Every nation has its recognizable rituals, its routines that make national character stand out more distinctly than anything else. Brazil has soccer or Rio’s carnivals. Saudi Arabia has the Hajj around Mecca. Spain has Valencia’s tomato-throwing day or the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Ireland has St. Patrick’s Day and India has Diwali, its five-day festival of light.
We have mass shootings.
As in any undisciplined and carefree nation, our national ritual doesn’t happen on set days, but it happens more often than any other nation’s famous rituals. It’s at once more surprising, like a flash mob, and more reliable: you can bet your lifesavings it’ll happen sooner than later, assuming you’re not in the line of fire.
By some measures it happens almost every day. By more conservative measures it happens about once a month: going by the obliteration of four or more people at a time, there’s been some 200 mass murders since 2006, not at all a bad count for monthly regularity, though as yet there’s no magazine or cable-TV station devoted to the custom.
Like all major multi-day rituals, this one has its predictable set pieces, its prescribed liturgy. All participants usually know how to play their part, and they play it very well. We’ve all had a lot of practice. Victims of course get killed, maimed, disfigured, or debilitated for life. Mountains of flowers grow and bloom as if irrigated by the grounds where blood flowed, like the red poppies of Flanders. Candles burn the length of a wick that usually measures the distance to the next massacre. The president makes a speech, filling in the blanks of the same speech recycled for dates, place names and maybe number of dead.
There’s the obligatory debate on whether it’s traditional murder, hate crime or terrorism, a modern-day replica of the middle age’s scholastic disputations over the length of a saint’s beard or a heretic’s propensity to burn more crisply than a Catholic. If it’s terrorism, for example, it justifies a new crusade, which has very little to distinguish it from the old crusades except that it also applies at home, where Muslims would be somehow banned and an inquisition dusted off.
It’s also the perfect foil for the country’s gun-raving maniacs locked and loaded on NRA dogma: The latest mass murder that would have been impossible without easier access to guns than to Xanax is chalked up to a war for civilization, a weak president, political correctness, big government, liberals, the media–anything but guns. There’s an inescapable parallel with the Black Plague, which was blamed on Jews, foreigners, gypsies, bad air, bad wine, god’s wrath–on anything but flea-ridden rodents.
Guns are our plague’s rodents, sanctified even when they’re the only instrument of mass-murder. The bigger the guns the bigger the halo. The same assault weapons made for soldiers and mercenaries are worshipped like relics from the cross. The only problem at the scene of the murders, to hear the NRA’s dirty Harrys rationalize it, is the absence of more people with more guns. “From 2001 to 2010, 119,246 Americans were murdered with guns, 18 times all American combat deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” writes Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. That’s about 40 nine-elevens. McChrystal calls that “a national crisis.” The NRA sees it as a fundraising opportunity. It sees it as a reason to besiege legislatures until they pass more permissive gun-toting vigilantism concealed as laws. Lawmakers who go through the motions of proposing more gun control are vilified as apostates, queers or traitors. No regulations change. Nor does the broken record. But gun sales, like those mounds of flowers, soar.
Then there’s the dissection of the shooter. Whatever his background–right-wing zealot, Muslim zealot, black-hater, Jew-hater, gay-hater, self-hater, postman–the shooter is demonized. The shooter, that most common of American creatures motivated by one of so many choices in the gallery of American grudges, is termed a mental case, an aberration, a character on the fringe of fringes who in no way represents anything recognizable. Then he’s added to the massive database of recognizable mass killers.
If the attacker happens to be Muslim, there’s also the pathetic reaction of American Muslim leaders who immediately condemn the act and declare themselves more patriotic than Betsy Ross’s dog, as Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic or Baptist leaders would never have to do if the mass murderer were, as he more often is, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic or Baptist.
As for the rest of us, we scream, we cry, we mourn, we fear for our children’s safety, we tinker with our Facebook profile or write recycled columns as pathetic as those Muslim leaders’ pronouncements. And so it goes until the next mass killing, the next display of national character, as predictable as Thanksgiving, Christmas and July 4th. It doesn’t make you proud to be an American, necessarily. It shouldn’t. But it unmistakably makes you feel like one. In that, we’re unbeatable.