The United States, it seems, has settled into a semi-monthly mass shooting schedule. They happen often enough now that we seem to have developed routines. Politicians, media, activists, and the Great Unwashed of social media users have learned to leverage mayhem to advance our interests. It’s a simple and effective strategy.
More often than not, the “shooter” is a middle class white male with demographics not unlike my own. In such cases, anti-racist activists leverage the tragedy to highlight how race informs how we perceive violence. When such an activist announces, “We really need to have a conversation about violent white men in this country,” she usually wants us to contrast her statement with similar declarations white Americans make about black violence. We trade recycled talking points about for about a week, and then push the event from our minds. After all, we have other important issues to argue about before the next mass shooting.
The 1999 massacre at Columbine High School inaugurated the modern era of American mass shootings, and we’ve yet to have any substantive conversation. I want to have the conversation because I’m a white man and, selfishly, I have the most to benefit from it. In the sixteen years since Columbine, I’ve concluded that nobody actually wants to have this “conversation.”
We’ve had ample opportunities. Columbine, Newtown, Aurora, and Charleston all provided the necessary prompt. Why do we do this? It’s a valid question. I understand that the answer will probably be uncomfortable and unflattering. Perhaps we’ll learn it is insecurity stemming from loss of unearned privilege. Maybe our parents really did over-medicate us. Most unsettling would be learning there is some mutation deep in our genetic code that causes us to experience a psychosis that culminates in blood-stained cafeteria floors.
My most valuable intellectual trait is appreciating how unqualified I am to speculate on consequential issues. I don’t know what confluence of hurt and insanity causes men like me to orchestrate these symphonies of violence. I want to know. I want to know because those same reasons, while not driving me to kill, likely affect much of the unhappiness and alienation I do experience. I also want to know because I’m uniquely qualified to mitigate those factors in other men like me. I’ve known plenty of men similar to Dylann Roof and James Holmes. I’ve been friends with them because I could relate to some awful, damned part of their selves, their egos. We should have all the conversations – about guns and race and so on – but we must have the one conversation we love to discuss but never begin.
Acknowledgements: This essay was inspired by Twitter conversations I’ve had with @khanknee, @AmpersAndAlways, and @VeryWhiteGuy over the past few weeks. They’re insightful people. You should follow them.