Thoughts and Prayers

Mass shootings reveal to Americans otherwise insulated from quotidian gun murder that they are not immune, that brutal death or grievous injury can, in principle, come to them no matter who they are or where they might be. Compounding this sense of terrifying vulnerability is the recognition of a properly existential futility: an understanding that, no matter your station or your status, if this is how death comes to you, then, in any substantive sense, your death will not matter.

On the mass shooting in Las Vegas

Photograph by Jacob Surland.

On Sunday night, a man in a Las Vegas casino hotel opened fire on the audience of a country music festival thirty-two stories below his room. Details on the specific weapons he used are still unclear; when authorities finally managed to enter his room, more than an hour after he began firing, they discovered twenty-three of them. At least one of his rifles had been modified, using devices commonly available at gun shows and online, to fire at rates so high that many who heard the shots believed they came from a fully automatic machine gun. Such modifications diminish accuracy, particularly at range. But for a shooter firing indiscriminately into a packed crowd from far above, accuracy is not the point. As of this writing, 59 people are dead, and 525 have been hospitalized.

In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, President Donald Trump condemned the shooting as an “act of pure evil.” This is a convenient formulation: it turns what should be a political problem into a metaphysical one. “Pure evil” has nothing to do with policy or complicity or compromise—it exists beyond the human ken until it irrupts into our realm, leaving carnage in its wake.

Inscrutable evil is a common trope in the lexicon of our leaders, particularly but not exclusively Republicans, as they address massacre after massacre. We’ve heard it from Rick Scott after Omar Mateen killed forty-nine clubgoers in Orlando in 2016; from Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal in 2015, after the white supremacist Dylann Roof assassinated nine black churchgoers in Charleston; from Bob McDonnell after Aaron Alexis murdered twelve people at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013; from Rick Perry and Mitt Romney after Adam Lanza killed twenty-six children and teachers in Sandy Hook in 2012; from Ted Cruz after Nidal Hassan killed thirteen soldiers and civilians in Fort Hood in 2009; and from so many others so many times it’s easy to lose count. And so too, Trump—who has fomented more than his share of destructive rage among angry white men with nothing to lose, whose presidential campaign received a boost of $30.3 million in targeted ads from the National Rifle Association—laid all blame solely on the wickedness of the man who pulled the trigger. “The only person with blood on their hands,” stressed White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday, “is the shooter.”

The invocation of Pure Evil produces a kind of hermetic anti-politics. Against evil in its purity, what can mere humans accomplish? Politicians plead weakness and join the feeble citizenry in the only thing we humans can do: pray. To pretend we could do anything more becomes a kind of hubris, an insult to the dead, a profanation of the sacred temporality of the Senseless Tragedy. “It’s not the time to go after individuals or organizations,” offered Sanders. There will be time for that, is the implicit promise. This has always been a lie, but now, when headlines lurch from one panic-inducing tweet to the next, it’s a lie that doesn’t even feign to be true. The moment of reckoning, we know, is ever deferred: the bullets come regardless.

The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. This, too, has always been a lie, but never, perhaps, has the lie been so obvious, so transparent, so corrupt. What is the thing that can stop a bad guy with twenty-three guns, raining lead down on unarmed people thirty stories up and a quarter of a mile away? “Thoughts and prayers” have become such a grim punchline that even an unwinnable web-browser video game called Thoughts & Prayers seems insufficiently irreverent for the task (“Press T to think and P to pray”).1 But the rhetoric continues, as reflexive as a “Bless You” after a sneeze. Why? Because “thoughts and prayers” really says something else: there but for the grace of God go I.

Only a tiny fraction of the thousands of Americans shot dead each year will die in what the FBI defines as a mass shooting. Fewer still will die in mass shootings that will grab headlines. But the idea of mass shootings—their very existence—is generally corrosive in a way other gun murders are not. The gunshots that claim so many black and Latino young men are integrated into mainstream white discourse as simply How Things Are; the shots that end the lives of American women, like the abuse that precedes them, happen all too often behind closed doors; the gunshots that fell queer and transgender people are muffled by the same stigmas that dog so much of their lives. But mass shootings reveal to Americans otherwise insulated from quotidian gun murder that they are not immune, that brutal death or grievous injury can, in principle, come to them no matter who they are or where they might be. Compounding this sense of terrifying vulnerability is the recognition of a properly existential futility: an understanding that, no matter your station or your status, if this is how death comes to you, then, in any substantive sense, your death will not matter.

This is the horror of mass shootings. Not just death that comes from nowhere, intruding upon the status quo—but a death that doesn’t change that status quo, that continues to sail on unchanged by it. You may be a toddler in a preschool in one of the richest zip codes in the country; a congressman playing baseball in Alexandria, Virginia; a white-collar office worker in a business park; a college student or professor on some leafy campus; a doctor making your rounds in a ward in the Bronx; a country music fan enjoying a concert in a city built as a mecca for relaxation and pleasure: the bullet that comes for you will not discriminate. It knows no racial bias, imposes no political litmus test, checks no credit score, heeds no common wisdom of whose life should or shouldn’t matter. It will pierce your skin, perforate your organs, shatter your bones, and blow apart the gray matter inside your skull faster than your brain tissue can tear. And then, after the token thoughts and prayers, nothing. No revolutionary legislation or sudden sea change in cultural attitudes will mark your passing. The bloody cruelty of your murder will be matched only by the sanguine absence of any substantive national response. Our democracy is riven by inequality in so many ways, but in this domain, and perhaps in this domain alone, all American lives are treated as equally disposable.

Yet there are winners all the same. Any market observer will tell you that guns sell guns: gun sales spike after mass shootings, and stock prices for firearm and ammunition manufacturers rise, as well. The industry knows this, too. Executives have been repeatedly caught on tape saying as much to their investors and to one another. After Las Vegas, as after Orlando, as after so many nightmares, stock prices climbed—riding what one retail executive, speaking of Sandy Hook, described as “the tailwinds of profitability.”

The overwhelming majority of gun buyers may purchase their weapons with the intention of never using them—at least certainly not for mass murder—but the fraction of those who do generate a paradoxical and outsized effect: a stoking of demand through leveraging of already existing supplies. There is always the fantasy of being the quicker draw, the last man standing. That some hidden civilian carrier in Vegas could have drawn their pistol and effectively returned fire against a sniper in a skyscraper so far away is preposterous—but the fantasy remains. And so Americans arm ourselves accordingly, resulting in a state of affairs where there are now more guns within our borders than there are civilians to own them. It’s easy to blame the gun lobby, to catalogue the donations from the NRA to individual senators and congressmen; that scandal and their ignominy are richly deserved. But it’s a harder and queasier matter to acknowledge that what’s at play is not just a matter of money that buys senators—because if so, the solution would be as simple as buying them the other way. The NRA may give cash, but it delivers votes, too. And those votes come from Americans who, though they may tell pollsters they disagree with the organization on some matters, still pay their membership dues, and, more importantly, view the world in terms that the NRA doesn’t dictate so much as it confirms.

The structure that produces this nightmare exceeds the current President, our callous governors, and our craven legislators and judges. Its origins stretch back decades; it is part and parcel of the same trends in political economy, regulatory capture, festering inequality, and rampant aggression by which America, an imperial nation with war in its soul, has come to dominate the global arms trade and host a military-industrial complex that dwarfs those of even our putative superpower rivals. On par with the destruction of our environment, it is one of the grandest achievements of American late capitalism. Reckoning with events like the massacre in Las Vegas, we can sense this edifice, which so many Americans have built. We behold our work, looming above, ready to crush us to bits. And we know that, if and when that happens, our thoughts and prayers, like our denunciations, will be only so much noise, so many squeals, monetized to the last.

  1. https://www.thoughtsandprayersthegame.com/ 

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