On Wednesday, Thomas Gunderson, a young, sturdily built Newport Beach, Calif., man with a close-cropped, dark beard, a square jaw and an affinity for American flag paraphernalia, posted on Facebook a video and message from his hospital bed that has since been viewed more than 25 million times.
The video featured Gunderson, one of the hundreds of people shot by a gunman in Las Vegas, struggling out of his hospital bed to stand for the president. The caption explained: “I will never lie down when the President of this great country comes to shake my hand! There may be plenty of issues in this country but I will always respect my country, my president and my flag. Shot in the leg or not, I will stand to show my President the respect he deserves!”
In the days that followed, Gunderson kept posting — story after story about people of various races who had, like him, risked their lives to help others. He insisted that out there on that Las Vegas killing field, race and other sources of division had ceased to have meaning. It was a set of ideas that had a lot of people referring to Gunderson online, on TV and in print as an “example of a fine American,” a “real patriot” and a “real role model,” who offered a necessary and refreshing display of respect and unity so essential in a country reeling from a massive crime.
That gave way to some dislike, too. Most of it came from people not fond of the admonition in Gunderson’s initial post of the mostly black National Football League players protesting unchecked police abuses by kneeling during the national anthem.
Gunderson — a man who directed nurses to write #MAGA in the section of his hospital room whiteboard that asks “What is Important to Me?” — didn’t respond to a request for comment. But online and on TV, he spoke to his critics. He asked those who don’t agree with his love and respect for Trump not to share their “negative” commentary and “show that we are united as one in this country and NO ONE, no matter how hard they try, can’t break us! Ever!” Some of Gunderson’s supporters quickly referred to his critics as “un-American,” “nasty” and “sick.”
All of this might be no bigger than your average viral sensation or online conflagration. But in Gunderson’s timeline lives a record of a phenomenon that’s come to characterize this summer of American crisis. After weeks of successive hurricanes and floods, protests and threats of possible nuclear war, wildfires and mass shootings, the country has begun to cycle through the short-term spikes in displays of national solidarity, quickly followed by demands that dissenters remain silent and, soon after, a resurgence of our typical divisions. A week after the single largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the nation had transitioned from overt expressions and declarations of unwavering unity to tamping down, rejecting and rebuking anyone who dares, even a little bit, to disagree.
It’s a worldwide cycle, first identified in the late 1800s by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. First there’s a surge of solidarity. That’s expressions of unity, then insistence that it remain uncomplicated by anything outside an affirming national claim to enduring decency, bravery and communal concern. This requires that the country or the affected community reject, combat, silence and isolate those who would dare to differ even slightly in describing what happened, how people responded, what matters right now and what should happen next.
“What we witnessed is the surge in social solidarity which follows shootings, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other massive, collective tragedies worldwide,” said Heather Littleton, an associate professor of psychology at East Carolina University who researches human adjustment following trauma such as mass shooting events. “I should say, the always temporary surge.”
Littleton came to her area of expertise, in part, via personal experience. She was earning her PhD at Virginia Tech and studying women who had experienced sexual violence when a gunman shot and killed nearly 32 people as well as himself in 2007. She and a team of researchers had a lot of pre-shooting data, which allowed them to study the emotional effects of the shooting and how people adjusted long-term. Those who had the greatest sense of community concern and of being inside a circle of compassion fared best.
At the time, Virginia Tech was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Now, that’s a distant memory, and in the cold calculus of dead bodies and mangled limbs this summer, a moment of almost demi-rampage.
“Out of that phenomenon,” Littleton said, “comes this period where people tell and retell stories of heroism, a heightened sense of community responsibility for others and people search for ways to help. All of that, all of it, is an effort, to restore the sense that there is good in the world.”
That’s the psychological purpose that the many stories of selfless heroism serve. That’s the reason for the overflow of stories about cab and car service drivers transformed into ambulance crews, strangers who shielded strangers with their own bodies, women who dragged men twice their size to positions of relative safety. They are incredible, harrowing stories. But they also make both the teller and the listener, the writer and the reader feel a little more secure.
But just as sure and swift as those stories after a massive crisis comes the effort to tamp down anyone or anything that might illuminate the resiliency of preexisting problems and divisions. That’s stage two.
Stage two of Durkheim’s solidarity surge theory is exclusion and attempted repression to sustain or extend that period of post-crisis unity. Claims of universal compassion and concern tend to give way to the usual points of political and social cleavage — Republican and Democrat, black and white, renter and homeowner, possessor of significant savings or a household that lives paycheck to paycheck. Those, ultimately, determine what people view as the cause of various crises and what remedies are necessary or best, said Rachel Luft, an associate professor at Seattle University who studies the social impact of natural disasters.
As a matter of fact, dig down deep enough into Gunderson’s timeline and his pre-shooting disdain for police accountability protesters and what he describes as well-compensated but insufficiently grateful football players is clear, too. That was no Las Vegas crisis-enabled epiphany.
Luft’s evidence from the world of natural, rather than gunman-made disasters: Think on the number of stories about violence in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in the Superdome that proved utterly false but are still widely believed. If the stories were true, then the government’s slow response and the agony people endured in New Orleans can become almost justified or at least understandable, and the people stranded on rooftops or in the filth of the Superdome are almost, just a little bit, or maybe totally, at fault. Then, no one has to think long and hard about the reasons for disproportionate black poverty and what it means to live in or need to evacuate a Southern city but not own a car.
See the trajectory and contents of #unity, #LasVegasStrong, #notdivided and before that #HoustonStrong and #BostonStrong to affirm the pattern. See also the fandom around the Cajun Navy after Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston and sent large numbers of mostly white boat owners into many sections of the nation’s most diverse city to rescue people stranded by that storm. Any suggestion that race would remain a factor in American life and politics was generally met with a giant, collective boo. Any questions about the implications of celebrating the at-will work of private citizens while failing to examine the sufficiency of the government’s response got the same treatment, too.
We’ve seen this before. Just after 9/11, back in the virtual Dark Ages of Internet life, there was a catchphrase formed by some of the last words expressed aboard a doomed flight which, as New York magazine put it, seemed to capture the grit of a rattled nation: “Let’s roll.” And The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty documented a period in the days just after 9/11 where “brief, transcendent commonality of purpose” ruled even Congress.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prompted strangers to help one another out of burning and collapsing buildings. Then, it marked the beginning of a period of increased hate crimes and discrimination directed toward Muslims and Americans assumed to be Muslims. And in the decades since, people across the political spectrum have come to question the broad powers Congress granted to government agencies under the Patriot Act.
“We should be careful not to . . . romanticize [things like] the cross-racial rescue,” Luft said. “The better gauge of a community’s level of racial justice is what happens before and after a so-called natural disaster.”