As I watch the news from my homeland unroll on Twitter, I see this phrase again and again. An imperative to those in Gilroy, in El Paso, in Dayton. Tweeted when a gunman is firing, when the ambulances unload into the hospitals and morgues, when the broken people of a broken town are picking up the pieces. “Stay safe!”
The phrase has had a meteoric rise since the 1980s as the slogan of dozens of campaigns about fire safety, online safety, summertime skincare. With its alliterative esses and rhyming vowels, it’s a catchy reminder to put batteries in the smoke detector or to slather on the factor 50. But it is an utterly delusional thing to say in the gun-soaked United States today.
Whether tweeted by El Paso’s former Democratic congressperson, Beto O’Rourke, or its current Republican senator, Ted Cruz, the phrase is about as useful as “be tall”. Some people will stay safe, some won’t, and it will have little to do with their safe-staying efforts. What they are really saying is: “be lucky”.
Of course, politicians resort to “stay safe” because they don’t know what else to say. The cliches of American gun violence need regular replacement. “Thoughts and prayers” was a favourite politicians’ phrase until mourners and activists called attention to its futility, and later to the politicians’ hypocrisy in praying for victims while consistently voting along deep-pocketed National Rifle Association lines, making more deadly weapons more available to more deadly people. Today, politicians pray or send thoughts, but avoid the cliche.
Other expressions like “heartbroken” and “tragedy” are becoming so worn that they are no longer as shocking as they should be. From the UK, the situation in the US can be seen as a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense: it is the country’s own fatal flaws – its second amendment and corporate and political corruption – that are its undoing. But in the US, politicians referring to mass murders as “tragic events” do so as if they are talking about a natural disaster like an earthquake, as if they are something so great and powerful that we must resign ourselves to their occurrence.
In that context, commands like “stay safe”, “stay strong” and (in some circles) “stay prayed up” feed Americans’ need to feel that there is something to do in the face of this madness. But this feeling is a madness itself. The people attending a food festival or going to Walmart for school supplies could not have been expected to stay any more safe. Goodness knows, some of them may have been out to shop for the bullet-proof backpacks now sold as a back-to-school essential in the US. Had they stayed at home to order their backpacks online, many would still not be safe, given the statistics for domestic gun violence in the US.
Language might seem like the last thing to worry about at a time when people are dying. But language is a social tool that can be used to direct and misdirect. For that reason we should look at the words, pick apart what they’re saying and see whether we are caught in assumptions that keep us in a deadly status quo. Should we be talking about these events as “shootings”, “murders” or “terrorist attacks”? Should we name them after the places they’ve happened – Sandy Hook, Columbine, Gilroy – or after the politicians who have voted to repeal old gun controls and to prevent new ones?
There is a movement on Twitter to refer to El Paso’s mass murder as the Cornyn Massacre, after Texas’s John Cornyn, an NRA-funded US senator. It might not catch on, but at least it’s starting a conversation and laying responsibility with someone who can do more than just “stay safe”.
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