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My Turn: There is no last straw in America

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Published: 6/8/2022 8:11:58 PM
Modified: 6/8/2022 8:09:49 PM

The Uvalde school massacre has, if I am not mistaken, aroused more news media and political ire than any other mass shooting. Mass shootings are so predictable and formal in their enactment — a four-stage process involving the shooting, the news media dissection, a frantic sense of public urgency, and the swift evaporation as each event is shuttled into the vaguely remembered past — that a society of robots could not carry out a more perfectly scripted episode than the hundreds that have whisked their way into the U.S. news cycle.

The one certainty is that the degree of public distress, the polemic outpouring, and the eloquence of the sorrow are designs of ritual and have no bearing on legislation, action or change. That is not to impugn those who express well justified outrage. People like Golden State Warrior’s coach, Steve Kerr, both articulate and shaken, are sincerely motivated to hurl themselves against an evil system, but it is as if honest, spontaneous pain is written into the ritual— like an improvised sax solo in an otherwise composed jazz standard.

The other rather unscripted part of the mass shooting ritual is a brief pause, after the deed, in which we collectively imagine that we have experienced the proverbial last straw. This is a very powerful illusion, but clearly a mirage. There is no last straw in America, and COVID-19 proved it.

Mother Jones did a piece on mass shootings in the U.S. a year ago and noted that almost 1,000 people died from these mass shootings over the course of a 37-year timeline.

School shootings since Columbine account for 169 deaths of children according to an article in U.S. News and World Report. Over 1,000 children have died from COVID-19 in a mere two years, and the overarching public understanding is that COVID-19 is virtually harmless to young people. We are told in the news media every day that the distress of wearing masks in school is far more damaging to the well-being of children than COVID-19, which has merely killed six times as many kids as all the school shootings in the past decade.

However, the 1,000-plus children who have died from COVID-19 may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the million plus COVID-19 deaths of adults — many of them elderly. That is the nature of statistics. Numbers fade into distracting contexts.

At times, I have been seduced by the argument that needless deaths in America are circumscribed by cultural prejudice — COVID-19 deaths don’t matter because old people are about to die anyway, particularly in nursing homes where people are warehoused and waiting for the grim reaper like passengers gathered on a subway platform. Nor do the dark skinned shooting victims of Buffalo and Uvalde matter because the American death cult orbits a core (we assume) of pure racism, but, what about the mostly white victims of Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland?

COVID-19 has a lot to say about the confusing role of bigotry in our national patterns of bloodshed. At first, COVID-19 went for the urban poor, often Black victims, and established its epicenter in New York City, but later, this epicenter shifted to rural white outposts like the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana where Republican anti-vax ideology fed their own to the death machine. The Lancet published a recent study concluding that some 450,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths were preventable. Preventable, unnecessary death is the common denominator linking COVID-19 and mass shootings. In both variations the same transaction is clear — blood is traded for political theater. If one stares hard enough at America, one confronts a startling thought: no lives matter.

How long will it take, at the current rate of destruction, for mass school shootings to achieve the death toll of COVID-19? With a calculator and a few seconds anyone can learn that it will take over 59,000 years to reach a school shooting body count to equal the toll of COVID-19. Of course, no one in their right mind expects humanity to still exist in 59,000 years, but this is only a thought experiment. It will take that long to reach a COVID-19 level body count of school age shooting casualties and then, at that imagined point in time, the last straw will be nowhere in sight, because COVID-19 has proven that the last straw is nonexistent in America — not because there exists some astronomical number, some quantitative definition of apocalyptic misery that has yet to be attained, but because blood transactions have no limit in America’s death cult.

One can only speculate about all of the diverse factors that have created the American death cult. Perhaps it is the cynical, violent streak that has designated guns as the avatar of the human soul, or perhaps it is the contrarian, anti-government streak that creates a vision of Satan to be superimposed upon the institution of public health. However, the majority of Americans are not eager members of a death cult. The perfect storm of blood and indifference hangs by a proverbial thread upon the quirks of our political structures – the Senate, gerrymandering and the Electoral College all line up to give a minority the keys to the bus. Eighty million Californians are represented by the same two Senate seats allotted to half a million Wyoming citizens, and this enables a few gullible, manipulated rural voters to dictate existential themes. A constitutional amendment intended to allow a musket in the barn of an eighteenth century farmer/soldier now redeems random citizens wishing to stockpile high-tech weapons of mass destruction.

Death cult rule means that an unhinged minority possesses eternal veto power over the last straw. In other words, we are in free fall to the bottom, and no one knows what will be there when we arrive.

Phil Wilson is a retired mental health worker living in Northampton. He worked for many years for Franklin County mental health agencies.


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