At last, we know what it takes to bump RussiaGate off of MSDNC for a few hours: three deadly hurricanes and a mass shooting with nearly 600 victims. Trump took advantage of this lull in his prime-time persecution to publicly scold the distressed people of Puerto Rico for their alleged profligacy and indolence, before turning his consolatory ministrations toward the bloodbath in Las Vegas. The theologian-in-chief advised the appalled national audience that this was an act of “pure” and “unspeakable evil”—unspeakable, one presumes, because to name the evil would require him to face the specific evil at work in real terms, define the conditions which hatched it and punish the institutions that profit from its existence. Better politically to keep the precise nature of the “evil” in Vegas vague and eschatological.
Just as I braced myself at the thought of Donald Trump launching into a moral homily on the evils of violence, the president shifted gears, offering a brisk psychological profile of the shooter as a “sick” and “deranged” man, a psycho who had managed to stockpile an arsenal of 49 guns of varying calibers and killing capacities and enough explosives to blow a hole in Hoover Dam. I must admit this prospect was not especially reassuring to me, but Trump seemed intent on making the point that the shooting rampage was not the work of a normal man. The nation could rest easy. The shootings in Las Vegas had nothing to tell us about the devolving nature of the American character.
You can see why Trump raced to paint Stephen Paddock as a whack-job. Like the billionaire thrill-killer Robert Durst, Paddock was someone Trump could relate to: he was a millionaire, a landlord, a habitué of casinos, and a man who enjoyed the company of foreign-born women. Trump would rather not confront one of the most pressing questions of the Vegas massacre: what happens when the one-percenters snap and go full-auto on crowds of middle class white people? Somewhere along the line Paddock had done a Colonel Kurtz in the American outback, holing up in a planned retirement community in the Nevada desert, adjacent to Bunkerville, the Masada of the gun-obsessed property rights fanatics. Will Carl Ichan be the next one to crack?
Trump wasn’t alone in scheming to blur the issue. The xenophobic fiddler Charlie Daniels tweeted out to his legions of Country & Western fans that he’d “heard there’s an ISIS rumor circulating about Vegas.” Daniels found it hard to swallow that a white country music fan would turn his super-charged AR-15s on other white country music fans. The rumor of Paddock’s ISIS connection was fanned by Wayne Allyn Root, a rightwing columnist for the Sheldon Adelson-owned Las Vegas Review-Journal, who tweeted before the blood had dried that the Vegas shooting was part of a “coordinated Muslim terrorist attack.” And, of course, Alex Jones took matters into his own hands from there, spinning out a paranoid conspiracy fever dream of Dickian complexity.
Those few people who seem to have known Paddock well say he acted pretty normal to them, just your average middle-aged white guy, a little gruff and not particularly cheerful, but no outward signs of the broiling rage within. If he had a passion, it seemed to be for gambling. But how many big-time card players spend hours hitting the slots or video poker machines, where the odds against winning are rigged by the house? Perhaps Stephen Paddock is, in fact, a kind of new normal in late-capitalist America, where once anonymous men harboring long simmering fantasies of white-male impotence burst out of their quiet cul-de-sacs to settle their grievances with bump-stocked military-style assault weapons.
Like so many mass shooters, Paddock’s system was humming with serotonin uplifters, including diazepam, the white crack, marketed to millions of depressed suburbanites as Valium. What was driving Paddock’s anxiety? Had his fortune slumped? Had the casinos finally exacted their terrible toll, as they always do? As his ticket out, did he want to lay claim to the title of America’s top mass killer?
If so, the media was happy to give it to him, even if he didn’t rate that vile honor. The title for America’s top mass murderer—on the domestic front—belongs to Col. James Forsythe, and the men of the Seventh Cavalry, who slaughtered as many as 300 unarmed men, women and children at Wounded Knee on the icy morning of December 29, 1890.
Of course, mass killings committed by the state don’t count in the record books of crime. They’re not even considered massacres. After Wounded Knee, 20 of the killers were awarded the congressional medal of honor for their “bravery.”
MSDNC’s Chris Hayes is making much of the fact that more people were killed in Vegas than were killed on any single day of the Iraq and Afghan wars…Americans, that is. But he gets the issue upside-down. The killer in Vegas was an America. So are the apex killers at work in Afghanistan and Iraq, where 60 killed–combatants, farmers or children–is just an average day at the drone joystick. His colleague, Chris Jansing, declared triumphantly: “No country responds to tragedy like America.” Of course, no country inflicts tragedy like America, either.
By one account, there have been 338 mass shootings in the US already this year–that’s more than one every day. (A “mass shooting” is where four or more people are shot in one event.) But we’ve gotten to the point where if you want to get headlines and screen time, you’ve got to blast your way into double digits.
It’s amusing to watch the contortions that media and political elites go through to avoid mentioning the most obvious lesson to be drawn from the spiking rate of mass shootings: state-sponsored violence propagates violence within the state. We have been at war now for 16 consecutive years, a war that has expanded from Afghanistan to Iraq, Iraq to Pakistan, Pakistan to Somalia, Somalia to Libya, Libya to Yemen, Yemen to Syria, Syria to Niger. So much sustained killing takes a physical and a psychic toll on a nation. To me it’s no coincidence that the Vegas shooting happened just a few miles from Creech Air Force Base, where America’s drone pilots do their remote-controlled wet-work.
We are told there’s nothing we can do to stem the bloodshed, except arm up and be prepared to duck. Texas Congressman Joe Barton, who deserves a one-way ticket to WestWorld, says the solution is to get more guns into the hands of more people. It worked in the old West, Barton opined. (Trump is hardly the only “fucking moron” in Washington.)
South Dakota Sen. John Thune’s remedy for surviving machine gun attacks is for Americans to duck-and-roll-up into a ball when they hear shots, assuming they aren’t muffled by a silencer: “I think people are going to have to take steps in their own lives to take precautions. As somebody said, get small.” (Of course, Thune also supports the drug war, so if you “get small” and survive a shooting, he’ll probably have you arrested.)
Bill O’Reilly, already back from his temporary (s)exile, says mass murder is simply the price of freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom to do what? But perhaps O’Reilly’s sadistic fatalism is right for a change. Liberal fantasies about minimizing the body count through restrictions on gun sales or banning assault rifles or bump stocks pander to the most gullible among us. There are more than 300 million guns in the US. That’s 112 guns per 100 people. The US, with 4.4% of the world’s population, owns half the world’s guns. You could ban all gun sales today and we’d still be the most armed, blood-drenched nation on earth.
It’s a sad fact that in a country with a failing health care system, guns are being used more and more as a last resort to end chronic mental and physical suffering. Of the 33,638 deaths caused by firearms in 2013, 21,175 were suicides, mostly by white men. The rate was even higher for military veterans, where 67 percent of suicides were committed using firearms. Guns are becoming the morphine of the white masses.
In terms of its political gravity, the 2nd Amendment should rank first, all others lie subservient to it in the consciousness of Washington. And let’s hear no tedious disquisitions about how the intentions of the founders have been perverted by the financial subornations of the NRA. If the Constitution is a living document, it’s also a killing document, consecrated in blood, which has always asserted the primacy of property over people, by force when necessary.
Every time a mass shooting gets media coverage, gun sales spike and the stock prices of gun manufacturers soar, as if the shootings themselves were product demonstrations. I wouldn’t have been shocked if Trump had Tweet-boasted about the salutary economic news after the Vegas slayings. Stephen Paddock knew the score. He worked for years as an accountant at Lockheed-Martin, tallying up the profits made by the merchants of mass death.
This is another way of saying that the government is complicit in the carnage of Vegas. It didn’t pull the trigger, but it primed the mind which did and made accessible the machinery of death. So, any probing for answers needs to start not in that garage in Mesquite, but the halls of the Pentagon, the Congress and the Department of Justice.
Since confiscating guns from the citizenry is impossible and perhaps not even desirable, we should start our gun control movement with disarming the police, who did nothing to stop this mass-murderer, but who have killed 911 other American citizens since the beginning of the year. There’s no constitutional right for cops to be armed while on duty. It’s time to confront the resident evil.
Time to Pony Up!
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Wildflowers in Cree
What I’m listening to this week…
Harmony of Difference by Kamasi Washington
Ten by Gabriel Algeria and the Afro-Peruvian Sextet
Kafka’s The Trial by Philip Glass
Roll With the Punches by Van Morrison
The EastWest Sessions by Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers
What I’m reading this week…
Kazuo Ishiguro: “Perhaps one day, all these conflicts will end, and it won’t be because of great statesmen or churches or organisations like this one. It’ll be because people have changed. They’ll be like you, Puffin. More a mixture. So why not become a mongrel? It’s healthy.” (When We Were Orphans)