During my junior year of high school (1988-89), I remember going to Castleton Mall, the largest enclosed shopping center in Indianapolis, with a friend who had spent most of his life in Israel and had recently emigrated to the United States. He looked around the vast open spaces in the mall and noted the almost complete lack of security. “You don’t have to go through metal detectors when you enter the mall?” he asked. What a crazy idea — one of us said in response — this isn’t the Middle East. My memory is that he looked at us with pity at our naivete and said something along the lines of: “the only thing keeping Americans safe from mass murder is the lack of people willing to die in the act of killing many others.”
I have thought about his observation many times since. Oklahoma City. 9/11. Sandy Hook. The Pulse nightclub. I think it is pretty clear that we no longer have a lack of people willing to die in the act of killing many others.
The responses from the right and the left will be predictable today. They will be predictable and they will get us absolutely nowhere. Instead, I think there is one big question that we as a society need to ask today: why are there so many people in America willing to die and to kill so many others?
The answer, I fear, is the dominant politics of “they.” The politics of “they” polarize and divide us. The politics of “they” devalue empathy and promote tribalism. The politics of “they” say that we are blameless and the “other” is the cause of the problem du jour. The politics of “they” gives us permission to diminish those who disagree with us, to dismiss their concerns and arguments, and to regroup within our bubbles, free from challenging ideas or viewpoints. The politics of “they” makes it easier to justify pulling the trigger, or aiming the truck at a group of people, because the politics of “they” says that “they” aren’t our equals. They aren’t “real” Americans. They aren’t, on some level, fully human.
We are deluding ourselves if we think that “radical Islamic terrorism” is our biggest security problem. Those motivated to terrorist acts by that particular political philosophy of course practice the politics of “they,” but so did Timothy McVeigh. So does every single person who pulls out a gun at his workplace and opens fire. Our problem is much bigger than that.
We are deluding ourselves if we think that stricter gun control laws alone will solve this problem. September 11th taught us that planes and box cutters are deadly weapons. Oklahoma City taught us that a rented truck loaded with fertilizer can bring down a building. Guns are a highly efficient means of killing many people, but the human imagination can be used for great evil.
Our media is absolutely saturated with the politics of “they” because politicians on both sides of the aisle spread it without apology. Our gerrymandered Congressional districts are structured to reward the politics of “they.” We have constructed a system that punishes moderates willing to compromise and rewards the loudest and most radical voices on both sides of the aisle. Well, I think the real silent majority in this country is moderates on both sides of the political aisle. And we need to start finding common ground with each other now and rewarding candidates who are willing and able to do the same.
I don’t know why Stephen Paddock committed this act of mass murder. We need to find out, and we need to find out how he got his hands on those weapons. But in the aftermath of this latest horrific act of violence, can we please just bypass the predictable, polarizing responses and focus instead on a politics of “we”?