a part in helping to explain this. Because, in ways that are not true of really any other western country, the United States was built by guns right from the beginning. The American experience really was different.
The idea of the rugged pioneer heading west with nothing but the possessions he could carry and a gun in his pack may have been romanticised out of all proportion to the tough, hard lives these adventurers endured. But the fact remains they did head west and they did build something new. And they did it with – and could not have done it without – their guns. American violence has a long and grubby history. The nation was built by men-at-arms and then held together by men-at-arms too. And for a century after the Civil War millions of citizens had their rights repressed by violent means too (albeit state-sanctioned violence).
When John F Kennedy called for a New Frontier he explicitly invoked that pioneering spirit. The old frontier had already been closed for more than half a century but the idea lived on. Accepting his party’s presidential nomination, Kennedy suggested the United States was on “the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled dreams”. Perhaps that sounds quaint today but it’s a message that has been echoed, in its essence, at almost every subsequent Presidential Inauguration. This is America and neither our journey nor our adventure is finished yet.
When myth meets reality, you print the legend. The frontier – or the idea of it – must forever remain open. Because if it – or the idea of it – closes then a part of the American idea is also closed. There’s a reason the western became American cinema’s greatest genre. These were the stories America wanted to tell itself; this the explanation for how America became America.
That doesn’t mean the western (or even computer games, these days) were “responsible” for Columbine or Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook merely that the west’s reality – and then the western’s interpretation of that history – helped create and then sustain a certain idea of the American experience. And that had to have some consequences.
This ain’t just history either. These stories still exist. They still make westerns; they just don’t look quite the same these days. The Wire might be set in Baltimore but despite its east coast, urban location it is still, in essence, a western. Controlling commodities and territory, resisting the state’s encroachment and settling differences at gunpoint? Of course it is a western.
There are other threads to the American experience of course (organised labour vs capitalism for one) but freedom from shackling authority is still a large part of the American idea. That helps create, I think, a place in which the idea of the self and of personal reinvention looms larger than is the case in other, more static, societies. You can be who you want to be. Just go west, young man.
This need not even require you to actually head west in any literal sense. You can do so in your imagination. Read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty or the novels of William Gibson or Philip K Dick if you doubt this. In Zero History Gibson even coined the term “Mitty demographic” to describe “gear-queer” young men who possess “an obsession with the idea not just of the right stuff, but of the special stuff. Equipment fetishism. The costume and semiotics of achingly elite police and military units. Intense desire to possess same, of course, and in turn to be associated with that world. With its competence, its cocksure exclusivity”.
That’s fiction, of course, but based on observed fact. I fancy you find it in many countries but I also fancy you find it more often in America. Most of these kids will be harmless; very occasionally one will not. One consequence of Newtown may be many more children placed on medication. Another may be that lonely kids who seem somehow “odd” will be treated with greater suspicion and, perhaps, on occasion, be persuaded (at least to their own satisfaction) that the world really is against them. This may have consequences too.
Official policy may not have helped either. By that I mean that the paramilitarisation of American policing has helped contribute, in ways neither obvious nor intentional, to America-at-arms. Even small towns now possess SWAT teams equipped with millions of dollars worth of military-grade equipment and paraphernalia. When the police look – and sometimes behave – like an army, I can see why some (plausibly deluded) people might conclude the authorities are preparing to take your guns from you. Like airport security and metal detectors at the school gates it helps persuade the all-too-persuadable that daily life in America is so full of risk that the sane reaction is to arm-up and hunker-down.
This is what I want to get at: I suspect that, perhaps in ways that are almost too awful to contemplate, these kinds of spree shooting are the dark side of the limitless American capacity for reinvention. The same culture that has helped permit or foster the most dizzying, varied, awe-inducing society the west presently knows is the same culture that incubates these horrors. Self-realisation is part of the American essence. Sometimes that has a terrible side too. (I think you could make some comparable points about the American religious experience too: this too often seems antiquated to european types but it is real and equally diverse.)
If, as seems likely, these kinds of shooting spree have become more common in recent years this too may be a feature of a culture in which the divides between those who conspicuously have and those who palpably have not have rarely been quite as great or, worse, made so apparent to those who do not have. Modern media – and technology – are part of this though not, of course, all of it.
Because what strikes the foreigner most about the United States is its variety. Indeed variance may be its most significant quality. This owes something to it being a country of 300 million people but I fancy a country of 300 million Swedes (even if spread across a comparably sized landmass) would be a very different place indeed. This, coupled with the American predilection for individualism, has helped make the United States a country of magnificent wonders and jaw-dropping failures. Its highs are very high and its lows exceptionally low. This, if you like, is a feature, cause and consequence of American exceptionalism. Perhaps.
That may all seem a long way from Adam Lanza. I don’t know if I’m right about any of this but many people have been asking me why America is the way it is or why (and this is a related question) these things keep happening. This is my attempt, imperfect like all such attempts to answer these questions, to explain why. Like all such attempts it can only be, at best, a partial success even if it be deemed a success at all. Tell me what you think in the comments or at alexmassieATgmailDOTcom.