The immediate aftermath of any American tragedy offers a heady potential for vile ideas. Details are scant, speculation is still wide open, motive is easily assigned—and in the rush to scoop other outlets, journalists don't have as much time to investigate claims, arguments or citations.
This is the time for political players to sneak one past the refs, hoping one side dominates the news game long enough to rack up an insurmountable lead before all the actual rules are written. You've probably already seen this happen with the shooting in Aurora, Colorado.
Given that details are still hazy, let's look at some of the bad thinking that's going to ruin your Facebook feed for the next week—from whatever the conservative version of George Takei is—via wise cat macros, "artistic" Batman-Naruto hybrids and IMPACT FONT.
1. What happened in Aurora, Colorado, is an aberrancy.
No, no, really, it's not. On Friday, James Holmes killed 12 people. That's half of the average number of people killed via gun violence, in America, per day. Clustering half of America's daily gun deaths in one place makes for an interesting data point, something that lets news stories and op-eds write themselves. It's more colorful than quotidian gun murders to which we're accustomed, 8,775 times per year.
2. "This can't be terrorism! This is a troubled individual."
I won't presume to know what was going on in James Holmes' head when he planned and executed his attack, but I'm sure lots of the commentariat's obese, chairbound chickenhawks will be only too glad to do so for me. Holmes might be totally Froot Loops; he might be a lucid genius. But one thing he almost certainly won't be labeled is a terrorist, despite John Hickenlooper's best efforts.
Back in 2010, the Newsweek editorial board conducted a revolting in-house discussion on the definition of terrorist that embodies the American media's use of the word. When white people do violent things in service of political messages—i.e. commit acts of terror—they are separatists, protesters, radicals, etc. Shooting an abortion doctor in the name of God and to frighten other abortion doctors? Flying a plane into an IRS building? A neo-Nazi goldbug shooting people at a Holocaust museum? These are unfortunate outbursts that just happen to combine political ideology with violent terrorizing acts. But there are no reasons to call them terrorism just because they meet the functional definition of the fucking word.
The National Rifle Association would very much like to divorce that word from its meaning, because if lawfully purchased firearms are instruments of "terror," then they could become subject to the kind of Patriot Act/wiretapping/data-mining/profiling backlash that being an Arab with a library card engendered after 9/11. It behooves the NRA and the architects of the prevailing security state to maintain the normative definition of a terrorist as an anti-American Islamist who is probably non-white. Challenging that definition destroys a lot of illogical assumptions and priorities we've created about who is a threat, what is terror and what constitutes security. It destroys the polite fiction behind criminal-friendly NRA-lobbied law-enforcement exemptions.
Despite the self-serving incentives of lobbying interests to avoid its use, there's no reason to take the terrorist word off the table. Not until Holmes gives some account for his motives or is proved mentally incapable of doing so. As for those who would dismiss the word "terrorist" immediately, based on existing evidence: ask yourself why someone would name himself after (and dye his hair like) a fictional character who—in his most recent and popular incarnation—is a murderous bomb-building anarchist determined to use mass fear to question and undermine functional society. As right-wing commentators never tired of arguing, The Dark Knight was a vindication for George W. Bush because The Joker personified the amoral goals of modern terror. Just a thought.
3. "We can't politicize this!"
This response gets more strenuous as social media makes commentary on tragedies more immediate and intense; discussion about discussion might be the dominant story of the Aurora aftermath so far. Our own Max Read already took a stab at the politicization issue, and whether you agree with his reasoning or not, politicization is inevitable, even amid so-called consensus.
Consider the aftermath of 9/11. The general story is that, in the days following, the nation was united as it had not been in years. Your own experience of 9/12 probably diverges from this story, depending on your politics, race or religion. At the time, however, TV news was in the soothing business. Stories of a heroic and resilient America, as one, kept people glued to the tube. It was a moving and partly correct narrative, but it was still a narrative.
These are the problems of not speaking out and letting the narrative play out on its terms: it's rarely democratic or fairly representative. Worse, interpretations of that narrative inevitably take hold—either through inertia or the sly offices of pundits. Your act of political omission then engenders the politicization of the story, because your silence does not hinder changing the story.
Again, take 9/11. The GOP had powerful incentives to push the "unity" narrative, because Bush's position as commander-in-chief allowed him to set the tone for America's response. Those who later criticized his plan of attack were easily demonized as divisive, apostate, cynical and willing to politicize national security. A national "unity"—a thing that never really existed—was a narrative in part born of shock, willful silence and a suspension of the normal political rules, but self-censorship created political outcomes just as nasty as a bullet-pointed talking-points memo. The opposition party couldn't have shattered the national harmony if the illusion of one hadn't been built in the first place.
Additionally, over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, contributor SEK points out how easily one can use the shaming of others' "politicization" of this tragedy to advance one's own political points. Repeatedly castigating arguments you believe others would like to advance anathematizes them, making the pursuit of apolitical "decency" a means of preemptively silencing criticism and giving your own ideas the freedom to emerge "naturally."
This story is already politicized. Keeping your tongue won't inhibit the process; it will only allow others to pervert it.
4. "Arming everyone in the theater would have prevented this!"
The NRA is profoundly invested in promoting this assertion, because the idea that armed citizens would inevitably have saved countless lives accomplishes a lot. One, it promotes guns as the solution in this scenario, not the problem, which meets gun-control arguments head on. Two, it gives an added sense of urgency to the NRA's national legislative docket of getting Stand Your Ground and concealed-carry laws in all 50 states. Three, it sells shitloads of guns.
Most of the mainstream blogosphere didn't bite on the NRA's talking point, citing the darkness, noise, tear gas, and shooter James Holmes' armaments and armor as tactical advantages. After concurring with the prevailing assessment, Slate's Dave Weigel (who used to write for the Libertarian Reason) went in search of a second opinion. He got one from Greg Block, who's a firearms safety trainer: "All you need is one person there with a gun. If this went down in Texas or Arizona, he would have died quick."
Amazingly, someone whose livelihood depends on teaching people to properly use guns also thinks guns would provide an immediate solution! But then Block proceeds to walk back his statement. His one-man-solution scenario is dependent on the armed person having a lot of training and discipline under fire. (One assumes this describes someone Greg Block has been paid to train.) He concedes that Holmes had an advantage in body armor, crowd panic, confusion, a noisy and flashing movie behind him, tear gas canisters and even his positioning in the room. Block doesn't mention that audience members firing back could have injured other audience members or been mistaken for Holmes' accomplices and also targeted in the confusion. Still, one man plus one gun equals no problem—apart from the tactical advantages of surprise, noise, armor, environment, gas canisters, superior firepower, etc.
To paraphrase quite a few people at this point, the NRA talking point amounts to: "This Aurora tragedy could have been avoided if everyone in the theater had been a responsibly armed citizen, willing to fire a gun into a bewildering kaleidoscope of sounds and images at a body-armored man dressed in black and surprisingly shooting at them in a room fogged with tear gas."
5. "The fact that these shootings happen only rarely shows that our existing laws work just fine."
Over at Salon, Paul Campos makes the very basic and very ugly point that it's not particularly difficult to kill a lot of Americans and that most of our security theater is just that—theater. Outside of airports, airplanes, high-profile political rallies and some NFL venues, all anybody requires to mow down whole swathes of Americans is an indifference to his life or freedom. This country offers plenty of target-rich environments, a reality surely brought home to anyone who stood cheek-by-jowl in lines to see The Dark Knight Rises after Friday—or who stood in a packed bar, club, public arts venue, restaurant, etc. That these shootings don't occur more frequently reflects more on the blessedly few people interested in going to prison or dying for acts so terminal. And, no, there is not a causal relationship between concealed-carry laws and deterring mass shootings.
6. This is a natural price we pay for Second Amendment freedoms.
The American right wing made a powerful discovery in think tanks in the 1970s: making shit up works really, really well. Journalists are very rarely experts in fields they cover, and, in any case, they have to quote someone for their articles to have authority. They are at your mercy.
If you make a strong political/historical/scientific statement, journalists covering you might not know that you're wrong. At best, they can quote someone else saying that you're wrong, but that just leaves two experts gainsaying each other. A draw! It can take days before a print journalist drops the factual hammer—weeks, perhaps, for a professor in the field to do the same in a magazine, print journal or a website. In those days or weeks, you control the narrative. You bombard the American public with bullshit that serves your purpose, and by the time the truth comes out, usually the public is already too bored by the story to notice.
(Incidentally, probably the most arrestingly famous case of this was the evidence read into the Congressional Record during 1993's hearings on permitting gays in the military, in which "Gay Bowel Syndrome" became a topic of endless conservative fascination forever. It was the most-visited page on Conservapedia.com until 2010—go figure—when they reset the view counter on entries. Almost everything the far right submitted to Congress as evidence was wildly, viciously, entertainingly wrong, but by the time it was corrected, it didn't matter to anybody but the victims, so, you know, no humans harmed. Right?)
The only remaining obstacles are those "experts," and conservative think tanks figured out what to do with them, too. You see, academics are part of an ivory-tower elite of Big Education, who are determined to distort the record to keep the big-money funding of being a tenured professor coming in. The reason that, say, the historiography of the Second Amendment enjoyed decades of consensus wasn't that attempts at objectively examining the historical record produced facts and interpretations broadly agreeable to the majority of scholars. It's that everyone was in on the take.
Now, never mind that "the take" is academics spending decades doing research and toiling to publish books that will never be bestsellers, sponsoring grad students' theses they don't want to read, making token appearances at dull seminars, traveling to non-vacation destinations to read articles they have to write just to be invited there, and keeping office hours for braindead undergrads—all for an annual take-home pay worse than the first-year salary of a junior associate at a good law firm. Forget that. This is rigged. This is the big money time.
They can't, say, make a lot more money writing a bullshit history that advances the lobbying interests of the NRA, then spend decades quoting from it in speeches at pro-NRA symposia, in articles they write for NRA-sympathetic publications, and in op-eds that are sent to any newspaper outlet proximal to a headline-grabbing shooting death. They can't make more money writing similar things denying anthropogenic climate change. They can't do that, because that's not where the incentives lie. The big money is at Occidental College. Or Grinnell. Or UMass Amherst. Not the National Rifle Association. Or Exxon.
I apologize for the long preface, but the fact is that the National Rifle Association—like the fossil fuel lobby, the insurance lobby, the defense lobby, etc.—has efficiently and impressively assembled people who can stay authoritatively on message. They're there for the bullshit quote that daily journalists will take days to refute, there to offer a reviewer for a new book critical of their lobby, there to offer a (sometimes free!) magazine think piece about their culture-war hobby horse. They also have a reliable squad of disingenuous ahistorical hacks whose primary job is to circlejerk each other's distorted, misquoted and decontextualized scholarship, recycling the same false points and reintegrating the same incorrect data into the discourse, until honest working academics give up in exhaustion. Because that's the really delicious secret of making shit up: your opponents are the only ones who do any real work. And eventually they just want to kill themselves. With guns.
I mention all this, as preface to my urging you to read all of this article by Gary Wills, because it's quite likely that, after three decades of aggressive NRA "scholarship," you are unfamiliar with both the Second Amendment's context as well as the very definitions of the words found therein.
When you're done with that, read this article from Jill LePore, which illustrates how the first century of the NRA's existence is essentially denied by the last forty years of the NRA's own historical scholarship.