Nothing symbolizes the foreclosure of the future like the slaughter of a nation’s young. And it’s so routine now — there have been at least eight this year at a school or college where someone was injured or killed — that attention will quickly fade, as it does with subjects one doesn’t intend to do anything about. Another word for that bitter fatalism is “defeat.”
And we have been, in an important moral sense, defeated. We won’t do anything about it, or can’t; the fact is so well understood that we don’t even need new commentaries stating as much for each shooting — we just recycle the old ones, from the old shootings. If this is what American freedom means, if this is what the Constitution entails, if this is where prayer gets us, then it’s easy to understand why millennials — the first generation to be raised on a steady stream of schoolhouse slaughter — barely believe in anything, democracy, American-style liberty, America’s future and organized religion included.
Regular mass gun violence is a particularly American phenomenon, and it’s dissolving society in a particularly American way. With every mass shooting and every utter failure of public policy to respond, the American notion of liberty looks more and more suicidal, a Faustian bargain exchanging sensible restrictions for a nihilistic, diabolical freedom. After the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, which happened in Las Vegas only last year, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly articulated this grim view most clearly: “Once again, the big downside of American freedom is on gruesome display,” he wrote. “This is the price of freedom.” Liberty stands now in opposition to life and the pursuit of happiness; no longer do all three seem concurrently possible, and it’s clear which of them we’ve chosen.
More acutely, each mass shooting calls into question the logic of the American project itself: Each time this happens, each time children turn up massacred on the evening news, the provision adduced to explain why we just can’t do anything to stop it is none other than the Constitution itself, the closest thing we have to civil holy scripture. Perhaps not the day of, but typically shortly after, ghouls will emerge to claim the whole thing is a fake, that it’s a ploy by the malevolent state to steal your constitutional rights. If any legislation is called for — if anyone even bothers at this point — industry advocates hired by the gun lobby will appear on television and in print, making their ardent case for an unqualified Second Amendment. And if any measure aimed at reducing these incidents actually makes it to Congress, the same approach will be reflected in so much demurral. Nobody will say the exact words “the foundational document of our government essentially requires that we suffer mass murder again and again with no recourse,” but that is what they will be telling you.
Faith in freedom, faith in the Constitution, and lastly, faith in God — that, too, is compromised by these bloody rituals. There is perhaps no other social or political occasion in which the pat response to one’s offer of prayers is instant righteous fury and open, bitter disbelief. It’s a subgenre of public discussion of religion that is unique to mass shootings, and one can see why. Every time this happens, the same politicians offer their thoughts and prayers; every time it happens again, they offer more of the same, and never anything more. One conclusion is that they must not be praying very ardently; another is that the prayers simply aren’t heard. For this shooting, the cycle has already begun. Either way, prayer itself winds up looking like a sham, and such promises sound cheaper every time.
The doubts that creep into one’s mind in the shadow of extreme events usually fade: There’s no use judging the ordinary by the logic of the extraordinary, after all. But day by day, it grows more and more difficult to view these murders as extraordinary. Nothing that happens so often can be thought of as anything but routine. And if these killings are mundane, then the contradictions and faults they expose at the heart of American life are better understood as general problems than specific, localized ones. The rot is in the heart of the thing, not at the margins.
And every time we rehearse again the motions that follow the destruction of young lives, millennial cynicism looks more like simple reason. It’s likely the case that the killings alone would be enough to vastly damage social cohesion and public morale. But our utter inability to contend with them is far more acidic to the ideas on which our American experiment depends. This may be the way a dream ends: with a whimper, after a bang.