Once again, events conspire to remind us how fragile is our existence and how vulnerable we really are. A young man whose goal in life might have been “helping others” winds up hunting them instead, ruthlessly mowing them down in a bizarre public spectacle in which it is not life but rather death that mirrors art. Chillingly, a neighbor describes the gunman as a “typical American kid” who “kept to himself [and] didn’t seem to have many friends.” In the postmortem analysis, fingers will be pointed and political positions staked, but the essential issues will again likely go unaddressed as we forge ahead to the next reel in the film, without noticing that the entire narrative itself is deadening by its very nature.
There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” in this veritable societal shooting gallery that places all of us in the crosshairs. Some people simply break, while some seek to break others, but both are responses to a society that places alienation, dependency, and casual brutality at its cultural core. We might blame a specific organ when it contracts cancer or treat the disease like an individual pathology, all the while neglecting to address the obvious socio-environmental roots of the condition. To do the latter would require us to ask hard questions about the society we have created, the one we participate in and benefit from — yet if we do not, the issue will likely soon become moot as the patient expires.
We simply cannot continue to sow the seeds of a “culture of violence” any longer. The almost daily explosion of some disaffected soul, leading to the decimation of others in public and private spaces alike, is too demonstrable to be dismissed as the result of a few “bad apples” or faulty parts somehow working in isolation from the whole. The mass-shooting phenomenon that happens routinely in the United States is part and parcel of a society that legitimizes force, individualizes burdens, medicalizes despondency, and demonizes dissent. In such a system, many feel utterly trapped in their isolation and powerless to change it — and some will accordingly act out their desperation in horrifying ways.
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To how many violent images is a typical American child exposed? How many marketing campaigns exploit feelings of diminished self-worth and alienation? How many valorizations of the heroic use of force are put before our eyes on a daily basis? How many trespasses and forms of disempowerment do we suffer in our lives, from the exploitation of our labor to the mind-numbing attributes of mass media? How many toxins and other alterants infuse our food supply and infest the larger environment? In how many ways are we made to accept dehumanization in our economic arrangements, as we inhabit a world in which everything is for sale and anything (including absolution) can be bought for a price?
The connections are obvious, so much so that we oftentimes cannot see them. This is an anti-life society at nearly every turn, and any rhetorical claims to being politically “pro-life” are utterly nonsensical. What is worse is that the U.S. is rapidly exporting this macabre model (by finance, fiat, or force), creating a globalized monoculture where commodities supplant communities and people are relegated behind profits. Meanwhile, a relatively small cadre of global elites greedily sucks out the life of this world, co-opting its powers for themselves while giving the rest of us either abject poverty or an illusion of prosperity that masks the reality of its inherent cruelty.
Still, despite the proliferation of corporate fortresses and military bases, the edifice of skewed power and privilege is as fragile as we all are, perhaps even more so in some ways. To wit, if it was not fragile it wouldn’t require so much brute force to sustain it; indeed, the weaker something is, the more force it necessitates. Counter to the dominant security narrative, a more apt solution would be to embrace our innate fragility, to recognize and validate our vulnerability, and to stop collaborating with the pretense that we modern humans are some immutable force of nature whose cleverness will ultimately ensure our survival and sustainability.
Nothing is guaranteed — not military might, not reified power, not homeland security. Not even a midnight movie in the suburbs. And perhaps in this realization we can begin a new era of authentic engagement that takes nothing and no one for granted, one that prioritizes systemic health and individual potential equally, and that moves us from the lethal rigidity of a society built for the powerful toward one designed for the abundant fragility of actual human beings.
If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the color of the evening sun
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are
– Sting, “Fragile” (1987)