I was headed for a talk on the popular TV show Richard French Live, soon after the horrific concert shooting attack in Las Vegas. Despite the awful sadness and shock spreading through the country, I knew the panel discussion with friends Andrew Whitman, Richard French and Jeanne Zaino would be both comforting and frank. As the show’s studio is in Rye Brook, and there’s usually traffic headed up there from Downtown Brooklyn, I use the drive to catch up on calls.
Sunday’s church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, an attack also with mass fatalities, reminded me of a phone conversation I had with colleague and friend Isaac Sofer on that drive up to Rye Brook several weeks ago.
Isaac and I agree that sensible gun control has for too long been stuck in Congress. We agree that background checks are appropriate, that assault weapons have no place in the market outside military life, and that the usual public responses to attacks and killings have become too predictable and too hollow. Our call quickly turned away from policy or politics. We had no answers, my good friend and I—just worries.
America is spiritually ill, we lamented. Some sickness has infected our culture in a way that glorifies and celebrates senseless violence. The space between fiction—whether in movies, video games, music or social media—and reality has, for some, blurred dangerously. Is our increasingly confrontational civic life, with its shrinking middle and diminishing appetite for compromise, encouraging a sort of widespread siege mentality that is breeding nihilism?
Much has been written about the recent collapse of the communal life that used to bind communities and decrease alienation. The demands of modern life, professional and familial, have us home later and more harried. Online connections, though valuable for many, aren’t as real or personal. And the information we get online, recent examinations reveal, reinforces positions and prejudices. Is this separation from others, alongside false connections and an echo chamber of self-selected news, transforming momentary anger into something more seething, dangerous and violent? Does more meaningful time with others short-circuit tragedy?
Of course gun control would help. Curtailing the civilian availability of weapons that have no rational use other than massacre would contribute to advancing, albeit incrementally, some sort of solution. But my thinking on this has evolved. Gun control alone isn’t a fix, since people set on committing these awful acts will get their hands on a gun. Unless we destroy all guns outside law enforcement and the military, perpetrators will find a way to get armed. My current thinking focuses on mental health, lack of connectivity, social work, the possibility of law enforcement before tragedy, the connection between domestic violence and later carnage, and the overall tone of our public discussions.
James Baldwin famously said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” I’m not suggesting that mass killers are emulating politicians, popular culture or hateful campaign rhetoric, but there has to be a connection.
Endless wars overseas have desensitized us to violence. Our foreign misadventures have produced more chaos and more reasons to stay abroad fighting. We have movies in which the plot revolves around overseas drone strikes piloted from trailers on American soil. Are shootings here a version of violence coming home?
Back to the discussion on Richard French Live about Las Vegas: We were frustrated, and sad. We, the four of us, had been on set talking about the same issues before. Sandy Hook. Orlando. Charleston. We were repeating ourselves, shared sadness but nothing had changed.
And now Sutherland Springs.
I’ll be skipping the show this week. I can’t bring myself to go. Instead I’ll just call my friend Isaac.