In reaction to the horrific mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, this weekend, many people on both sides have been engaged in the same game of slogan-shouting and cliche-spewing that always follows these kinds of things. One side says guns are the problem. The other retorts that mental illness is the real culprit. Both agree that extremist ideologies are partially to blame, but they disagree on which extremist ideology is most to blame. Round and round we go. Nothing is accomplished. Nothing changes. And lost in the fog of talking points is the hard reality of these tragedies — the fact that actual, real people are dying.
It is indeed an epidemic. Mass shootings are still exceedingly rare, but the fact remains that 20 of the 27 deadliest mass shootings in American history have happened in the last 15 years. Since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, this country has seen 9 of the 13 deadliest shootings in its history. The worst one ever was two years ago. The second worst was the year before that. It’s true that the media tries to grossly (in multiple senses of the word) inflate mass shooting statistics by counting gang violence in the total, but the numbers are still extraordinary even without being manipulated to prove a political point. For some reason, shootings like El Paso and Dayton are way, way more common today than they were 20 years ago or anytime previous. That is not debatable. The only debatable question is why.
As for that question, we never get close to answering it because we are determined to focus the conversation around guns, mental illness, and extremism. Yes, guns obviously are part of the picture. But our existing laws, if enforced, would have prevented many of these slaughters already. We don’t need more laws. We need, rather, to utilize the ones that are already on the books. The Dayton shooter apparently was caught keeping a hit list of classmates he wanted to kill in high school. I think we can all agree that people with hit lists shouldn’t be able to obtain firearms. But that, again, is a matter for better enforcement, not additional laws. Besides, there have always been guns in this country. There have not always been this many mass shootings.
The same could be said for mental illness, racism, and ideological extremism. All of these things have existed in America — to a greater degree, in the case of racism — since our nation’s founding. If this were simply a problem of crazy people with guns, or racists with guns, or ideological extremists with guns, we should observe a relatively consistent rate of mass shootings. We do not observe that. What we observe is a smattering through the first 220 years of our country’s existence, a noticeable uptick in the late ’90s, and then an explosion of some of the deadliest mass shootings in history right around 12 years ago. Clearly the standard explanations do not account for this. What, then, does account for it?
At bottom, the answer is that we have become a country filled with numb, detached, and desensitized people. Mass shootings are the ultimate manifestation of that detachment. Our reaction to them — rhetorically slinging dead bodies at each other to score points in a political argument — is a slightly less severe but very much related manifestation. A survivor of the El Paso shooting reports that the shooter casually smirked before unloading on a crowd of innocent people. This echoes many other reports from many similar shootings. The killer is always smirking like he’s slightly amused, or else he’s blank-faced and emotionless. Rarely do you get a picture of someone running around enraged and screaming. We call these acts of “hate,” but they are much more acts of brutal, murderous indifference. These are empty, numb, detached people slaughtering their fellow humans because they are bored and frustrated with their meaningless lives.
But this only kicks the can another mile down the road. If it is detachment and desensitization causing these attacks, the next question is, what causes the detachment and desensitization? The culprits here are manifold, but the internet has to be one of the first places we look. Though it has of course existed for several decades, the internet has only been ubiquitous for the past two. The rise of social media is even more recent than that. As with any massive societal shift, we will not fully understand its effects until we are a good distance from it. But it’s already fairly clear that our cyber space obsession causes us to be increasingly detached from the physical world and each other. It’s a cliche to point out that our connectedness has made us disconnected, yet there’s truth to most cliches, and this one is no different.
A fascinating and disturbing article from Robert Evans details how the users on the message board where the El Paso shooter liked to spend his time not only cheer on these killing sprees but discuss them like the innocent people being butchered are just characters in a video game. Evans calls it the “gamification” of terror. You could just as well call it the “internetification” of terror. Mass shooters are simply translating their internet personas into the real world. People on internet forums, social media, YouTube, and other sites routinely wish death and worse on each other. “Kill yourself” and “I hope you get cancer” are almost standard greetings at this point. But what’s often lost in all of this mundane vitriol is that actual human beings are saying this stuff to other actual human beings. After a while you get so used to being treated this way, and maybe so used to treating others this way, that you no longer appreciate the dignity and beauty of human life. It is not hard to see how someone who spends hour upon hour and year upon year wallowing in the darkest and vilest corners of cyberspace, treating other humans like filth, wishing violence and death on anyone who crosses them, may eventually become the monsters they already appear to be online.
A man who thinks he can be a despicable, stupid sociopath in cyberspace yet remain a basically decent guy in the “real world” loses sight of the fact that the internet is the real world. It is technology used by people in the real world to communicate with other people in the real world. Who you are while using the internet is simply who you are. However you act on the internet is simply how you act. If you’re a dirtbag on Twitter, you’re simply a dirtbag. The idea that internet is a morality-free zone where grotesque behavior somehow “doesn’t count” not only encourages people to be despicable but numbs them to the impact their behavior has on others. And this is all to say nothing of the fact that the internet gives disturbed and violent people the chance to congregate anonymously and egg each other on.
The internet isn’t the only source of our cultural emptiness. 24-hour cable news gets us accustomed to watching human tragedies as entertainment. Broken homes foster emotional confusion and feelings of hopelessness in children. Psychiatric drugs, while necessary in some cases, can also create a chemical numbness and detachment, as evidenced by side effects like “suicidal thoughts” listed on the packaging. And underlying all of this is our dwindling sense of the transcendent — our rejection of a higher purpose to human life. All of these factors accumulate as the snowball rolls down the mountain. Eventually the snowball is an avalanche, and more innocent people are buried underneath it, and all we do is stand on the pile flinging little clumps of snow at each other.