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Gun violence in the US, the recurring feature

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on August 16, 2019 Published on August 16, 2019

In their name: When the public does not know about, or care about the violence done elsewhere in its name, can it truly reckon with violence at home?   -  REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI

The El Paso shooting, the latest instance of gun violence in the US, unites two glaring pathologies — addiction to weapons and primordial strains of white supremacist belief. While the frequency of mass shootings numb the public to their barbarity, the violence penetrates in ways both tragic and banal. Every loud noise can seem a threat when the sound of a gun echoes so powerfully in the American subconscious

Last week, a strange thing happened in Times Square, the glitzy and, frankly, infernal tourist-thronged plaza in my home city of New York. A motorcycle backfired. Vehicles cause loud noises all the time in cities all over the world. But in this case, the motorcycle’s throttling belch sent everybody into a panic. There was a stampede as hundreds of people went running for cover. Eight people ended up in the hospital with broken bones.

That same day, across the country in the rugged and rural state of Utah, a heavy sign collapsed and hit the floor of a mall. It fell with what bystanders described as a “bang”. The noise reverberated through the building, leading to a scramble for the exits. The entire mall was evacuated.

In both cases, people heard these otherwise innocuous loud noises and thought somebody was shooting a gun. “Shots!” a bystander yelled in the Utah mall after hearing the thud, precipitating the frenzy. It’s understandable that Americans might jump to this conclusion. Mass shootings have become frequent occurrences in the country, with no public space spared: Schools, bars, clubs, shops, streets, movie theatres. Just days earlier, there were two mass shootings, one in El Paso in Texas and the other in Dayton in the Midwestern state of Ohio. Thirty one people died in the senseless violence.

The routine of these shootings has become sadly familiar, to the point that it’s difficult to keep track of or even remember every incident. When something terrible happens all the time, it can breed a kind of complacency. It becomes less of an aberration and more a feature of normal life, almost to be expected. Republican politicians, who often have close ties to the lobbying groups of the gun industry, have so far resisted sensible gun reforms. They have yet to pay a real political price for that inaction. But even as the frequency of mass shootings can numb the public to their barbarity, the violence penetrates in ways both tragic and banal; every loud noise can seem a threat when the sound of a gun echoes so powerfully in the American subconscious.

The shooting in El Paso, in particular, united two of the country’s most glaring pathologies, its idiosyncratic addiction to weapons and its primordial strains of white supremacist belief. The white shooter travelled for hours purely to kill brown-skinned immigrants in a border town. Slowly, Americans are waking up to the reality of rising white supremacist violence. Domestic intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been sounding the alarm for years about the threat posed by far-right nativist groups and their ideology. That officials in various US governments ignored these warnings or, worse, suppressed them is not wholly surprising. For one, the current administration of Donald Trump has channelled xenophobic passions to great political gain. But more broadly, the delusion stems from the belief that violence properly belongs to others — the brown-skinned jihadi or the urban black gangster — not to “us”.

After a heinous mass shooting in a school in Florida in 2018, a group of American military veterans issued a powerful statement calling for greater gun reform. But their message was not simply about legislation. The veterans trained their sights on a wider, more pervasive culture of violence. “The reflection of gun violence is most starkly seen in the ‘permanent wars’ that the US is carrying out in multiple countries,” they wrote. They compared the way civilian casualties in American wars are written off as “collateral damage” to how the deaths in mass shootings “are said to be the price of freedom to bear arms”. They drew a direct link between domestic mayhem and foreign war. “At home or abroad, violence begets violence. These US wars have only served to create more violence... and we see more and more mass shootings and gun violence here at home. In both cases, nobody wins except those who are making armloads of money through the sale of guns and bombs.”

Of course, it’s difficult to isolate a direct, causal relationship between American foreign policy and the epidemic of domestic mass shootings. But what the veterans suggest in their strident statement is a key insight: Violence is enabled by a failure of public imagination.

When the public does not know about or particularly care about the violence done elsewhere in its name, can it truly reckon with violence at home? When it develops the thick skin to inure itself to carnage far away, is it only a matter of time before it can endure carnage nearby? This isn’t just an American malady. All countries must grapple with how the violence they inflict on others inevitably feeds into the violence they inflict on themselves.

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction

@kanishktharoor

 

Published on August 16, 2019
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