As I was channel surfing the other night, I came across a 20/20 piece on Stephen Paddock—the now-infamous Las Vegas gambler who rented a room in the Mandalay Bay Hotel and, with the couple of dozen high-powered weapons he had brought there covertly, opened fire on a crowd of country music fans packing the Route 91 Harvest Festival nearby. He ended up killing 58 people and wounding more than 500 and probably would’ve massacred more had the police not interrupted him; when they did, he shot himself dead.
Unfortunately, this is not an unusual occurrence in the land of the free. Just this Sunday, another shooter entered a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and killed 26 Sunday parishioners, including an 18-month old child. And previously we’ve had Omar Mateen who gunned down 49 people in a Florida night club, Dylann Roof who killed 9 Black parishioners in a Baptist church in Charleston, SC, Adam Lanza who slaughtered 27 children in an elementary school in Newtown CT, and James Holmes who dispatched 12 in a movie theater in Aurora, CO (there are more, but who has time to list them all?). All were armed with legally-procured weapons, most of them automatic or semi-automatic assault rifles made for use in combat. And in each case, the United States Congress did exactly nothing to bring some rationality to the gun laws in the United States of America, where there are now more guns than people (over 300 million are possessed by the gun fanatics among us). With the possible exception of Dylann Roof, who was an avowed white supremacist, none of the other shootings made much sense. The climate of motiveless death-dealing in which Americans must now operate is simply taken for granted: it’s the price we pay for having a gun lobby that is more powerful than all the members of Congress combined, and insists—sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 2008—that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to carry firearms to every individual American (not, as the Amendment clearly states, the right of a “well-regulated militia” to be armed).
But let’s return to the situations we’ve witnessed recently. A man armed to the teeth—and it is usually, but not always, a white male—takes a position of command somewhere, and unloads his deadly, rapid-fire weapon on people he does not know from Adam. In the case of Stephen Paddock, he took his position on high, in a room on the 26th floor of his hotel, with a commanding view of the crowd enjoying the concert below him. Once he broke out the window, he had a God’s eye view, in short, and took advantage of it; while the crowd, unaware of what was happening, had no idea what the rapid popping noises were at first, until people began to fall bleeding, with the panicked crowd still having no idea where the shots were coming from, much less why. Paddock was in complete command for several minutes, and with his “bump stock” attachment to his assault rifles, he fired as if sitting in a machine gun nest into the helpless crowd below. Unarmed people fired upon in this way are sitting ducks, as the saying goes; without protection, without the ability to respond, without a prayer of surviving if a bullet finds them. It is like an act of God. And that, I believe, is key.
Someone, usually a loser in life’s lottery, bears some sort of grudge. Sometimes the grudge is dimly related to the target he’s chosen: Devin Kelley, in the Air Force until he was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged for abusing his wife and child, apparently had differences with his mother-in-law, a member of the southern Baptist church he targeted. It has also just been announced that one of his church victims was his grandmother-in-law, Lula White, also a member of the church. So the shooter had grudges, and decided to take them out on everyone even tangentially connected to his wife’s family by being present at the same church. He dressed himself in military black, including a black mask, and started firing at the outside of the church even before he entered and subsequently shot nearly everyone inside. Then, engaged by a neighbor who shot back at him, he raced away in his car, crashed by the side of the road, and apparently shot himself to death.
What motivates these guys? Our amazingly perceptive *president says the shooting had nothing to do with guns, but was the fault of mental illness. The guy was crazy; end of story. But even mentally ill people have method to their madness. And the method, I suggest, has to do with equalism. I have coined this word to distinguish it from equality—though those who decide to kill probably believe they are using their guns as “great equalizers.” That is, those who think that killing people allows them to “get even” with whoever they see as the source of their losing the great American lottery, think the gun affords them the opportunity to even the odds. With a gun in hand, they are now equal. Even superior. Commanding the heights, as Stephen Paddock did, they are like God on high, deciding who lives and, more importantly, who dies. Their putative enemies are now in their hands, not God’s. This gives them the power they’ve been denied all their lives—by the law, by the authorities, by their families, by society, by regulations, by their bosses, by whoever is convenient to blame. The gun makes them equal in the most fundamental sense that they can understand: whoever holds the gun has the power and whoever has the power can dictate the terms of equality to suit themselves. Equalism.
And of course, this doesn’t just come from nowhere; power and violence comprise the standard equalizing solutions to all problems in the American mythos (though, in fact, our modern mania for guns comes from a carefully-plotted campaign by gun manufacturers to enhance the emotional appeal of guns when they no longer made sense in 20th century urban America). The cowboy hero is always the one who has the fastest draw, and is therefore the best and quickest shot. He rids the mythic western town of the outlaw(s) who have been terrorizing innocent townspeople. And he always does it with a gun: the great equalizer. The same is true of war. The victor, America, is always the side that has the most powerful weapons and the bravest heroes able to use those weapons the most skillfully. Freedom depends on this. The entire nation depends on this. And when World War II was concluded, it was the United States which had been able to marshal the most planes and tanks and ships, and in the end, the biggest bomb of all to detonate Japan into submission. And then to make even bigger more powerful bombs, and missiles to deliver them, to threaten any nation that might challenge American hegemony. And the same ethic—using power to subdue even nature—pervades most of American life. If the coal in a mountain lies too deep to extract it by the usual means, simply blow the top off the mountain. If pests threaten to take too large a portion of the crops planted monoculturally, then bomb them with pesticide sprayed from planes. If cancer threatens larger and larger portions of the population, nevermind the causes, bomb it, radiate it, declare war on cancer. Declare war on drugs. Declare war on crime. Declare war on illegal immigrants. And make war on whatever country refuses to yield its resources. And if the resistors in a country like Vietnam take refuge in forests, why then simply drop pesticide bombs of Agent Orange to de-forest the entire country, robbing them of cover. If our enemies take refuge among the population in their homes, as ISIS does, why then drop bombs on the homes to “rubble-ize” whole cities, with the civilian dead as “collateral damage,” the unfortunate price of war. The important thing is to bomb, bomb, destroy without letup or mercy or consideration for anything but victory. Which is to say, killing more of “them” and destroying more of whatever shelters them than they can withstand.
Why should we be surprised, then, when our dominant and dominating ethic comes home to haunt us, again and again and again? It’s in our DNA. A nation of equals. Who of course are not equal, are not allowed to be equal, ever, but no one pays attention to that. Because real equality would mean that the rich would be proportionally taxed and the poor would be allowed to earn a decent wage and even exercise some actual control over their lives. But that would constitute mob rule—at least as the founding fathers saw it. And so they built in controls, like the Senate where small states (i.e. slave states) would have the unequal power to halt any legislation that might threaten their “way of life.” And they built the electoral college so that direct democracy would never prevail, so that the electors, if it ever came to the majority actually prevailing and threatening the powerful, could intercede and make sure that a few votes in a few selected states could keep things under control (as they did in the last election, putting a certifiably malignant narcissist in the White House). No. It’s not real equality that the gun confers. It’s equalism: the illusion of equality. That’s what guns-for-all confers. ‘If I have a gun in my hand or my closet, I can elevate myself to equality with any big shot, no matter what. If I can tweet out my opinion, like any other American, well then I have equality with the media, with any pundit, with any government egghead, no matter what.’
What the poor bastards who think this way never understand is that this is precisely what the power brokers want them to think. They want you to think that the vote makes you equal. They want you to think that tweeting out your opinion and voting for a moron like Trump makes you equal. They want you to think that having your gun, all your guns, including your bumpstock-enabled assault rifle, makes you equal. Because if the people are allowed to have their presumed “equalizers,” they are more easily pacified. They are easier to control. They are less likely to go looking for, or paying attention to, or believing in the real screwing they are getting from those in power. It’s the American version of “let them eat cake.” Let them have their guns. Their vote. Their twitter accounts. The better to screw them while they sleep.
And if the price of all this is a nation of self-destructive morons and a *president who represents them, then so be it. It’s a small price to pay for power. A few mass shootings here and there—a small price to pay. We can counsel empathy; we can counsel prayer. We can counsel mental counseling. We can condemn the tendency of humanity to take out their mental frustrations with violence. And then continue on our merry way, getting our big contributions from the National Rifle Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, and the oligarchs in the banks and on Wall Street and J Street, and remain as we have always remained: firmly in control, and with utter contempt for the rubes who actually believe that equalism is the same as equality.
So let us now take part in the customary national ritual: bow our heads and lament, once again, a mindless, motiveless shooting, and wonder sanctimoniously what a well-meaning nation, a nation devoted to freedom and equalism, could possibly do to stop those bad minds from abusing their American birthright—the noble everyman with a gun. And see if you can keep from puking.