By my count, this is the sixth time I’ve written a version of this column. I wrote it for the first time in 2012 after James Holmes shot and killed 12 people at a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo. Until today, I’d actually forgotten that I’d written it for the second time in 2015 when John Russell Houser carried out a similar, though less deadly, attack at a showing of the romantic comedy “Trainwreck,” which tells you how terrifyingly often I have had to conjure up these same sentiments. I wrote this column for the third time later that year when terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State murdered 130 people, 89 of them at a concert at the Bataclan theater, in Paris. In disgust and despair, I wrote, but didn’t publish, another lament in this vein after Omar Mateen killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. And I wrote the fifth iteration of these sentiments in May after an Ariana Grande concert was bombed in the United Kingdom.
I’m sickened that, once again, I have to write about an act of mass murder perpetrated at a cultural event: this time, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, carried out at a country music festival in Las Vegas. But I can’t stop, not least because I never want us to accept these shootings as routine. Every time this happens, I believe it is vital to articulate the nature of the crime. A mass shooting at the movies or a bombing at a concert isn’t just a deadly offense against the people who are killed and wounded. It’s an attempted murder of our collective cultural experiences.
There are many things that make cultural events such powerfully tempting targets. The lights are low. The crowd is dense. No one’s watching for trouble. And by killing a dozen people, or two dozen, or 50, you can make countless more afraid to surrender themselves in the same way.
Like anyone who came of age in the post-9/11 world, I’m sharply aware of just how easy and cheap it is to suggest that the normal business of living life is some sort of blow against terrorism. When President George W. Bush told Americans less than two weeks after the 2001 attacks that “I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy,” his request — if a reasonable attempt to head off an economic panic — felt bizarrely removed from the specific and spectacular nature of the strikes.
But when people launch deadly attacks on cultural spaces and cultural events, the message is many steps clearer, and the response is, too. If Mateen wanted his attack on Pulse to make lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people afraid to congregate and celebrate together, the only possible response is unity and solidarity. If the Islamic State attacks Grande in part to send a message about the women who make music and the girls who enjoy it in public, it’s vital to make sure that it’s possible for women to continue performing and for their young female fans to continue seeing them in safety. And if lone, violent men want to make it seem more dangerous to go anywhere with strangers, we can only reply by reaffirming our trust in each other. Anything else gives in to their deadly logic.
All mass violence makes us shy away from each other. Mass violence aimed at cultural events is particularly pernicious, because it targets spaces where we can often put aside the elements of our identities that divide us and have an experience that reminds us what we have in common. If we give up on that, we’re giving up on something larger, too: the idea that there are some things that are better to do together, in a crowd, rather than in the isolation of our living rooms and the specialization of an increasingly fragmented media environment.
No matter how badly I wish it were true, I don’t expect that Las Vegas will be the last time I write this column. All I can hope is that this time doesn’t make us more fearful and more alone.