2017 has veered from crisis to crisis, from breakdown to breakdown. Only the most naïve or the most ruthless appear capable of optimism; for everyone else, the present moment is a series of mounting catastrophes with no end in sight. So persistent is this feeling of impending cataclysm that it’s difficult to remember that only five years ago, apocalyptic thinking held a kind of novelty.
2012 was a year rife with apocalyptic anticipation. The Mayan long-count calendar was marking the end of a cycle, New Age popular theories maintained. Doomsayers proclaimed that this would lead to imminent end of the world; prognosticators of a sunnier disposition foretold an expansion of humanity’s collective consciousness.
The apocalypse never came. But five years on, that year’s more localized tragedies seem at once more prosaic and more ominous. By 2017, these kinds of catastrophes would feel utterly unremarkable. In hindsight, the most significant thing about America in 2012 is that it was bookended by the murders of children.
On February 6, 2012, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old self-appointed neighborhood watchman, stalked and chased down the 17-year old Trayvon Martin in a Florida housing development. Zimmerman called the police to inform them he was pursuing Martin, whom he called a “suspicious guy,” and an “asshole.” Eight minutes later, after an altercation to which Zimmerman remains the only living witness, Martin was dead, shot a single time through the heart.
Ten months later, on December 14, 20-year-old Adam Lanza murdered twenty children and six adult teachers and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Earlier that same morning, he killed his mother, Nancy, as she slept. The weapon he used was a bolt-action rifle, meaning that each time Lanza shot, he had to eject a spent cartridge and cycle in a new one. He did this four times, each time firing at close range into her head. To kill the children, he used a semi-automatic, AR-15-style rifle, which could fire every time he pulled the trigger—per its manual, at a maximum “effective” rate of fire of forty-five rounds per minute. Lanza fired the gun 152 times, working through multiple thirty-round magazines. No more than five minutes elapsed from his arrival at the school to when he ended his rampage with a shot to his own head.
As specimen events in recent American history, both the killing of Trayvon Martin and the massacre at Sandy Hook have much in common. Each provoked widespread outrage; each galvanized a political movement. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag arose in response to the Zimmerman acquittal in 2013, and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, now an influential gun-safety group, was founded the day after Sandy Hook. Each event distilled broader injustices and realities of violence: state-sanctioned anti-black vigilantism on the one hand; mass shootings and the easy availability of destructive, military-style weapons on the other.
Yet these two crimes also crystallized stark divisions in American culture. Save for a dedicated cadre of conspiracy theorists, most Americans saw the Sandy Hook massacre as an object of unqualified horror. The Trayvon Martin killing and Zimmerman’s acquittal, on the other hand, provoked responses that differed markedly along racial lines.1 Where many saw—rightly—a direct line extending from America’s long history of lynching and extrajudicial murders to the killing of Martin, and demanded justice, others identified with Zimmerman and saw in his acquittal grounds for outright celebration.
Three years after the acquittal, Zimmerman auctioned off the gun he used, promising to employ the proceeds to oppose Black Lives Matter, “Hillary Clinton’s anti-firearm rhetoric,” and “violence against Law Enforcement officers.” Hyped by Zimmerman as an “American Firearms Icon,” the 9mm pistol ultimately went to an undisclosed buyer for $138,900. The fate of Lanza’s weapons is unclear. It is possible they may still exist in some evidence locker (an effort by victims’ families to sue the rifle’s manufacturer is currently being considered by the Connecticut Supreme Court); it is also possible that they were destroyed, like the Sandy Hook Elementary School building itself, razed in 2014, or the Lanza house on 36 Yogananda Street, bulldozed a year later.
The massacre at Sandy Hook and the killing of Trayvon Martin are two sides of the same coin. Mainstream American ideology tells us that children are innocence embodied, that they represent precious human potential. But as with so many sentiments that aspire to the universal, the reality is much less lovely. Only some children get to be innocent and full of potential; others never even get to be children at all. The same discourse that anoints the twenty child victims at Sandy Hook “angels” also contains the impulse to label a teen like Martin a “thug,” to scour his school record and pronounce him no angel at all. That the victims in Sandy Hook, in one of the nation’s most wealthy zip codes, were almost all white cannot be understated in explaining the symbolic traction of their deaths. The contempt heaped upon Martin by so many conservative voices is equally racialized—transparently, unequivocally, and unforgivably so.
The entrenched white supremacy that enabled Zimmerman to kill Martin with impunity was likewise at play in the genesis of Sandy Hook. There were abundant red flags in the Adam Lanza case—from repeated hospitalizations, to warnings by mental health professionals, to troubling behavior in school, to an explicit tip given to police in 2008 by one of Nancy Lanza’s friends, who reported that Adam had access to an assault rifle and planned to “kill his mother and shoot children at Sandy Hook.” Yet no one intervened in any way that mattered. The State of Connecticut’s own devastating review of events leading up to the massacre concludes that the outcome would have been unthinkable had the Lanzas not been wealthy and white.2 Nancy Lanza was Adam’s first victim. But in other ways she was also deeply complicit in the murders he carried out at Sandy Hook Elementary. Her husband, too, was complicit, in his absence, and much-professed obliviousness. So were the dozens of institutions and persons with whom they interacted in the run-up to 2012, who saw in one wealthy white family, however troubled and dysfunctional, nothing so threatening as to justify bringing to bear the brutal mechanisms of state control that would without reflection or hesitation have crushed them all had they been black and poor. The same America that could not be bothered to do anything as the Lanzas furnished their child with a literal arsenal bent over backwards to give George Zimmerman a pat on the back and a ticket to micro-celebrity after he killed a boy whose crime was simply being black in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And yet all this, no matter how horrible it is to contemplate, is too clinical, too bloodless. Drawing analogies between one murderous tragedy and another can be politically useful, but at the core of the killing of any human being lies a radical incomparability. “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world,” runs a line in the Talmud. Survivors and relatives endure lives indelibly marked by cruel absences, agonizing reminders, and symptoms of acute mental suffering. And repetitions of these events are reenacted with grinding regularity and heartbreaking variation: a black child is shot by a police officer; a congregation is mowed down in a church. Bodies pile up. The temporality of trauma, both individual and collective, unfolds as an ever-present repetition of pain.
Even if such events do not affect us directly, even if we know no victims personally, they resonate in tangible ways. We take the deaths of children personally, in a kind of reflex, at least initially, even if we may eventually grow desensitized or callous. (The persistence of Sandy Hook Truthers offers a kind of paradoxical testament to the power of this impulse: some people cannot bear the proposition of murdered children so much that they must transmute inchoate outrage and pain into a heinous and aggressive disavowal.)
What have we learned about “gun violence,” as a phenomenon and as a political cause, over the last five years? We have learned that individual acts of carnage can politicize people who might otherwise remain complacent or indifferent about more quotidian violence. But we have also learned that the acute horror and anger such events provoke fail to translate into meaningful follow-through when it comes to changing the structures that produce them.
The butchery of children, we naturally feel, must be met with something commensurately drastic and dramatic. We wish to confront horror with decisive action, to experience a cathartic release in proportion to the rage and grief we feel. But when it comes to gun violence, this desire for catharsis is a trap. The entrenched place of gun violence in American culture, like the power of the gun lobby itself, defies emotionally satisfying panaceas. The most effective paths forward for fighting gun violence—involving multi-pronged interventions, legislative and otherwise, targeting at-risk communities—feel unglamorous, even paltry, and carry none of the righteous satisfaction of inflicting humiliation on gun-lobby diehards. But these interventions have been proven to make a difference more than any feel-good weapons ban or thumb-in-the-eye-of-gun-lovers ever could. It is to the immense credit of many gun safety activists—of whom no small number have lost children or close relatives to gun violence—that numerous anti–gun violence initiatives, mostly on the state level, have been achieved.
Yet for the rest of us, the foreclosure of realistic and proven strategies in favor of impossible vindication does far more to palliate our feelings than to honor the dead. And the false tradeoffs of our gridlocked debates over guns favor precisely this outcome, time after time. Amid horror, weighed down by murders for which our society can never atone, it is understandable to hope for some kind of apocalyptic reckoning, whether wholesale destruction or total transformation. It is much easier to hope for a final apocalypse than to wake up each day to yet more destruction of worlds, merciless and unredeemable. And yet we must.
I wrote about the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate’s report in 2014: https://carteblanchfield.com/2014/12/11/sandy-hook-white-on-white-crime-and-how-privilege-kills/. ↩