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The Numbing of the American Soul

Today’s slaughter at an elementary school in Texas is an act of evil beyond the scope of most of us, myself included, to fully absorb. I know no particulars of this latest mass shooting. I confess I felt no point in doing so. I saw the headline and kept scrolling. Allow me to be crystal clear: what I’m going to write in terms of sorrow is a small cup of water compared to the ocean of grief the victims’ families are feeling. What I’m going to talk about is my relative lack of grief.

Let me rephrase: I feel terrible grief. Let me rephrase once more: I think terrible grief, which is to say I recoil at this satanic malevolence, but I find myself doing so only in a theoretical, and if I’m honest, performative way. I feel, and I’m ashamed to admit this, virtually nothing.

I mean, that’s not entirely true: I’m very angry at myself for not feeling anything. I know it is a stark sign that my basic humanity has been diminished by years of this unspeakable, unremitting, seemingly unbreakable pattern of gun violence in America.

I, nor anyone in my life, have ever been a direct victim of these mass attacks (A woman I knew in college was murdered a few years ago, and I felt – I still feel – grief about that, even though we hadn’t seen each other in decades). But each slaughter that chips away at my humanity has created a thicket of scars around what I will refer to, for lack of a more exact term, soul. And these scars have left me largely numb.

Josef Stalin once said one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are a statistic. I’m not a big one for quoting Stalin, but he had a point. I think the breaking point for me was Sandy Hook. Once we apparently decided as a society that murdering young children was bad, but a price we have to be willing to pay to keep our guns, I checked out. Not consciously, but something in me became deadened. My capacity for empathy has continued to be quietly shaved away, sliver by sliver, with each subsequent shooting.

I was a bit too cynical in that paragraph. It’s not that most Americans feel that way. Most Americans – including a majority of NRA members – are in favor of some gun reform. But the NRA, and its allied lobbyists don’t care. They and every politician who takes their money has blood on their hands, their arms, over every inch of their polluted selves. And although most Americans want gun reform, they don’t want it enough for it to be an issue they will base their votes on.

This is a sickness that’s infected all of us. And like many fatal diseases, it is so quiet and insidious that we don’t realize it’s become an inextricable part of us until it’s too late to do much about it.

Once again, my (and I suspect many others) existential crisis is a universe of magnitude away in severity from the grief families in Texas are suffering tonight. Or Buffalo last week. Or over 200 communities in 2022 alone. That’s correct: over 200 this year. And we’re in May.

What I feel – or, more accurately, fail to feel – is the result of residual trauma that’s become an ambient, barely perceptible distorted noise in the back of every American’s head.

I’m not trying to be glib, but mass killings in America have become a bit like living near train tracks. The trains routinely rumble past, but we are so used to it, we stop noticing them after a while.

It shouldn’t be like this. None of this should be like this. All of this is awful beyond words. There ought to be a word for how useless words are. And when the only visceral outrage about today’s news I can muster is at my lack of outrage, something simple and fundamental about me, about my ability, my right to be fully human, has been eradicated. It’s a shame there’s no cynical, murderous lobby to protect that constitutional right. That doesn’t give me an excuse to stop trying.

But my God, America, with its leaders brimming with thoughts and prayers, makes it one hell of a steep climb.

23 thoughts on “The Numbing of the American Soul

  1. I can understand your feelings I think. I dont live in America so i dont have that immediate gut wrenching sorrow either. I gaze at the horror from afar. What i would say to my American friends is that in Europe (where I was born) and Australia ( where I live) there are very few mass shootings. Not because Europeans and Australians are less crazy but because there are less guns and they are hard to get. After a mass shooting in Australia many many years ago it was actually a conservative Prime Minister who bought in new gun control. Just too many guns in America, no?

    1. Well, first of all: Absolutely. But I do think there is something about the American ethos, and I’m not smart to say WHY, that is comfortable with violence. We were founded on it, and for the last 70+ years have our capacity to mete out violence is at the core of our national pride.

  2. I can feel all the empathy and sadness and frustration through your post. A society that condones violence and sees any death as necessary will have a hard time reigning in the steep descent into inhumanity that’ll result. We need to fix our collective humanity somehow.

  3. This was a really good read. And almost to prove what you’re saying, I found myself impressed at how well you’d written this than shocked that another mass shooting has occurred in America (I’m in the UK).

  4. I think you hit the nail on the proverbial head. If it happens often enough, no matter how terrible it is, it becomes accepted as the norm.

  5. Powerful, searing stuff. Thank you (again) Jack. Watching the unfolding horror on UK TV last night I also found my dominant emtional response to be a kind of generalised anger at America for its apparent love of firearms – pointless and unjustified, but I fear that’s how a lot of the rest of the world reacts.

  6. I live in Virginia and I can’t not feel for those parents, siblings, friends of the victims. I have a granddaughter teaching here and I worry for her all the time. One resource officer in a school system that have the elementary, middle school and high school in one large building is not even enough but money is in short supply for our small county and some of that is “wasted” and a small county that is 75% national forest can only squeeze so much tax money out of it’s citizens or they will squawk!!! I don’t know what the solution is but something has got to be done!! AND, shame on our politician’s and the lobbyists for letting it go on!!! I’m a gun owner for our safety and to hunt for the food that goes on our table! Don’t take our guns but do something about the ones that are used for the wrong reason and do it now!!! This madness has got to stop!!!!

    1. I agree with you, but the NRA lobby has its mind made up and even tho most NRA members support some measure of gun control, the NRA doesn’t care. Only way it will change is if many leave the NRA, but the NRA is betting that will never happen. So far, they’re right

  7. I’ve read one tongue-in-cheek suggestion that legislation should be enacted which makes the NRA responsible for security in schools and other public buildings and that their senior management would be held personally accountable for any future deaths. Might focus a few minds…

  8. The folks who are pro-gun must be so fearful they think the only solution is even more guns. Add to that a mix of greed, desiring a sense of control in an out of control situation and dubious politicians it is hard to see any kind of progress in achieving gun control. I hope it is not impossible.

  9. Wonderful bit of writing there, as usual, Jack. I wonder if our country, if not World entirely, has been normalizing violence since easily 1990. Particularly through (not live) media, such as cartoons. My son used to love the Power Rangers back in 1993, but got in trouble at daycare one day for doing the Power Ranger fighting thing with another kid who was also into Power Rangers. We had a long talk, and lots of ‘use your words!’ moments. He ended up going into the Marines as soon as he turned 18, and found to his dismay, that fighting is Real. We grow up with guns/swords/karate and anger as an excuse for bad behavior and a substitute for discourse. Star Wars, well almost every movie now is some armed person jumping out of the way of explosions, or ducking to avoid being shot. Every solution and problem we look at is hard, hard, hard. Guns are a problem choice born out of this normalizing, and perhaps why so many people feel they need to have them. There is a huge need for more mental healthcare access, for free.
    The World needs to relearn ‘soft’, I do believe. I’m reviewing my own language and lifestyle these days, and wondering how to lighten it up. There is a lot of room for improvement, but when I greet people at work (I’m an usher, don’t judge me), I make eye contact, I smile sincerely because I really Am glad they’re there. I tell them how nice they look, give them cough drops if they have that dry itchy cough people often get in theaters, and to a one they respond with surprise and pleasure. Not just because I’m hot either, but because we need to interact with each other pleasantly. Only pleasantly and politely, no cough drops necessary (unless they’re coughing). This small, simple shift seems to really help open up some small thing that makes life bearable. Our choice.

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