An America Beguiled by Death

On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist assassinated Clementa C. Pinckney and eight other African American congregants during an evening of Bible study and prayer at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine days later, President Barack Obama ended his eulogy for Pinckney with a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” He sang the first line alone, his voice shaky, as if strained by grief, but it swelled as more and more of his fellow funeral-goers joined in his musical catharsis with each line. On February 21, 2018, a week after a nineteen-year-old murdered fourteen students and three faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump held a “listening session” for survivors of that shooting and those of others. There, he was photographed holding a piece of White House stationary on which five cues had been written for him, including: “I hear you.” He had to be reminded to listen at a listening session, or to at least feign doing so.

The different responses of our forty-fourth and forty-fifth presidents to mass shootings, with the former exhibiting empathy and the latter apathy, expose a degradation of the American spirit that encapsulates the polarization that has gripped not only our politics, but our culture as well. Indeed, the myriad proposals for gun control, illusory or legitimate, that have been suggested by everyone from President Trump and Marco Rubio to the brave, charismatic, and pissed off students of Stoneman Douglas in the wake of that shooting all stem from the experience of life in an America paralyzed by polarization.

Since Parkland, President Trump has retweeted a “Sandy Hook truther” who believes the 2012 massacre of twenty children, six- and seven-year-olds, and eight adults was a hoax perpetrated by child actors; attempted to blame the FBI investigation into his campaign for the Bureau’s failure to prevent the Florida shooting; included pictures of himself visiting  hospitalized survivors in an email that asks recipients to donate to his re-election campaign; and, most dangerously, repeatedly advocated for the arming of teachers to deter prospective school shooters.

This proposal, though unpopular and implausible, demands attention because of the man espousing it—the President of the United States and head of the Republican Party. It has its roots in the bromide often spouted by conservatives in the aftermaths of mass shootings: the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. That belief, however, has taken a hit post-Parkland, as it has come to light that the sheriff’s deputy at Stoneman Douglas chose to take cover rather than take action during the massacre. A trained professional whose job is to protect students cannot be trusted to act in the face of an attack, and Trump wants to arm teachers. The expanded presence of firearms in public schools would not only constitute acceptance of the phenomenon of school shootings, it would perpetuate it.

In the wake of the Parkland tragedy, Marco Rubio, whose tenure as Florida’s junior senator has now seen two of the ten deadliest mass shootings in our nation’s history occur within his state, has proffered another conservative post-shooting bromide: criminals will always obtain guns anyway, so there’s no point passing gun control legislation. This is an argument against all laws, though, not just ones that aim to prevent gun deaths. Many mass shootings cannot be prevented, but it’s not like poverty or discrimination can be totally eradicated and yet the United States government has still tried to do so. Few political beliefs and philosophies are perfect, and yet we adhere to them as we strive towards a more perfect union. The United States is only exceptional when it tries to be.

The responses of the most vocal survivors of the Parkland shooting, as well as those of most Democrats, are naturally the opposite of those already mentioned. Trump’s desire to “harden” schools is opposed by congressional Republicans, Democrats, Parkland survivors, teachers, and police officers—and yet the Florida state legislature embraced the idea on February 28th. The survivors have also called for an assault weapons ban, or at least the raising of the minimum age to purchase an AR-15 from 18 to 21, and for the expansion of background checks. These proposals, while imperfect, are necessary: no nineteen-year-old civilian needs an AR-15, and our background check system is plagued with debilitating loopholes that endanger American lives. Moreover, the passage of assault weapons ban, though difficult, would signify, once and for all, that the United States government will not tolerate further bloodshed and is actually in step with many other civilized nations, such as Trump’s beloved Norway. Yes, the definition of “assault weapons” themselves is admittedly slippery, but if Congress actually wants to see change, it has to attempt to enact some. Its duty, after all, is to insure domestic tranquility.

Beyond the survivors’ adept use of the media, there is little about the post-Parkland atmosphere that is legitimately new. Mass shootings have become so common in the United States that our post-tragedy policy demands have become instinctual. In fact, many of the proposals being floated by members of Congress are holdovers from the Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs massacres, which occurred only four and five months ago, respectively. Naturally, there is opposition on the right to each of the left’s demands. David French of National Review deemed assault weapons an “emergency bulwark” against the tyranny of a state equipped with tanks, missiles, and nuclear weapons—a philosophy rooted in conservative mistrust of governmental power that is apparent in the not only in French’s piece, but also in Trump and Rubio’s reactions to mass shootings and the late Antonin Scalia’s vaunted (or infamous, depending on your political affiliation) District of Columbia v. Heller decision. French argues that the weapons of the American citizenry need not match those of the government to deter any would-be tyrant, but the prospect of a coup or the rise of a truly authoritarian leader in the United States is so unlikely that if it were to happen, a citizenry armed with assault weapons would make no difference. As for Democrats’, and a few Republicans’, demands for the improvement and expansion of our background checks system, Thomas Massie, a Republican representative from Kentucky, compared checks to putting “lipstick on a pig.” Governor Rick Scott of Florida, however, announced a plan to raise the minimum age at which one may purchase any firearm, including semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15, to 21. Indeed, there is hope at the state level, but Florida certainly muted its progress by funding the arming of teachers with such zeal.

American culture has degenerated to the point that not only can we no longer understand each other, we no longer want to. This inability can be seen in nearly every political issue from immigration to healthcare, but most prominently in gun control. One side sees the other as abettors of the murder of innocent Americans. One side sees the other as desecrators of our Constitution. Pundits have hoped that the political activism of the Parkland survivors will spur meaningful change, but it won’t, not widespread change. That cannot occur until the President can decide what he wants, and that position will have to be one that can be accepted widely before Congress will begin to inch towards some semblance of compromise. Thus far, gun control has occurred in fits that have followed highly-publicized tragedies, hence Rick Scott’s surprising, albeit muddled, announcement.

There will be another mass shooting, and another one after that. At least one will be in a school. This pattern will kill Americans, or it will kill America altogether. Whether we become collectively numb to the phenomenon, as President Trump has, or push our Congress for meaningful change until they actually manage it determines which death transpires. Americans must understand their counterparts on the right and left in order to effect meaningful political progress. Concessions must be made. The chasm must be bridged. The seventeen who perished at Parkland, and the thousands we have lost in hundreds of other massacres, were sacrifices upon the altar of freedom. Americans must choose whether that freedom means the freedom to arm oneself unscrupulously, or the freedom to attend school unburdened by fear.