Patrick Blanchfield on politicians’ cheap responses to mass shootings
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal spoke on last night’s mass shooting in a Lafayette movie theater: “When these kinds of acts of violence happen in a movie theater, when there’s no real good reason why this kind of evil should intrude on the lives of families who are just out for a night of entertainment, I know a lot of us are horrified and shocked.”
There’s a predictable cycle to how we respond to mass shootings. Normally it takes a while for us to get to the trite-theodicy-of-senselessness stage, because we have to pass through the usual routines of identitarian fearmongering, de-politicization, vilification of the mentally ill, naive and misguided appeals for “gun control,” and the like, before we’re so exhausted and derailed that we can’t talk meaningfully about anything.
We’re getting quicker at streamlining things, though. The night of the Charleston AME massacre, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley immediately issued a statement calling that event “senseless.” Last night, Jindal also described the shooting in Lafayette as “senseless.” Meanwhile, because the shooter is a white man, everybody is already in full gear to individualize, de-politicize, and pathologize him as a solitary “drifter.”
It’s important that the shooter’s motives and the circumstances and context that precipitated and enabled his actions remain incomprehensible, wicked, and obscure, you see. We could discover that he has a thousand-page footnoted political manifesto and a storage unit with stacks of The Turner Diaries and Rhodesian Flags, or that he may have spent years in psychiatric care, or both, or neither, but the important thing is that what happened in Lafayette be perceived as singular, beyond reason — as “senseless,” as “evil.”
It’s just so senseless that the exact same thing just keeps on happening in this country all the time, isn’t it? No sense at all, really. Faced with such senselessness, with such evil, all we can do is pray; to do anything else, let alone talk politics, would be gauche. The day after Charleston, Jindal called for prayer, and led one himself, observing, “Now is the time for healing … as far as the political spectrum, this isn’t the time.” “We will get through this,” said Jindal yesterday, calling on Americans, once again, to pray for the victims and their families.
Bobby Jindal, with the bodies still warm, pontificating like a poor man’s Job over how meaningless and senseless all this is, and let’s just get through this and move on folks, why don’t we, while mourning these people and celebrating their heroism as they died, because, it’s just senseless evil, and what could we ever possibly do about that?
Never mind that Jindal has previously also said that ISIS is “evil,” an evil for which “Radical Islam,” President Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton are variously responsible for fomenting and exacerbating, and that “the next president’s job is to have the discipline and strength to wipe ISIS off the face of the earth.”
With some kinds of evil, it seems it’s all hands on deck. With others, it’s throw-your-hands-in-the-air, clasp-them-in-prayer, wash-them-like-Pilate — but the key thing is to do nothing.
I have nothing against prayer, although I don’t do it. I do recall being taught, however, that prayer without action is at best self-indulgent; at worst, a sin outright. And, let’s be honest, given that Jindal specifically only has a sliver of a chance of making it into the GOP Primary debates, doesn’t it follow that he wouldn’t dare talk about action instead of just prayer at a time like this?
Cheap appeals to senselessness and unfathomable evil are now part of the standardized playbook for how politicians respond to mass shootings more broadly, and the allure of this strategy is only growing. We can invoke “senselessness” to sound compassionate and profound while avoiding difficult conversations about ideology, mental health, race, guns, or a dozen other things — and behave as though that appeal to senselessness is itself somehow an act of respect and courage rather than a non-action dripping with hypocrisy and cravenness. In that light, coming from anyone with an investment in the status quo, the preference for a rhetoric of abstract senselessness actually makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?