Prayers and Criticisms Are Not Enough: Talking to our Neighbours about Las Vegas

Starting a blog has been on my mind for a very long time, but I have refrained for numerous reasons. The mental list of pros and cons is so multitudinous that I think it is best left for another (hopefully future) blog post. One major consideration that in itself presents immediate negatives and positives is that, as a PhD candidate in Philosophy whose research brings together the political, the theological and the ecological, blogging would make my slant on these domains public. A part of me feels that that publicly expressing my views in accessible language is a moral obligation given my education and area of work, and yet another part of immediately sees that as career suicide (sorry for the trigger).

But after Sunday night's mass shooting in Las Vegas, in which at least 59 people lost their lives and at least 527 were left wounded, I don't want to be silent anymore. The facebook and twitter worlds -- which I both reluctantly and freely remain a part of -- have seemingly moved on already in a way that has left me confused and lonely. Cat pictures, ads and complaints of the daily grind aside, I do understand that for many it is heartbreaking that Tom Petty passed away last night. But the tributes have made me feel awkward in the wake of my grief surrounding Vegas. The word grief sounds selfish applied to myself here. These 59 people have families and communities that are truly grieving. Maybe despair is the proper word. In any case, I'm not ready to move on.

Tom Petty lived to be 66 years old and was one person.

How do we conceptualize the senseless death of 59 people? The question of the depersonalization of death tolls is one we have had to rephrase and ask ourselves throughout the 20th and 21st century, particularly in reference to Auschwitz and the Gulags. The most effective and affective way to present information about mass deaths still seems to zero in on a single life -- show the person's hopes, dreams, fears and struggles -- in such a way that we sympathize with this person, understand her or him as real, and feel the sadness of the life lost.

We can ask ourselves whether such presentations play into the rampant individualism of our time; can I still conceptualize and feel for the loss of 59 people without asking the "what if that was me?" question? Films like this year's Dunkirk make me optimistic that stories of collective death, collective struggle and collective hope in relation to political turmoil and ideology can still be told. But how big can the scale go before the individual lives are distilled in a headline or number -- "59 dead" -- which no longer resonates with us. Although I do not have time to deal with it here, the challenge of geography and anthropology also comes into play: how physically close and similar must the people who struggled or lost their lives be to me and my community in order for their deaths to matter to me?

Geography also presents an important factor for our ability to open ourselves to the history, the mentality and lines of argumentation of other cultures. This factor is blatantly present when Canadians (like me) try to talk about gun laws, gun control and gun violence in the United States. We 'the North' are, in a certain sense, out of touch with the debates on gun control in the USA. It seems almost inevitable that Canadians adopt a 'holier-than-thou' status when preaching about gun restrictions to our neighbours. We easily paint Americans who support the Republican Party and the NRA as composing the incomprehensible other, assuming there is no reasoning with them. And this is clear when reading the comments (why did I read the comments?) on Canadian op-ed pieces on Las Vegas. The message is that Canadians should look in their own backyard in terms of shootings in relation to our population (I looked, and the situation is still incomparable), and that Canadians also do not understand the Second Amendment.

But this critique (which seems to contain both a grain of bullying and a grain of truth) should not stir us into silence. Instead, we should rethink our motives when talking, especially to Americans, about gun law reform. 59 people died Sunday night in arguably the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. In consideration of their lives, I do not think this is the time for a simple, relativist, arrogant expression of opinion on the one hand, or to be quiet on the other. Rather, this is the moment of outrage in which we should ask: how can we really make things different? How can we talk to our neighbours about this?

If we are able to somehow process that 59 innocent people are now inexplicably dead, and if we admit, in light of this, that America does have a serious gun violence problem that other developed countries do not, perhaps it will motivate us to politically present gun control as an issue of public health and public safety. All while acknowledging that state-level assessments of mental health fail time and time again. It is time to admit that the state is simply unable to determine who, in "a bout of insanity," will open fire a gun on innocent people. Mental health assessments for gun possession cannot be a standalone solution.

So who should be the target of our critical energies, fuelled by our vehement refusal to support the status quo of gun laws in America? To a certain extent, the logical response is correct: those who oppose tighter gun control. Lisa Miller did a remarkable job with her "experiment in empathy," giving us a window into how those who live on the opposite sides of the gun debate might be able to talk to each other. But, as many others have shown, the real fight is against gun rights lobbyists with $$$. So to our friends in the south who are "praying for Las Vegas," if you want to begin making a difference, first check if your Congress person has received money from the NRA. Then support the idea to fund studies of gun violence in your country. And for God's sakes oppose the gun-silencer bill.
And start writing. And maybe yelling and screaming.