In between meaningless claims of “thoughts and prayers” – the clichéd theme tune to the constant shootings which seem to have become part of the fabric of American life – politicians on the right must be struggling to contain their glee.
YouTube’s headquarters were the target of a gun attack yesterday, and the suspect is a 39-year-old female vegan bodybuilder, artist and rapper of Middle Eastern descent, who was angry at YouTube for “censoring” her videos. Never ones to miss out on an opportunity to push their xenophobic agenda, one GOP lawmaker has already suggested – with no evidence whatsoever other than a foreign-sounding name – that the perpetrator may be an illegal immigrant. And over on Twitter people are scrutinising her pictures for “proof” that she was a trans woman, in some muddled frenzy of transphobia, misogyny and sheer idiocy which serves to further distract from the true issues at hand.
High-profile shootings, while great news for gun manufacturers, are usually a political nightmare for the Republican Party, which is heavily reliant on crazed gun fetishists, who misguidedly worship the Second Amendment, for votes, as well as on the NRA for funding (the gun lobby spent $34.5m, or £24.5m, on negative ads against Democrats in the 2016 election, plus $14.5m in promoting Trump and other Republicans). It doesn’t help either that the vast majority of mass shootings are perpetrated by white men, the demographic Trump most readily appeals to, and they are most often of the far-right variety, a previously fringe faction of society which this administration has legitimised over and over again.
This one is different, though. “She was a vegan!” pundits are tweeting breathlessly. “And she quoted Hitler!” they go on, as proof that the “liberal extremists” are just as bad as the right-wing ones. In fact, we’ve known for decades that human beings are a rich tapestry of seeming contradictions. Especially the disturbed, murderous ones. The man responsible for the worst genocide in history was also a vegetarian.
To argue over shooters’ politics in these cases is not just pointless, it feeds straight into the American right’s agenda to distract us all from the reasons why in the US you’re more likely to die in a gun attack than when travelling in a car, van or truck. A long as we’re talking about whether a vegan murderer is paradoxical, or debating the merits of YouTube’s demonetisation policy, we’re not making the one point that really matters: America’s gun policy is an aberration, and its blind dedication to capitalism breeds a toxic culture of both entitlement and extreme disenfranchisement which leads people to commit these senseless acts with shocking frequency.
I just got back from a few weeks in the US, and after spending many hours sitting at bars chatting with locals in some of the most liberal cities in the country, I lost track of how many embarrassed apologies I received from Americans mortified by the fact that their fellow voters elected Trump. While it’s encouraging to see how many people reject the values of the current administration (especially with the crucial midterm elections just around the corner), the entrenched belief that every citizen has the right to carry a killing machine is just as troubling – and much harder to walk back – than the impact of one president, no matter how heinous his views.
There is hope that the tide may be turning. The eloquent and impassioned students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who lived through one of the deadliest mass shootings in history earlier this year, are pressuring lawmakers to pass tougher gun legislation, arguing that their right to feel safe at school trumps gun owners’ rights to casually acquire deadly weapons as and when they fancy it.
Grief-stricken teenagers may make for better poster children for a political movement than a controversial tech giant, but this issue isn’t just about the individual victims, it’s about fundamentally changing the collective American psyche to allow for the possibility that its beloved Founding Fathers may not have been without errors in their vision for the country they stole from indigenous people in a gruesome and bloody war. The US must allow for the possibility that in order to maintain a safe, fair and forward-looking society its laws need to evolve.
Even if you believe that owning a gun is every citizen’s right according to the Second Amendment (an interpretation which is in itself hotly debated), the benefits of upholding the law cannot possibly outweigh the hundreds of deaths it causes every year.
This line of thinking is not radical nor without precedent. The US has historically shown little concern with breaching civil rights when it’s supposedly crucial to do so in order to protect its citizens. The government will take away people’s rights to free speech, privacy and due process in the name of the increasingly murky concept of “national security”.
It’s certainly true that America needs to look at the systemic social issues which seem to turn a disproportionate number of its citizens into mass murderers, but it must also stop making it so easy for them to fulfil their fantasies by walking into a shop and paying a few hundred dollars for a gun. The political views, artistic sensibilities, dietary choices and social media profile these people hold are just a distraction, and by focusing on the salacious details rather than the policy issues we’re playing right into the hands of the NRA and its Republican puppets whose agenda it is to maintain the status quo, regardless of how many people die in the process.
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