Metro

Kevin Cullen

What they ask us when another mass shooting happens

Mourners added to a memorial outside the Inland Regional Center on Thursday, the scene a mass shooting that left 14 dead the day before, in San Bernardino, Calif.
Axel Koester/The New York Times
Mourners added to a memorial outside the Inland Regional Center on Thursday, the scene a mass shooting that left 14 dead the day before, in San Bernardino, Calif.

Last summer, I was on the phone with a guy in Belfast whom I had met in a Northern Ireland prison many years ago.

He brought up a recent mass shooting in the United States. I forget which one. Maybe it was the woman up in Vermont who shot four people dead. Or maybe it was the guy down in Houston who shot eight dead. They happened within hours of each other.

All I really remember is that this guy who had grown up in an urban war zone, who had lost many friends to a conflict that once seemed intractable, who had spent nearly 15 years in prison for quite purposely killing a British soldier, said that almost every night he watched something on the news about a mass shooting somewhere in America and he asked me, “How do you live like that?” It’s a good question. How do we live like this? How do we surf from one mass murder to another? How do we go, in less than a week, from watching 24-hour coverage of some misanthrope shooting people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado to wall-to-wall, play-by-play of murder and mayhem in San Bernardino?

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We just do, making distinctions in the details one day, forgetting them the next.

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The body count from California this week makes it a much bigger deal than last week’s slaughter in Colorado Springs. Or does it?

To some, the fact that somebody targeted a women’s health clinic trumps the sheer numbers of those murdered at a disability services center.

To others, the possibility that Syed Rizwan Farook, who apparently enlisted his wife for the shooting spree in San Bernardino, might be a terrorist deserves far more attention than if he were just some loser with a grudge and unfettered access to an AK-47. If it turns out he is both of those things, it guarantees a longer shelf-life on the cable TV shows. Or maybe not. Depends what happens tomorrow, or next week.

Terrorists killed more than 100 people in Paris a couple of weeks ago. Or was it three weeks ago?

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We approach mass murder like everything else, measuring its impact by our own, biased metrics. Or, worse, by not measuring it at all, by not letting it register any more in our consciousness than an earthquake in Nepal or a typhoon in the Philippines.

Does the number of casualties make a difference? Do the ages or genders of the victims? The proximity of the killings to places where we live or visit? The motivation of the shooters? Does a terrorist trump a racist? Is a zealot more noteworthy than a nut? Is a college campus worse than a movie theater? Is there a difference?

People held candles during a vigil for shooting victims on Thursday.
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
People held candles during a vigil for shooting victims on Thursday.

All questions worth pondering, as is this one: is the frequency of mass shootings and their ubiquity in all corners of our popular culture getting to the point that instead of caring more we care less, that carnage becomes so routine that it is greeted not with a shriek but a shrug?

One man’s compassion fatigue is another’s coping mechanism.

Stacey Bloom, a lawyer who lives in Braintree, talks regularly on the phone with her cousin, Elie Raymond, who lives north of Tel Aviv, in Israel. She increasingly finds herself on the end of questions you might assume would go the other way.

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“How can you send your kids to school?” he asked her after Newtown, Conn.

“How can you live in that country?” he asks her after every mass shooting.

“He thinks we live in a far more violent, desensitized society, and I find it harder to dispute what he says,” Bloom said. “Nothing shocks us anymore. Not just gun violence. Look at porn. Look at social media. People say outrageous things so often it’s not considered so outrageous. There are no filters on anything. There’s no collective grief anymore because we move on. What happened in San Bernardino will stay in the news cycle until something more interesting comes along. And it won’t be long.”

The real danger in being desensitized, to anything, is the apathy that is its byproduct, the sneaking belief that nothing can be done to alter the status quo. After every mass shooting, some people say something must be done, while others, especially those greased by the well-oiled NRA, say greater gun control will ensure that only terrorists and criminals will be armed.

After 20 elementary schoolkids were slaughtered in Newtown, we couldn’t find the political will to pass even the most basic gun control measures, like background checks for all gun buyers, or prohibiting extended ammunition clips. Would it have mattered if 100 kids were killed? Or 200?

House Speaker Paul Ryan went on TV Thursday and, with a straight face, said he couldn’t support a measure to prohibit people on the no-fly list from legally buying guns. He did, however, say he supported measures to improve mental health care and to make it harder for people with mental illnesses to buy guns.

In fact, he called for more mental health screening, and that’s to be encouraged. But right now, it’s like everyone’s following a script, these things are so commonplace. The president looks ashen and calls for massive reforms. The Republicans on Capitol Hill offer their thoughts and prayers. And the rest of us, a little less shaken with every slaughter, move on, until the next one, which always seems to come faster than the one before.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.