I left my church Sunday on 8th Street Southeast, in Washington D.C.'s Navy Yard district. I stepped out onto the street with a smile on my face, holding my new wife’s hand, people-watching the young professionals having brunch in sidewalk cafes. We noticed how bright the morning was, one of those high-definition days, all the lines and leaves and trees contrasting and popping against each other.
We discussed the worship service, and I lamented the Redskins. We decided on an American breakfast – bacon and eggs - over at our favorite Mexican place. And then I thought to myself: this is insane.
Earlier this month, not 1,000 yards from where I stood, a deranged man launched out of his hiding place and shotgunned his way through 12 Americans. In his bloody wake, we had a good, solid news cycle’s worth of shock. And then, a couple days of “thoughts and prayers.” Finally, maybe about a day’s worth of policy conversations, softly suggested and then quickly dismissed. And now, we have moved on: to the same rhythm, the same patterns, the same tweets and awards shows, budget showdowns and debates. And I’m back to talking about brunch, in the short shadow of a massacre.
There’s a fine line between numbness and neuroses. I am not sure that we Americans have not crossed it.
There have been 16 mass shootings – where four or more people were killed, other than the gunman – since another young maniac burst into another building (this time an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut) and mowed down more of our citizens. In that time, we have had no substantive policy change, no sustained national movement, no turning of the page.
With each passing disaster our skin grows a little more callous, our “thoughts and prayers” more cynical. It becomes harder to hear the politicians’ words at the memorial services, or take the denunciations seriously. Because, Jesus, another one? Again?
Slaughter is approaching the new normal. And here’s why that’s dangerous for you and me: normal things have a way of showing up at our doorsteps.
I have to wonder what would have happened if the shooter hid himself in other buildings. Instead of Navy Yard Building 197, what if he loaded his shotgun inside the Rayburn House Office Building, where members of Congress and their staff begin their days? My wife used to work at the U.S. Department of Commerce – what if Aaron Alexis had decided to troll the hallways there? Or what if the next time we’re depositing a check at the bank, or renewing our license at the DMV, or dropping our kids off at school, some nut decides to exorcise his demons in close range of those we love?
It’s more likely than we might think. 900 people have died in mass killings over the past seven years, and the pace appears to be quickening, with the disasters seemingly more brutal every year. I was with President Obama in Newtown, and saw photos of the babies who were slaughtered; it’s hard not to think that the dark hearts of these murderers are growing darker each time.
But here we are again. The President is pleading for action. Democrats are afraid, perhaps reasonably so, of failing. Republicans vary from raising quasi-legitimate questions about whether anything can practically be done, to outright opposition to doing anything at all. The NRA is being, well, the NRA. And the rest of us are moving on.
That is our prerogative, but if we exercise it, we should have a little rule among ourselves. Until we do something differently, let’s pledge to no longer feign shock at mass slaughter. Until we have effective systems in place that prevent unstable people from acquiring and keeping weapons, which would have helped in the Navy Yard; until we have appropriate controls on high-capacity magazines and rifles that can kill many people quickly, which would have helped in Newtown; until we have a serious conversation about violence in our culture, our video games, our homes, which might have helped in both circumstances – let’s stop the charade, and just acknowledge that we are accepting a situation where more of our fellow citizens will die, this year and in the years ahead, perhaps up to and including, God forbid, those we know and love.
And then, let’s acknowledge that that's insane.