America must be getting back to normal, because mass shootings are back in the news. Seemingly curbed by COVID-19 lockdowns and distancing, Americans had been spared the bloody murderous ritual for long enough that they seemed like an afterthought. Perhaps the pandemic was deadly enough.
But shootings in Atlanta last week and Boulder, Colo. this week reminded us just how routine mass shootings are in the United States—so routine, in fact, that the reaction is scriptable at this point. News breaks with frightening visuals and reports from the scene of the crime; as word spreads, politicians and public figures begin offering up thoughts and prayers, some demanding sensible gun legislation that surely could’ve prevented this latest tragedy from happening. More details emerge, now about body counts and casualties, the shooter’s identity, and what exactly could’ve led him (it’s almost always a him) to this point. And once that information about the assailant is revealed, the hot takes come out of the oven.
In Atlanta, the shooter was a white man targeting Asian women. That led seamlessly into creating white supremacist narrative, and was aided by a grotesquely sympathetic portrayal from authorities, including a police chief who said the killer was “having a bad day” and blaming the crime on the his sex addiction. In Boulder, the shooter was the son of Syrian immigrants with a Muslim name, which led just as easily to the right characterizing him as an Islamic extremist with ISIS ties. One narrative may be more concrete than the other, at least in part because of recency—the Boulder shooter apparently decried Islamophobia and Americans hostility toward immigrants on social media, but also publicly mourned the Paris Bataclan attack.
But regardless of information, both instances slipped perfectly into whoever’s political narrative fit. The anticipation of finding out the shooter’s race and potential motivations have become just as much part of the mass shooting routine as the banal “thoughts and prayers” from public figures. And as shootings happen more frequently the narratives tend to flow right into one another—the same people who (rightly) characterized the Atlanta shooting as a white supremacist terror attack seemed almost eager to foist the same narrative onto the shooting in Boulder. Conversely, those on the opposite end were equally enthusiastic to point out that the Boulder shooter had a Muslim name, thus disproving the “myth of white terror epidemic” (or whatever Laura Ingraham is calling it).
you see, this latest mass shooting owns the libs because a non-white guy did it pic.twitter.com/A8tqLUDTk6
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 24, 2021
The context of a mass shooter’s identity and potential motivations matter in understanding the role things like racism and misogyny play in a crime like the Atlanta shooting. The context also matters when law enforcement is so consistently deferent to one racial group in particular. But the commodification of mass shooting political as part of the spectacle surrounding it is sickening. It’s not simply the routine of it, but the mundanity. Going forward, every instance of gun violence will be used as some kind of political cudgel, stripped of its humanity and tragic elements to serve the endless content churn, all the while ignoring the deep societal rot that makes mass murder events a gnawing inevitably of life in America.
Perhaps our fervor for morphing mass shootings into political fodder is a reflection to our powerlessness to stop them. Every time one occurs the same platitudes are uttered, the same demands are made, and nothing happens. There’s fleeting hope this time around that some kind of assault weapons ban or universal background check legislation will actually cut through, but if it doesn’t, we already know why. We’ve long since accepted this reality, or at least our political leaders and their benefactors have—the one in which going grocery shopping or seeing a movie or simply showing up for work at the wrong time on the wrong day can prove fatal. If change can’t happen or simply won’t, what left is there to do but weaponize the events themselves to score points on an imaginary scoreboard? Maybe the deep societal rot that’s routinized mass shootings has pervaded our ability to consume information. Maybe it goes just a little deeper than we imagine.