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Sandy Hook and What Counts As Catastrophe

I cannot stop consuming news about the horror of Friday morning in Sandy Hook Elementary. The slow drip of facts and numbers is overwhelming but I cannot stop myself from seeking out more. Hardly anyone I speak to even wants to repeat aloud the details that make the floor fall away under me: the number of times each victim was shot, their incredibly young age, the matricide that seems to have been the day’s first evil. There is a sense, from Obama, from cable news, even from the NRA’s silent Twitter feed, that something is different this time.

But as the stories proceed and the grim tide of gun death statistics roll over me, I keep wondering why is this particular act of violence is causing me and many others to mark it as a unique catastrophe. The answers, of course, are obvious: so many dead, so young, so fast, so unexpected in this safe community. But given the unending daily roll of violence in America including deaths by guns, those differences seem quickly swallowed by an ocean of grieving parents, children and lovers.

In a country where 84 people are killed by guns everyday, why does it take concentrations of deaths in time and space to draw our attention and shove a fist in our guts? The cold statistics of gun violence in America have been endlessly repeated over the last 72 hours. At least 30,000 a year dead. At least 70,000 a year injured. These numbers mean so little. But that is 30,000 families every year who have felt that gaping hole in their lives that 26 families in Newtown, Connecticut now feel.

The unspeakable catastrophe of violence was no less real or massive for those other families around the country but for me, for us, it takes the spectacle of the mass shootings, concentrated horrors to spark protests and debates. From poverty and disease to environmental destruction and inequality, only a small fraction of the days violence is exceptional and deemed worthy of notice but that meager total makes up the bulk of what we know as “news.” The constant drip of violence becomes a normal, everyday condition; a flood that arrives so slowly that our barriers can always keep up, our walls of numbness heightened, until a disaster like Sandy Hook arrives.

But it is hardly controversial to say that those small everyday violences, even “average” gun deaths, are ignored when dispersed over time and space. We must also confront another explanation: that the emphasis placed on Sandy Hook and mass shooting like it represent an injection of vulnerability into white, affluent spaces that use their perceived safety to define themselves against the black inter-city.

I keep using the word “our” and “we” as if my experience of newly increased feelings of community and personal vulnerability are universal. But I speak from the position of a white man who can walk through life without visible markings of disability, queerness or poverty. My body is not nearly as likely to be struck by bullets as many other bodies in this country. To have unique and new feelings of vulnerability created by the news of Sandy Hook, to be so consumed by the story and media spectacle is in many ways a reflection of the presumption of safety I have enjoyed my entire life.

55 unarmed Black men and women were killed by police and vigilantes in the United States in just the first six months of this year, according to a recent report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. Those crimes are more dispersed by time and space than Friday’s massacre and, due both to the identity of the aggressor and the color of the victim, they are regarded as on face less awful, less mournable than the children of Sandy Hook. Yet to the parents left alive, to the children and husbands and wives they left at home, that gaping hole is a larger disaster than any on cable news.

What counts as catastrophe is not only determined by the media machine but also by what we find ourselves overcome by and what we allow ourselves to cry over. What counts as catastrophe is as political as it is emotional. We cannot always control what causes the words to get stuck in our throat, nor should be try to repress or belittle that experience, but we can ask why and use those answers to shape how we act. The “we” that does not already feel this vulnerability can use the feelings we discover to try to cultivate a sensitivity towards more mundane, more common place, more socially acceptable acts of violence. In doing so I hope that “we” can become better be able to reflect upon and act against both racialized death and violence in all its forms.

Dylan Quigley is a writer and debate coach for Dartmouth College. He lives in Cambridge, Mass.  

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