It seems necessary to stop. Necessary to not just go on with whatever it is we are doing.
How can mass murder become a routine occurrence in America? How can a horror like the Newtown, Connecticut massacre, for all its shock—the execution of children!—carry with it the strange sensation of utter familiarity? At what point do we stop seeing such events as extraordinary? Did we already? And when murder settles into our conscience as merely ordinary, when the news cycle moves on, when we “move on,” what have we become? How diminished is our own humanity?
And more: The final tally for the year of the murdered of Baltimore similarly approaches our conscience. It settles there as the merely ordinary. This year’s enumerated dead will add to the list of accumulated thousands dead from previous years. Mass murder.
Is this simply the price of admission in America?
“Nor is it a far-fetched political association that the murderous violence that has characterized recent political life has been linked by poets and news commentators alike to the “frontier psychology” of our recent past and our long heritage,” writes emeritus professor of English at Wesleyan University Richard Slotkin in Regeneration Through Violence, the first volume in his influential trilogy dissecting the violent heart beating within America itself. “The first colonists saw in America the chance to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means to that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor for the American experience.”
Surely we need someone like Slotkin to at least explain the sheer number of guns, the arsenal of the American citizenry. Surely those guns need to be regulated, but beyond the background checks and assault weapons bans, how do we regulate the desire for guns represented in these vast American numbers?
Perhaps this all just intellectualizes something more concrete. Maybe the best way to understand all of this routine violence—the execution of children!—is simply to use the lens of crime and bad-guys-with-guns (distinguishable from the good-guys-with-guns?); the individual psychopath, the usual suspects, the gangbanger, the lone wolf, the evildoer. Such a lens allows us to believe we can contain the violence, police it, kill it, lock it up.
But our emotional response to mass murder—to the routinization of mass murder—requires something else of us.
Another time in American history when mass murder was routine can provide us an emotional starting point. Historian and president of Harvard University Drew Gilpin Faust, writes about the “work of death” in her Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War:
Americans undertook a kind of work that history has not adequately understood or recognized. Human beings are rarely simply passive victims of death. They are actors even if they are the diers; they prepare for death, imagine it, risk it, endure it, seek to understand it. And if they are survivors, they must assume new identities established by their persistence in face of others’ annihilation. The presence and fear of death touched Civil War Americans’ most fundamental sense of who they were, for in its threat of termination and transformation, death inevitably inspired self-scrutiny and self-definition. Beginning with individuals’ confrontation with dying and killing, the book explores how those experiences transformed society, culture, and politics in what became a broader republic of shared suffering. Some of the changes death brought were social, as wives turned into widows, children into orphans; some were political, as African American soldiers hoped to win citizenship and equality through their willingness both to die and to kill; some were philosophical and spiritual, as the carnage compelled Americans to seek meaning and explanation for war’s destruction.
The murdered children of Newtown, the murdered of Baltimore—the dead—call us to this necessary work of transformation, to this “broader republic of shared suffering,” lest we lose a bit of ourselves, lest we die a little bit too.