The conversation among commuting comrades on the 94 bus turned to the San Bernadino shooting. More accurately, it turned toward it and then veered away:
“Can you believe this one?”
“It was like an place where they help developmentally disabled or something.”
“Yeah. That was messed up.”
Details established, the words trailed off. Anything more was beyond us this Friday morning. The same conversation, more or less, repeated at work:
“They were a husband and wife.”
“Yeah, they had a six month old baby.”
From there it went nowhere. Where could it go? What was there left to say?
After so many shootings on a nearly constant basis people across America are numb. We can recount the details as they are fed from the telescreens which define our windows on the world but beyond that there is little to say. That would require reaction and emotion – and who wants to go there? When something unbelievable happens there are rarely words that do it justice.
When the unbelievable happens on a daily basis language itself completely fails.
It has become something like the cultural equivalent of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When humans encounter a shock that we cannot process we internalize it, learn from it, and make its patterns a part of who we are. When it’s a personal experience we take in directly the responses are more chemical – a fire of adrenaline poisoning that ignites the “fight or flight” instincts deep in our survivalist reptile brain.
When it’s something at a distance which comes to us as a constant threat the result is similar in some ways, distinct in others.
A cultural kind of PTSD has settled across this nation. It comes to us as fear – the real possibility that we will one day find ourselves in the same situation. It needs to move up to the higher parts of the brain that process these thoughts into plans and language. But that’s nearly impossible when the horror passes far beyond our understanding.
It’s not as though the US is the only place that experiences this. We can reasonably assume that everyone in Israel and Palestine has seen, firsthand, horrible things that shape their reactions to everything that may yet come their way. Their personal sense of PTSD becomes a part of the culture as they work through their need to survive with fear and anger easily articulated. They are people who are ready for nearly anything.
What has settled into America is different because it is less personal. We can identify with the victims when it is clear that they were not prepared to face the horrors that came their direction. It could happen to any of us. The way things are going it will.
With the volume being cranked up beyond eleven we can all see it coming.
That’s not to say that everyone found themselves without words to describe what happened or what needs to be done. Gun control advocates quickly saw this as another sign that we need more restrictions on weapons and gun defenders quickly expressed the need for more guns to stop people who do these kinds of things. Both of these responses were as instinctual as flight and fight.
Personally, I do not see how we can possibly hope to gain control over guns in anything other than the very long term. Confiscation is politically unreasonable for many reasons and despite the best intentions of the NY Times there is no effective definition of an “assault weapon” that is easily codified into action. Whatever we do, illegal weapons will remain out in the world and easy to obtain for a very long time. We also have yet to see how much damage can be done at close range with a simple shotgun.
The problem seems to be much deeper. Perhaps it is a lack of available mental health screening and counseling for everyone that makes this so common. There is little doubt that our sense of individualism easily discounts the lives of others and makes a violent “statement” a part of our culture – as shown thoroughly saturating all of our forms of entertainment.
Whatever the problem, guns are merely the way that a very deep sickness is expressed on a far too frequent basis. As words continue to fail us and the weight of these horrors keeps them sunk deep into the lower parts of our brains. There is simply nothing more to say.
But words are what we need – words of compassion, connection, and love. They are not coming in any kind of form that will get us through this and make it stop.