The Cruelest Month
Another lethal April, another failure to ask why.
April is the wing-nuttiest month—the month that draws out the paranoid, the delusional, and the copycats who revere them. Next week we will commemorate the 16th anniversary of the Waco standoff (76 dead); the 14th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing (168 dead); and the 10th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine (13 dead). Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre (32 dead). Each of these events connects to the next in a deliberate chain of attention-craving and terror. And binding them all together is the slew of smaller copycat killings we've nearly forgotten: in Taber, Canada (1 dead); in Santee, Calif. (2 dead); at the Red Lake Chippewa Reservation in Minnesota (10 dead); and in Montreal, Quebec (1 dead).
This April has already proven one of the most lethal in recent memory: It includes the slaughter by Jiverly Wong of 13 at a community center in Binghamton, N.Y., on April 3 and Richard Poplawski's cold-blooded murder of three Pittsburgh police officers on April 4. (Both were wearing body armor and described as "pseudo commandos"—seeking out a showdown with the police.) In Washington state, also on April 4, a father killed his five children, some in their beds. Two more killings in Charlotte. N.C., over Easter weekend. And we haven't yet hit the middle of the month—the 19th, 20th and, 21st—when deranged dreams of immortality tend to come into full blossom.
It says so much about this country that we respond to Bernard Madoff with outrage and to mass shootings with teddy bears and candles. Frustrated columns are written and written and written and written. But we collectively refuse to connect one killing spree to the next or to accept that these events aren't random; like falling meteors from the sky. These events are the outgrowth of legal and policy choices we make every single day and the choices we avoid making year after year. We're willing to roll the dice with our children and our neighbors—because we want to think it only happens to other people's children and other people's neighbors—on the principle that guns have nothing to do with gun deaths. The American debate about gun regulation begins and ends with a tacit agreement that the occasional massacre is the price we pay for freedom. No wonder teddy bears and candles are the only national gun policy we have.
Even if we aren't brave enough to do anything about people with guns, can we at least evince outrage when people with guns are casually incited to use them? The National Rifle Association has, for instance, been responsible for disseminating a thoroughly debunked claim that President Obama has a "10 Point Plan To 'Change' the Second Amendment." The group has contended Obama intends to "ban use of firearms for home defense, ban possession and manufacture of handguns, close 90 percent of gun shops and ban hunting ammunition." And long after it became clear that there was simply no evidence for most of these claims, the NRA continued to assert, "We believe our facts."
Lucky for the NRA, many other Americans believe these "facts," too. They are getting them straight from Glenn Beck, who was frothing in March about an Obama conspiracy to take guns away, and from Andrew Napolitano, who hosted a Fox News segment featuring Alex Jones "exposing" the New World Order and Obama's "agenda" for gun confiscation. As Eric Boehlert pointed out in this smart piece connecting the incitement to the violence, "what Fox News is now programming on a daily (unhinged) basis is unprecedented in the history of American television." A national news show regularly accuses the president of socialism, fascism, Marxism, and the desire to destroy America.
Rep. Michele Bachmann announced last month that she wanted residents of her state "armed and dangerous" in response to Obama's plan to reduce global warming. And when elected representatives and TV pundits warn citizens to take up arms, citizens cannot really be faulted for taking up arms in response.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of flags at half-staff in memory of slain Pittsburgh police officers by Ross Mantle/Getty Images. Photograph of gun on Slate's home page by Stockbyte/Getty Images.