May 26, 2022

My sister is a teacher in America, which means she has had to teach her fourth-grade students about how to defend themselves against people who might walk into her public school with guns. Once, during a false alarm, her class followed the “safety protocol” they had learned. What did these children do to protect themselves from the shooter they thought was in the building? One boy wielded a peanut butter jar. Another: a bottle of hand sanitiser. A student with a broken leg held up his crutch. My sister crouched behind her desk and told them they were doing great.

I wonder if the elementary school students in Uvalde, Texas, had similar drills. I wonder if the teachers there, like my sister, worried about what they would do if they had to barricade the door. I wonder if the fourth graders in Texas had time to pick up their staplers and notebooks and lunch boxes to defend themselves from an 18-year-old armed to the teeth before he slaughtered them in their classroom.

The elementary school shooting in Texas is the 212th mass shooting this year. It is the 27th school shooting. It is also the deadliest mass shooting in the US so far in 2022, which says something because it happened just ten days after ten people were killed in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. So far, at least 19 children and two adults are dead in Uvalde. Others are injured.

I read these headlines and I think about how people grow accustomed to horrific things. How, not so long ago, people watched other people get hanged, drawn and quartered in the public square. They watched beheadings. They participated in honour killings. I think about things that, in other times, in other places, perhaps seemed perfectly normal to the people who witnessed them — and that still remain normal in parts of the world today.

We look at such practices from our civilised perch and wonder how human beings ever did this to one another. How did they witness such barbarism and still have the appetite for dinner? How do we?

How have we normalised the fact that innocent people in America can step onto a subway car or go to a grocery store or a synagogue or a church or a concert or a baseball game or a party or a car show or to work and maybe they will just be gunned down? How have we become accustomed to — let’s call it what it is — child sacrifice?

There is a deep sickness in this country. It goes beyond our addiction to guns. It’s an anti-social, anti-human disease that has gripped our society and our politics. A big part of that disease is how numb we have become to violence. The country has been experiencing the largest crime surge in decades. Armed robberies are up. Shoplifting is up. Road deaths are up. Car break-ins are so common in some cities that people leave notes on their windows to the thieves that nothing is inside.

But the most devastating rise has been in murders. Since the FBI started tracking the data, 2020 marked the highest single-year increase in homicides. In 2021, it went up again. As of 2020, the leading cause of death among children in America is guns. Not cars. Not drugs. Guns. It was also the year that we had the highest rate of gun sales in American history.

The profiles of America’s mass shooters don’t fit into a straightforward political box. The 18-year-old who massacred elderly black New Yorkers at the grocery store in Buffalo earlier this month was driven by white supremacy and evil conspiracies such as the Great Replacement. The shooter the next day, who targeted a Taiwanese Church in Laguna Woods, California, was Chinese. The recent shooting in Dallas, at a Korean spa, was carried out by a young black man. The mass murderer in Uvalde, another 18-year-old, is Hispanic.

And the victims of the new crime wave fit no single profile. They include a young Eagle Scout in Philadelphia. A 24-year-old UCLA graduate student stabbed to death while working at a furniture store. An Afghan refugee who had worked as an interpreter for the US army who was shot to death while resting in his car between Uber shifts. It’s the 70-year-old nurse murdered at the bus stop on the way to work. The 19-year-old Burger King cashier robbed at gunpoint — and then killed after handing over the money. It’s the eight-year-old boy shot outside of Chicago. A pregnant woman who was shot to death just after arriving home from her baby shower.

Sixteen cities, including Philadelphia, Austin, Jackson, Columbus, Baton Rouge, New Haven and Portland, saw record high homicide rates in 2021. In the nation’s capital, more people under the age of 50 were gunned down than died from Covid.

You don’t need to be told what you already know: that mentally ill people getting their hands on guns to commit mass murder this easily is deranged and wrong. Accepting this as normal has nothing to do with respecting the Second Amendment. You don’t need another writer pointing out that this doesn’t really happen in other places and maybe the fact that America has more guns than any other nation on Earth has something to do with it. There’s nothing well-regulated about Salvador Ramos, though it appears he bought those assault rifles legally on his 18th birthday. There’s simply no world in which our founders would look at inner-city gun violence and these sick teenagers in suburban schools and say this was their intention.

Gun rights activists will argue that other countries have guns and that murderers don’t need guns to kill and that some of the cities and states with the strictest gun laws in the country have the highest rates of violent crime and that people kill people guns don’t kill people and that anyway good guys with guns kill bad guys with guns. (Uvalde police officers and a school resource officer reportedly fired at the shooter. They couldn’t stop him.)

Here’s where I think they are right, if inadvertently: the social rot that’s come over America, the nihilism and hatred of each other, is part of the cause here. The dissolution of our social ties — and with them the accountability and responsibility that an actual community demands — has allowed insanity to fester unnoticed. Lockdowns accelerated the isolation, the purposelessness, the lack of meaning that was already overcoming us.

If we insist on viewing this shooting as part of some isolated issue or species of violence, then we miss the point. The point is the country is being consumed by what Philip Roth called “the indigenous American berserk”. It stretches back many decades, or longer, and for ages it was possible to ignore or compartmentalise. Now the brokenness is everywhere we look — and it is impossible to unsee it.

A version of this article first appeared on Bari’s Substack.

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