It is hard to draft an appropriate response to tragedy. One that balances empathy for survivors and those near to the deceased on as close to a personal level as possible while keeping an eye for the bigger issues shouting over one another to be addressed. Which balances individual pain with superlatives, with the event’s place amongst similar events. What struck me first this time around was how readymade certain thoughts and chains of thoughts were within me, still warm from the last time. 1
An all-too-familiar feeling: major tragedy strikes and I can’t shake a feeling deep in my gut that I’d prefer the evil as having come from a certain kind of person, reinforcing my biases while offering (another) counterexample to the image of terror as something only committed by a foreigner, a Muslim etc. What a grim wish — “I hope this one is another white guy one.” One of the many maybe overly romantic scenarios which gird this feeling: the image of a Muslim parent having to prepare their child to go the harsh war of personalities that is school after an attack by a radical individual cruelly claiming they’ve acted in accordance with Islam. No one should have to tell their child that they might encounter a conflation of themselves and their family with some evil stranger sharing a style of name and skin tone. That I must read each update on the story fingers-crossed, hoping to not find out this man had been “radicalized,” or was on something akin to my side politically etc., is an indictment of the precarious situation for all but the in-power norm.
It is ridiculous that confirmation is needed that white men are dangerous either armed with guns or with power. It comes as a surprise again and again for some reason despite being the case most of the time. Oh, of course, the shooter was a “he” but they all are — the only real given as although the majority of these folks are white a wide range of different men find themselves perpetrating these acts, for a wide variety of reasons. Never women — the serial killer ranks are also mostly male. 2
Non-males seem to lack a capacity to kill en masse. Is the privilege of culturally encouraged authority and certainty foundational to these acts? A wish: this capacity for damage is hopefully not emergent alongside efforts to expand equality and agency. Let’s let us (men) have this one.
Once again the shooter had in his possession an armory’s worth of weapons and ammo. Some rough photos of guns out of the later stages of a first-person-shooter, all scopes and stocks and large capacity magazines. The total number of weapons in his possession is something like forty-eight. Four-dozen guns — as if to allow for whimsy to outfit him for that specific act. Sometimes I take a number of clothing options on a trip when in my heart I know I’ll wear my favorite jeans two out of three days; I pack four hours’ worth of records for a one-hour slot though I’ll likely stick to a few well-worn tracks. Did he lean on a favorite weapon? It seems unlikely as the initial reports suggest he’d acquired most of his guns very near to the act. Maybe he had been to the gun range with similar rifles, tried on a number of combinations of sight, gauge, action… Reading about the add-on that makes semi-automatic weapons act like automatic weapons — converting the recoil energy into another firing as long as the trigger is depressed — “fun” is often cited as a justification for this loophole/workaround. Likewise the explosives the man owned — it is fun and cool to shoot something that then blows up, so special explosives are marketed to the avid enthusiast.
I can’t quite shake the notion myself that guns and cars are cool though I have a license for neither. I’ve shot many guns in my life though maybe not as many as the average Texan. I shot a shotgun a few times — that brutal kick against the shoulder of a sub-100 lb. me felt appropriate to the product of the thing. I fired my dad’s semi-automatic pistol, on the edge of legality when he purchased it. Out in the woods with my brother and him, my dad set up a can or some such at a distance. He explained the mechanism — it was hard to pull the trigger on the gun un-cocked. But once set, the trigger was easy, and the recoil of the gun reset the hammer allowing for quick, easy firing of the whole clip if one wanted. He cocked the gun for my brother and me and allowed us to fling a flurry of bullets at the target; he went next. We each missed the can completely; it was nevertheless exhilarating.
My dad had only the one pistol but he loved it. His father had quite a few more. My granddad would drive down from Austin to visit us and inevitably my dad would ask to see what he brought. We’d go downstairs and he’d open the trunk to reveal an arsenal of rifles and pistols. Beyond this little show and tell I have no idea why he brought them with him — I know he had a piece concealed on his body so I have a hard time imagining him being in a shootout, running out of ammo and asking his opponent to pause while he got something out of his trunk real quick.
Some other gun memories: my dad worked for some lab in the time when he was just an occasional visitor — I have no idea what this meant exactly profession-wise; maybe I’ll ask him whenever I see him again. This gave him access to a strange array of materials and fabrication tools which resulted in only one palpable result for my brother and me — a pair of sci-fi guns made of chrome steel, brass, clear blocks of acrylic etc. I loved these things; I wonder where they went. Another: at the rodeo carnival (and still a fixture at the county fair etc.) there is a midway game that gave the young me a machine gun firing small BBs. The challenge was not only to hit the target (enough in the dart-balloon game, which I also loved) but to completely obliterate the star-shaped bullseye. If any of it — even the tip of a single one of its points — survives, you lose. The feeling of that gun in my hand was so exhilarating. Another: I had a bunch of GI Joes — not terribly invested in a long attention span requiring narrative/make-believe scenario, my focus was on getting exactly the right gun and backpack for my favorite figures. It was possible to buy blister packs just with accessories — gold was the Uzi (terribly easy to lose), the radio backpack, any kind of computer.
One more: Duck Hunt for Nintendo was a favorite, but better was Operation Wolf (and its sequel Operation Thunderbolt): arcade games incorporating a large mock-Uzi used to sweep through various scenes in which most everything encountered was to be killed (other than the occasional medics and stretcher). The gun/controller shook affirmingly as you fired, managing your stock of bullets and grenades. Seemingly informed by the inventory management key to most modern video games, mass-murderers overprepare, with thousands of bullets and dozens of guns as if having unlocked a cheat code.
It has been pointed out to me that by definition, at this early phase, the act is not a terrorist act as that term implies the perpetrator has an agenda: terrorism is “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” 3
So, as we as yet do not know this individual’s “political aims” it seems to fall short of the category. But is it so simple? Let’s give an example of how this may have played out — having accrued a terrible amount of gambling debt, he decided to act out as part of a planned suicide. 4 Were this the case, the agenda of the act might as well be a loud “fuck it/fuck everything.” The ultimate nihilist act — to treat the world like a video game and aim for the high score — the most people killed by a single individual/single incident. Despite the seeming meaninglessness of the act, there is a message in no-message. Fifty-plus deaths can never be a non-sequitur — rather such an act renders the world nonsequitous. Let’s describe terrorism as an attempt to violently “speak truth to power” through an undeniable, not ignorable act. In this act, assuming it remains “motiveless,” the power spoken to is justice and the expectation of sense and logical narrative underpinnings our lives, and the truth is pure non-sense.
We — scratch that, I’ll say I — harbor a sense that it all is for nothing. There is no after- or before-life, there is no balance due at the end nor is there a reward awaiting those who’ve acted for the betterment of society at the cost of their own comfort.
Actions that are random, dramatic, and undeniable emphasize for the world the precarity of our moral systems. So, should we never know his specific motive, we shouldn’t deny the specific existential implication of his act — the potential for actions which fall outside of the moral norm being performed costlessly, on a whim. If indeed there exists no suicide letter, no manifesto, no online correspondence in a dark corner of the internet, no message left with a loved one with the proviso “should anything happen to me…” then we are left with just the nihilistic, the inexplicable. A terrorism inducing a look into the void, the void which would swallow our motivations were we equipped to truly live in accordance with the truth of such an absence of reason. Instead, we soldier on, we forget or at least minimize the memory over time. Habit and instinct force our hands and we continue.
1 The Onion featured a similar deja-vu, choosing to republish with only minor edits an article headlined “’No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” 2 I came upon this natural-seeming generalization and then sought clarity on Wikipedia (as one does) which confirmed three things. One, serial killers are indeed men — one can specifically hunt for female examples but as often as not these fall just slightly outside of the definition of the term, and are at best anomalous. Two, American serial killers are white with only occasional exceptions. And three: I’ve always thought of the term as so very American I suppose due to a combination of laziness and the media, but the ranks of evil men include entries from all over, with Eastern Europe and Asian examples making up the bulk of the most egregious examples — it is a dark subject, with merely the nickname and basic m.o. for each enough to warrant nightmares. Time to close that tab. 3 From the first Google result from a search. 4 Important — despite his fancy suite, massive arsenal, and possible transfer of a sum to a foreign country, gambling in Vegas often involves less quantifiable debt such as loans given in a poker game which can be quite substantial. This occurs especially as the stakes get high: there are recent incidences of millions of dollars changing hands rapidly with nothing more than verbal IOUs, only to be disputed after the fact. So, though one’s bank account might still seem healthy, one may be quite sunk. More money, more problems.