There used to be a familiar refrain in the aftermath of a mass shooting: don’t name the killer. Don’t give him the fame he wanted. I never took to this – it always seemed like magical thinking to me, a connection to the old days when a name was a power object – but I understood the rationale well enough.
Today we don’t really know the names of mass shooters, and I don’t think it’s because this campaign for an attitudinal shift worked. I think it’s because no one can keep up with them. Of all the statistics about shootings in this country, this is maybe the one that shakes me the most: these events are so common we don’t even have the time or the energy to care about who did it.
I come from the world of true crime and serial killer fascination; reading about and learning about the worst offenders in history are hobbies of mine. I do not turn away from these people – if anything I’m fascinated by these deadly outliers. But the mass shooter is no longer an outlier; he’s an increasingly banal figure stepping out of the shadows, unsurprisingly legal weapon in his hand. He’s angry, disaffected, almost always white. 99% of the time a he. We are fascinated by novelty – there was a time when mass shootings were so novel that they warranted songs about them, not in protest but in kind of stunned amazement (“I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats, about one of the few mass shootings carried out by a woman) – and the reality is that mass shooters are no longer novel.
At the same time mass shootings are not quite banal. We are in a place where the same horrifying thing happens with almost clockwork regularity; we endure scheduled public traumas. The horror is real but everything else is kind of a blur. It’s the equivalent of being jumped by six guys – each fist and foot is a new and terrible pain, but the people beyond the limbs are out of cognitive range. The fists and the feet are almost independent agents of hurt.
There’s another song I think about, Phil Ochs’ “Universal Soldier.” It paints a picture of one soldier throughout history, fighting and dying in all wars:
He’s five foot-two and he’s six feet-four
He fights with missiles and with spears
He’s all of thirty-one and he’s only seventeen
He’s been a soldier for a thousand years
He’s a Catholic a Hindu an Atheist a Jain
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
And he knows he shouldn’t kill
And he knows he always will
Kill you for me my friend and me for you
And he’s fighting for Canada
He’s fighting for France
He’s fighting for the USA
And he’s fighting for the Russians
And he’s fighting for Japan
And he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way
And he’s fighting for Democracy
He’s fighting for the Reds
He says it’s for the peace of all
He’s the one who must decide
Who’s to live and who’s to die
And he never sees the writing on the wall
We now have a Universal Mass Shooter. The details may be different, but they’re just masks worn by the same horror. And if we can’t keep up with the shooters, how can we possibly keep up with the victims?