“This is not who we are.”
We hear these words again and again in the hours after a mass shooting. A politician will speak them, or perhaps a police officer. They clatter out of the television or the computer screen like an incantation.
And so it was no surprise to find these words echoing through the aftermath of Saturday’s shooting in El Paso — 20 dead — and it was tempting to once again believe them. They are defiant words reserved for moments that demand strength and fury and indignation. They sound earnest and true.
Then, not quite 13 hours later, someone opened fire in Dayton, and the lie revealed itself yet again.
We are what we repeatedly do, and in this country what we repeatedly do is mow down civilians with .223-caliber semiautomatic rifles. The mass shootings pile on top of each other, occurring so close together this weekend that cable news covers them in split-screen, like playoff games.
And so, according to all the available evidence, this is exactly who we are.
It’s obvious if you confront the reality. Mass shootings are so routine now that it is possible, unless you have a personal connection to a particular massacre, to forget quite recent tragedies entirely.
The shooting at a garlic festival in Gilroy, Calif., a week ago would already be totally forgotten by the public at large were it not for the unusual setting. By next week it will be subsumed entirely.
How much do you remember about the shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building three months ago, where 12 people died? Before El Paso, it was the deadliest American mass shooting of 2019. It happened three months ago. I had to look it up.
This is who we are.
Only those with some sort of gimmick attached to them stand out, whether that’s a record-breaking number of bullet-riddled bodies, an uncommonly ghoulish setting like a school or church or synagogue, or a uniquely sympathetic set of victims. In America, a woman described as a “doting mother and grammy” in her obituary sitting quietly at her desk job in the public works department moments before she was shot to death is insufficiently sympathetic.
Sorry, lady and everyone who loved you: This is who we are.
And yet, the notion that this terrible thing we keep doing is not a fundamental part of our identity persists, even as we fail to take any real measures to stop it from happening again and again. That isn’t defiance. It’s ineffectual excuse-making. It’s hopelessness masquerading as hope.
We regularly refuse to accept such platitudes when we hear them expressed in other contexts. Do we take the man caught on camera shouting slurs at his word when he later says “That’s not who I am?” You are what you do, buddy.
But somehow “this is not who we are” has not descended into self-parody in the manner of “thoughts and prayers” — a post-shooting mantra so tiresome that even the most craven politicians largely avoid it at this point. We also dismiss the disingenuous calls not to “politicize” the latest shooting; apparently nobody told the El Paso shooter, whose crime appears to have been motivated by white supremacist and anti-immigrant hatred.
And still “this is not who we are” endures, perhaps because it speaks to something at our very core. Of course we don’t want to think of ourselves as a nation that tolerates the indiscriminate murder of civilians a dozen or so at a time, for reasons including white supremacy, workplace dissatisfaction, anti-Semitism, or misogyny, or some violent nonsense that we’ll never understand.
That’s not us, we tell ourselves. No way.
And yet, El Paso . . . (about 13 hours elapse) . . . And yet, Dayton.
It is past time to admit that this is precisely who we are: a nation that willingly trades the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians for unencumbered access to the weapons best suited to slaughter them.
Only when we come to terms with that fact — when we, our public officials and ourselves, stop deluding one another about it — will we have a chance to change it.
When we admit that allowing these massacres to continue is in fact a choice we are making, maybe then we will be able to close the gaping loopholes in our background-check laws. Maybe then we will institute a strong federal ban on the kind of weapons that make it possible for a murderous Ohio man to kill nine people and wound 27 more in under a minute.
In the meantime, this is who we are: the land of the free and the home of the dead.