We’re more interested in finding fault in others than we are in confronting the impulses that frighten us.
By Matt Skoufalos
On Saturday night, a Florida man walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando, opened fire, and within moments became responsible for the single biggest mass shooting in America. Then, in order to bait police into the venue, he called them himself, claiming to be a jihadist acting with a group of militants who were armed with bombs.
After the club was stormed and the shooter was killed, the narrative turned to how he was a domestic abuser, a closeted gay man; perpetually angry or prone to violent mood swings. In the days that have followed, the event has been recast any number of ways according to any number of agendas.
Still we search for a root cause, hoping to discover a single motivation for whatever allows mass shootings to happen in America with the intention of preventing them. Yet every bottom-line answer we come up with makes the problem too murky or too big to address systematically. Terrorism. Mental illness. Poverty. Gang culture.
So we swing to the specific, blaming individual political and religious figures, lobbyists, profiteers, sociopaths. We pore over the backgrounds of shooters, their work and family and medical histories, their cultural and ethnic and religious identities. We mine their data for any narrative we can use to prevent gunmen from manifesting, and we re-victimize ourselves in the process. Our moral outrage, appeals to institutional control, or prayers have not kept mass shootings from happening again and again, and yet we still search for a way to rationalize them; to understand them; to confront them.
We fail at this because, as a culture, Americans don’t have healthy, honest, or functional ways of handling the things and people we disagree with. We self-select all aspects of our daily experience, from the people we engage with to the places we live to the public images we craft. In a digital age, we are mostly able to keep the stuff we don’t like out of sight, dismiss it out of hand, or otherwise distract ourselves from it.
We don’t bother to think too much about why we don’t like anything, but we sure know when something displeases us. We don’t even necessarily know what to do about many of the things that displease us, but we devote countless hours to talking about the ways in which they make us so mad. We devote so much time to being mad and so little time understanding what to do about it, or why it’s necessary to be so mad at all.
We have such limited introspection into our own feelings and such little interest into learning where they come from, but such entitlement to them nonetheless. After a while, that anger takes on its own life, disconnected from us, incapable of being understood, yet still underpinning our actions. We refuse to acknowledge why things make us uncomfortable, or associate with people we don’t understand, and instead of looking inside ourselves for the missing ingredient, we think, “If only this external thing, this outside agitation, could be silenced, then everything else would feel better.”
Few things bring on that peace of mind as efficiently as violence. It’s even easier to be violent when you believe that the target of that violence doesn’t deserve a voice, or doesn’t have inherent worth at all; at least not anything as compelling and insistent as your anger, however confusing it may be. Those confusing feelings are just so unavoidable that we never investigate ourselves as their point of origin and not their destination, and violence becomes an accessible response to them.
It’s easier to rape, abuse, assault, kill, or dominate someone else than to conquer our own discomfort.
It’s easier to condemn, sabotage, mock, lie to, or shout down someone else than it is to feel susceptible to condemnation, sabotage, mockery, deception, or intimidation.
It’s hard to feel anything but powerless in the face of such behavior, and violence is nothing if not an instrument of power.
But violence doesn’t undo violence; no abstract concept does. We must not limit our understanding of physical acts—like shooting up a nightclub, a school, a church, a store, a city corner—to our emotional vocabulary. Bodies are physical. Actions are physical. Consequences are physical. Laying hands on someone is a physical act. Putting a person in the sights of a weapon and firing is a physical act. No idea or emotion or impression forgives or excuses that, and any idea used to justify, explain, or grieve such violence all comes after the fact.
We control so much of our physical environment and so little of our actions and intentions within it because we’re unwilling to recognize the physical consequences of our feelings about one another, and ultimately, about ourselves. If we refuse to acknowledge the things that make us uncomfortable—if we don’t set up a safe way to have hard conversations about our fears, anger, and confusion, without judgment but in pursuit of understanding—we will never get past any physical expression of them.
Grief. Love. Tolerance. Unity. Indefinite concepts that exist in the mind.
Hugs. Handshakes. Eye contact. In-person conversations. Concrete behaviors that exist in the body—or rather, in the spaces shared by two bodies.
We can’t get from one place to the other alone. We aren’t alone in this place to begin with.
We all deserve to be here. We all deserve to be ourselves.
We all deserve the chance to be understood. We are the only ones responsible for understanding.