In his official remarks on the May 24 elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas – during which 18-year-old gunman Salvador Ramos killed 19 children and two adults – United States President Joe Biden demanded: “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?”
Affirming that “to lose a child is like having a piece of your soul ripped away”, Biden declared himself “sick and tired” of the whole mass shooting thing, adding: “And don’t tell me we can’t have an impact on this carnage.”
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He shared an epiphany he had just had on a 17-hour flight from Asia, which was that “these kinds of mass shootings rarely happen anywhere else in the world” – and went on to pose the question: “Why?”
The answer, of course, is far more complex than the handy assignation of all responsibility for “carnage” to the gun lobby – although the ludicrous ease with which armaments can be purchased in the “land of the free” is certainly a significant part of the problem. There are more guns than people in the US, and states like Texas have abolished laws requiring handgun carriers to possess any sort of permit or training.
I spent most of my youth in the Texas capital of Austin, and thought it was totally normal for eight-year-old me to be shooting beer cans off a fence with my parents’ friend’s pistol. Also participating in such pastimes was my younger brother, who grew up immersed in GI Joe culture – with a full wardrobe of camouflage fatigues and an arsenal of unloaded and imitation guns – and who would years later join the US special operations forces, responsible for untold slaughter in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Which brings me to the following point: if Biden is really concerned about having an “impact on this carnage”, perhaps he should connect the dots. For starters, the much-maligned “gun lobby” happens to work in favour of the arms industry – the very same arms industry that reaps massive profits from the apocalyptic imperial wars that Biden has devoutly supported. Do Iraqis and Afghans not feel a piece of their “soul ripped away” when their children are incinerated by US bombs?
As per the officially sanctioned narrative, then, mass killing is selectively okay. The resulting hierarchy of human existence – whereby American lives trump all others in value – actively conditions Americans against empathy and fuels alienation, which is in turn only exacerbated by a savage system known as US neoliberalism.
The neoliberal dog-eat-dog arrangement razes communal bonds and solidarity in the interest of perpetuating the tyranny of an elite minority, all the while breeding individual loneliness, isolation and resentment – a situation that is hardly helped by the US government’s obsession with pouring money into military endeavours abroad rather than, say, physical and mental healthcare for its domestic population.
Indeed, for a striking insight into the American soul – or lack thereof – one need look no further than the New York Times stock market update following the Uvalde shooting: “Gun makers’ stocks, which often rise after mass shootings, jump.”
So when Biden suddenly decides to ask “why” it is that events such as mass shootings “rarely happen anywhere else in the world”, it appears safe to surmise that it may have to do with Americans’ rather unique “estrangement from reality” and the human condition – to quote the diagnosis I offered in an article following the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in Connecticut in 2012. On this bloody occasion, 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza killed 20 students and six adults.
In the decade that has elapsed since Sandy Hook, Biden noted in his post-Uvalde remarks, there have been “over 900 incidents of gunfires [sic] reported on school grounds”. According to CNN, there have been “at least 39 shootings” at US schools in 2022 alone. As of May 25, the Washington, DC-based Gun Violence Archive had recorded 213 mass shootings in the US thus far this year – which is 40 more mass shootings than had been recorded when I wrote about America’s gun epidemic earlier in May.
Texas, naturally, is no stranger to such atrocities; in fact, back in 1966, amid the Vietnam War, the University of Texas at Austin played host to a mass shooting – before the mass shooting concept really even existed. On August 1 of that year, university student and former US Marine Charles Whitman shot and killed 16 people from atop the campus’s iconic tower. An article in Texas Monthly Magazine describes how then-18-year-old Claire Wilson – who was wounded in the attack that killed her boyfriend and unborn baby – had “wondered if the Vietnam War had somehow come to Texas”.
That’s what you might call connecting the dots.
When Whitman was subsequently buried in Florida – next to his mother, whom he had also killed pre-shooting spree – his casket was draped in the American flag. Fast forward 56 years to the heart-wrenching scenes from Uvalde, and it seems school shootings have become as American as apple pie.
And as the American dream becomes a full-fledged American nightmare, the answer to Biden’s hand-wringing questions about when all of the shooting will end is tragically simple: it won’t.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.