By Patrick Blanchfield
This essay was originally published on Patrick Blanchfield’s blog Carte Blanchfield on November 28, 2015.
So there’s just been a mass shooting. The newsfeed is full of it, the TV can’t stop. Ugly scenes. SWAT cops running around in combat armor like beetles with ballistic shields and submachine guns. Ambulances and camera crews somewhere where they’re not supposed to be, where they shouldn’t be. The reports are confusing. Maybe the shooter is dead; maybe he’s still at large; maybe he’s been taken alive; maybe the cops killed him, maybe he killed himself (regardless of outcome it’s pretty safe to assume the shooter is almost certainly a “he”). The current casualty count is uncertain. Some victims may pull through; others may succumb. The dead bodies are still warm.
Here’s what happens next. Depending on circumstances and timeline, some of what follows may be attenuated, some of it may be condensed. But here’s what you should expect, and what you should know.
First, not all “mass shootings” are created equal. The very fact that we’re paying attention to this event in the first place, and calling it a “mass shooting,” is the function of selective economies of attention and predetermined narrative framings.
Much like “gun violence” itself, there is no settled, universal definition of what a “mass shooting” is. When counting and talking about “mass shootings,” some academics and members of the media will use the FBI definition of a “mass murder,” others will use its working definition of a “mass killing.” One key difference between these definitions is body count: if your definition of “mass shooting” is synonymous with the FBI’s “mass murder,” then it’s four dead, not including the shooter; if you’re using their definition of a “mass killing,” it’s three. The kicker here is that people have to die in order for it to qualify. In other words, if you’re wedded to either of these definitions, when seventeen people are shot and injured in a single incident at a block party in New Orleans, then this is technically not a “mass shooting.” As Gwyneth Kelly pointedly notes, variations in mass shooting data provide ready fodder for some pro-gunners to wave away the problem and discredit research in general. Meanwhile, crowd-sourced datasets like the Mass Shooting Tracker (which Jennifer Masica has written lucidly about here) count incidents where multiple people can be wounded, but many of these are acts of violence tracked by other FBI datasets (i.e., gang-related incidents) that rarely capture the same degree of media attention – or activate the same public emotional response – as do rampage killings by active shooters.
In other words, for you to be seeing that “Mass Shooting” news alert, a whole range of selection processes have already occurred. It’s not a one-way-street, though. The media is giving you news that you are presumed to care about, and your attention to it fuels the process. And so we need to ask a question here. It’s so obvious, and yet also asking it seems like violating a taboo, like callousness. Here it is, regardless:
Why do we care about these events so much? Of rather – why do we perform caring about these events so much? Not that caring and performance are mutually exclusive, of course – but what if there’s something about the latter that undermines our ability to do the former?
There’s a certain hierarchy to which mass shootings capture the general public eye. Shootings that happen in schools and on college campuses grab headlines, followed by those that happen in recreational venues (malls, theaters, trendy districts), and then workplaces and lastly homes. Body count and the age of the victims plays a role, but it seems that what matters most is that such shootings occur in public spaces that enshrine cultural values of education, leisure, consumption, and productivity. In other words: violence that strikes against the nurturing and flow of precious human capital is a collective horror. And since this is America, where life is cheap and some lives are cheaper than others, you should fully expect our attribution of value to be very much constrained by our biases with regard to race, gender, and class.
Second, the question of the shooter’s identity and motives will simultaneously become a rhetorical football, an object of dismissive, knee-jerk righteousness, and, above all else, and at every possible level, a derailment from actual political action. I game this out in real-time on Twitter practically every other week, and the song is always the same. The immediate rush to perform bullshit digital forensic psychology on the shooter’s social media footprints will selectively follow frames that simultaneously foreground “politics” (in the most point-scoring sense) while also effacing and sustaining deeper political structures. Considering race is the most obvious example. If the shooter is black, there will be barely-even dog-whistle characterizations of thuggish criminality, coupled with an attempt to tie his actions to black activism – to call upon leaders in the “black community” to answer and apologize for “their” “responsibility.” A similar pattern of racist targeting and a logic of collective guilt will be brought to bear if the shooter is suspected to be Muslim, where the vocabulary of terrorism is ready-to-hand, and especially if the target can be tied to our never-ending Global War on Terror. Meanwhile, if the shooter is white, there will be an immediate push to individualize his actions and to paint him as pathological, mentally ill. There’s a double lie in this latter, pathologizing move: it cynically stigmatizes the mentally ill as a group, and simultaneously disowns the normalization and influence of cultural pathologies which are shared by “normal” people and cultivated by cynical politicians and media figures.
The agenda underlying all these moves is two-fold. First, to muddy the waters and stoke rage by activating tried-and-true stereotypes and associationist assaults that quickly derail serious attention (“He liked Media Matters on his Facebook – he was a Liberal!” “Oh yeah? He followed the NRA on Twitter and posted this meme!”). Second, to depoliticize both the mass shooter’s individual motives and the phenomenon of mass shootings itself. A white man can assassinate a black State Senator in the name of a pretty-damn-familiar brand of Southern chauvinist irredentism and talking heads will question if he had “political” intentions or whether he really is a “terrorist” instead of just some poor lost soul. Meanwhile, male mass shooters from the killer in Killeen in 1991 to the killer in Isla Vista last year espouse a shared ideology of entitled, violent misogynythat is recognizable and overlaps with broader cultural attitudes, yet our refusal to grapple with that fact (or to put their acts on a continuum with a grotesque national landscape of gendered violence and domestic abuse) remains resolute. The deep structures of our culture and political process are extremely invested in not talking about racist violence, gendered violence, and the role of guns in both – let alone their intersections – and selective depoliticizing in favor of pathologizing is a favored national coping mechanism. The violence which spurred this post – a shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood Center – is an act for which the motive remains, at the time of my writing, per media insistence, “unclear.” I know as little as anyone else, but even now the stirrings of the framing process are visible: if the clinic was targeted, we are being told, it must be the solitary act of a madman, hygienically sealed off from the months of gory Right Wing vilification of PP that preceded it; if it wasn’t, then PP should apologize to its critics for having the gall to think that suffering an extended shootout on its own premises was somehow a political matter – even as those same critics none too subtly implicate PP may have deserved to be targeted. Implicit behind both these cognitive pretzels is not just a disavowal of the political stakes of abortion rights and cultural misogyny, but a truly remarkable notion of what constitutes “the political” itself: “Don’t worry folks – this wasn’t a political act, it was just a normal mass shooting. You know, one American going on a rampage in a high-profile public place and gunning down a whole bunch of other people, a phenomenon that happens pretty damn frequently, but which is of course not a political problem in and of itself. How could it be?”
Third, the “conversation” will inevitably end in general exhaustion, stultification, and monetized rage. Derailment and posturing from the Right will meet with self-sabotaging and posturing on the Left, and both sides will shadowbox over “gun control” while favoring magical thinking over an acknowledgement of the actual horizon of possibility. Meanwhile politicians will rise to occasion to utter the usual and increasingly pathetic pieties or pandering with promises of radical change that they couldn’t realize even if they were serious about them. And then we’ll all take a break for a bit, our energies spent, and walk away, likely less informed and more sure of ourselves than ever. Meanwhile, this mass shooting, like the previous mass shooting and the next mass shooting, won’t just spawn retweets and shares and Tumblr posts and thinkpieces and shoddy stump speeches. It will also sell guns. If you listen carefully enough, above the sound of keyboards and thumb-taps, you can hear the bills being rustled out of wallets, the metallic snap of rounds loaded into magazines.
Patrick Blanchfield was the 2016-2017 Henry R. Luce Initiative in Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Religion and Media at NYU. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com and is on Twitter as @patblanchfield.