842: We can choose not to despair. We can, as an act of will, keep faith in our society
Day 842 Wednesday, July 6, 2022
We can choose not to despair. We can, as an act of will, keep faith in our society and our institutions
We do not yet know why a shooter opened fire on a crowd in Illinois. Given what we know about the suspected killer, I think it is unlikely that the massacre in Highland Park was part of an organized terror plot, but rather yet another case of a young male attacking his own community. Nonetheless, the effect of these mass shootings is the same as terrorism: They rob us of a general sense of safety and turn us into a nation of hostages.
In the first few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, I traveled to London and New York. That’s when I realized that the terrorists had succeeded in making an ordinary citizen—me—think about terrorism constantly. I wondered, on my first trips back to those cities and during almost every visit to any metropolis for a few more years: Am I here on the wrong day? Is this the site of the next attack? The terrorists had, for a time, taken away my complacency and my ability to enjoy a simple stroll in a big city. Americans now have to feel this way all the time, in their own country, at almost any mass gathering, in even the quiet towns and suburbs that people once thought of as relatively immune to such terrifying events.
Such feelings are corrosive and depressing. They undermine our faith in our system of government. (This is often the goal of terrorist violence.)
Worse, mass shootings undermine our faith in one another. And that loss of faith leads me to a thought I cannot escape: There is nothing we can do about such events. They will keep happening.
This is not because I am a pessimist. Despite my sometimes-grumpy views on any number of things, I think most people are good and that engaged citizens can find workable solutions to most things. But when it comes to this particular kind of violence—a lone shooter attacking a community with a powerful weapon—all of the foundations for another disaster are already in place. A bizarre gun culture created the demand for millions of guns; an extremist lobby
has attacked almost every measure to place any restrictions on those guns. (And the Supreme Court seems determined to roll back any limits on the ability of states to control access to these weapons.)
Add to this the final and necessary element: a group of young males who are determined to take their frustrations or delusions or fantasies out on others. New state and national laws, such as the recent gun bill, will make it harder, perhaps, for future shooters to get the weapons they want. I support such laws, but I am not convinced they will matter much, at least not for some time.
So what can we do?
We can choose not to despair. We can, as an act of will, keep faith in our society and our institutions. Just as we do not give up on living when we are ill, we cannot give up on ourselves because of these monstrous acts.
We can do this concretely by demanding more changes to our laws, but we can also exert social pressure on an irresponsible gun culture. After all, we managed as a nation to make smoking a legal but socially unacceptable habit in everything from movies to public spaces. Do we really think we can’t collectively start pushing back against gun culture the same way?
This sounds anodyne, almost ridiculous, on a day like this. The guns will not disappear and another such attack is a near certainty. But we can and must try to mitigate the danger—and the damage to our democracy—by refusing to surrender to the anguish, by insisting that our fellow citizens come to their senses, and by affirming our faith that a great democracy can heal itself from even the most grievous wounds.
Reflection by Tom Nichols