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By Jamelle Bouie
Another week, another shooting.
This one was in Allen, Texas — a city about 25 miles north of Dallas — where a gunman killed at least eight people and injured at least seven others before he was killed by a police officer. He used, as is standard these days, an AR-15-style rifle. Some of the victims were children.
The frequency of mass shootings in the United States means there is a ritual, of sorts, associated with each occurrence. Republican politicians offer “thoughts and prayers,” Democratic politicians condemn those offering only “thoughts and prayers,” and their respective allies in the media trade barbs over gun control.
On Twitter, Megyn Kelly — a former Fox News anchor — took part in the ritual with a series of tweets castigating gun control proponents for focusing on, well, gun control. “Serious q for gun control advocates: you’ve failed to effect change,” she said. “Pls face it. You can’t do it, thx to the 2A. We’re all well aware you don’t like that fact, but fact it is. What’s next? Must we just stay here sad, concerned, lamenting? Could we possibly talk OTHER SOLUTIONS?”
Kelly argues that instead of focusing our attention on the proliferation of high-powered rifles, we should try these “other solutions” that would keep guns away from the mentally ill and minimize destruction from mass shootings when they do occur: “Mental health interventions (smthg real, not the BS we now do), greater willingness to lock ppl up (w/protocols in place for civil libs) who are deemed to be threats, fortification of soft targets, coordination of media response to not lionize shooters, etc.”
Apparently, the debate over gun control is over — “it’s done,” Kelly says — and so the only thing left to do is shape our society in a way that leaves life compatible with the mass proliferation of firearms.
You might say that I’m picking on Kelly, whose most noteworthy contribution to American political discourse was her forceful argument that Santa Claus — the fictional avatar of Christmas — was white. But even if Kelly isn’t especially relevant, she is prominent, noteworthy and emblematic of conservative rhetoric in the wake of mass shootings.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, to give another example, also jumped immediately to mental health and mental illness in the wake of the slaughter in Allen. “One thing we can observe very easily is that there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of anger and violence that’s taking place in America,” said Abbott, a Republican, in an interview with Fox News on Sunday. “And what Texas is doing, in a big-time way, we’re working to address that anger and violence by going to its root cause, which is addressing the mental health crisis behind it.”
After another recent shooting — the attack at a private Christian school in Nashville that killed three adults and three children — Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, announced a plan to help place armed police officers at every school in Tennessee. “We have an obligation, I have an obligation, to do what I can and work together with leaders across this community to address people’s concerns and to protect our kids in whatever way we can,” he said.
Experts on mental health and mental illness have said, repeatedly, that it is inaccurate to assert or imply that these issues are primarily responsible for the rise of mass shootings in the United States. And in a 2018 report on mass shooters from 2000 to 2013, the F.B.I. pushed back on the idea that mental illness causes mass shootings: “Absent specific evidence, careful consideration should be given to social and contextual factors that might interact with any mental health issue before concluding that an active shooting was ‘caused’ by mental illness. In short, declarations that all active shooters must simply be mentally ill are misleading and unhelpful.”
There’s been less said about the similarly prevalent idea that we could prevent mass shootings by, in Kelly’s words, hardening the “soft targets” of American life. Not only is this as wrongheaded as the rhetoric concerning mental health and mass shootings, but it also works to normalize a disturbing vision for American society.
What is a “soft target?” It is a school or a mall or a church or a gym. It is a library, a movie theater, a grocery store or anywhere people gather to live their lives. What would it mean to “harden” those targets, most of which have already been targeted at one point or another? It would mean additional police officers and armed security; metal detectors and reinforced doors designed to bar entry; heightened scrutiny for visitors and even mandatory checks for identification.
To harden our soft targets is, in other words, to turn the entire country into an airport security line. And far from a free society, this hardened America would be a continental version of Baghdad’s Green Zone, each checkpoint or guard a visible reminder that we’ve organized our entire lives around the prospect of instant death by lethal violence. We’re already halfway there. It is normal, at many synagogues and Jewish community centers, to have armed security guards. It is normal, at many schools, to have metal detectors. It is normal to drill young children for when a shooter appears — to train first and second and third graders to run and hide or play dead.
And of course, there are those who already live in a garrison state of sorts. For some Americans, it is a garrison of their own making: gated communities manned by armed guards. For others, it is more akin to a surveillance state, one of constant police presence and contact.
Either way, it is a world of fear and alienation, where people live in a state of heightened awareness, even anxiety. It is not a world of trust or hope or solidarity or any of the values we need to make democracy work as a way of life, much less a system of government.
Which might be the point for conservatives who want that world — who want, in a sense, that “polite society.” Because one thing that will survive is hierarchy and force and the power to make others bend to your will. And if they refuse? If they insist on their right to live free of fear?
Well, that’s what the guns are for.
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