“We still do not have a clear motive or reason why,” Kevin McMahill of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department told press Friday. Five days had passed since the minutes of rounds fired by Stephen Paddock claimed 58 lives, and investigation was yet to yield a useful clue. “We have looked at literally everything,” said the NVPD in a joint appeal with the FBI, whose billboards seeking leads on cause for, or accomplices to, this planned atrocity are now posted across the city. Aaron Rouse, Las Vegas chief for the bureau, swore, “we will not stop, until we have the truth”.
An inversion of this vow informs current US speech around the massacre. It is reformulated by politicians, pundits and social media users to read: until you have my truth, I will not stop.
We heard House Speaker Paul Ryan utter the “truth” about an exceptional nation when he said that these latest gun deaths did not define America, but “the acts of heroism we witness after the tragedy” truly did. He went on to imply that the real cause for such acts was mental ill health, a problem he had this year sought to address by advising President Donald Trump to stand his ground in tearing down Obamacare. There’s some Republican yoga for ya. You can bend to acknowledge a neglected national health concern, but very briefly and only when you’re reaching high for any excuse not to talk about guns.
Hillary Clinton, whose gun control policy is one that marks her distance from Republicans, said that this was the moment to “put politics aside”. She then put politics back in front, and declared that the Republican Party was unable to shake the influence of the National Rifle Association.
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This US mass shooting, like other US mass shootings, has become what others have described with terrible precision as a Rorschach test. You see, or you advance, the “truth” that you prefer in the blood left on the ground. In this appalling blot, we can see the problem of masculine violence. We can see Ryan’s sentimental “heroism”, or the old view of the NRA that “people kill people”, not guns, ergo the great efficiency guns provide to people who kill people is not really much of an issue.
Of course, it is an issue. In the US, you’d be a twit, and/or a member of the NRA, to believe that a reduced number of powerful weapons would not result in a reduction of deaths. In Australia, you’d be only David Leyonhjelm, perhaps his new bestie Mark Latham, or “unAustralian”.
There are those Australians who remain grateful to John Howard for the gun reforms of 1996. Some “thank God” in a simple way for his goodness. Others may have a more political, but no less heartfelt, gratitude that a right-wing leader did this. (I mean, “thank God” the Liberals are tied by history to this unusual moment of Howard-era decency. If Keating had introduced the laws, they’d probably have been repealed.) Perhaps many Australians also feel aggrandised by a policy that is now routinely mentioned by US advocates for gun control.
There are few occasions where we feel we get to tell the US a thing or two, but this is one of them. This may explain why Australians hold forth so often on US gun laws, and will even go further, as the The Sydney Morning Herald did, and recommend to an imaginary US audience not only what they should urge their policymakers to do about assault weapons, but how they should describe and understand the mass shootings that occur in their nation.
It’s just not useful, writes Julie Szego, to call Stephen Paddock a terrorist.
Sure. It probably isn’t. Then again, it probably isn’t useful to label a lot of other things, including laws, “terrorist” either. This is possibly the view of Dr Muhamad Haneef. It probably isn’t the view of the many people currently employed in the emerged field of counter-terrorism. It is my view that a securitisation policy emphasis is a dangerous mania, and that the attempt to categorise all threats in a “nuanced” way — this is terror, this isn’t terror, this has shades of terror — can be, and is, used to delude voters and reignite their racist fears.
What it may also do is bolster the tendency, previously described, to describe one’s “truth”, and its accompanying solution, while remaining oblivious to the bigger picture.
Not for a microsecond would I oppose attempts to tighten US gun ownership laws. First, no US politician, nor any Australian grandee who knows a US politician, heeds my views. Second, premature death is undesirable. Less obviously appalling, but also undesirable, is the local tendency to echo the US tendency and describe just the convenient truth of a story, and not its other parts.
So, we are agreed that fewer guns will likely result in fewer deaths. We say that it happened in Australia, and so that it can happen over there. But what we do not say, or what we choose, as Clinton chooses, to ignore when we set ourselves up as a marvellous example is that powerful weapons in the USA are not just in the hands of citizens. Estimates for fatalities by police fire this year in the US are up around the 1000 mark. This is a nation that upcycles those machines used to slaughter the “terrorists” of other countries to control its own citizens. This is an arms race that a militarised police force is always going to win.
This is not to be some snotty student-type who “calls out” hypocrisy crudely on her megaphone, but to propose, in a sober way, that life in a nation full of weapons is different to life in one where they are scant. It is also to say that our journalists and our policymakers are so “nuanced” and so very eager to tell their truth, that a whole lot of other truths simply become invisible.
The Pulse nightclub shooting was, of course, horrific. Let’s leave aside that proposed restrictions would not have prevented murderer Omar Mateen, a security guard, from accessing guns, and just cop a look at that war machine Orlando police used to defeat him. It’s in the background, just like the victims of state-endorsed murder. Still, the argument about Pulse was one of nuance — was this a “hate crime” or was it “terrorism”?
Perhaps it was a little of both. I, of course, have no expertise. I do, however, have a suspicion that the need to give every atrocity its proper, nuanced context overlooks the biggest: the USA is full of weapons. And, yes, people kill people. But so, perhaps, does the general refusal to see a big picture, or grand narrative or whatever you want to call it. There’s a background that is not beyond politics but is surely politics itself — one Black Lives Matter has been courageous enough to begin to describe. This, we so often refuse to address in our analysis of great pain.