WhoWhatWhy Senior Editors William Dowell and Jonathan Simon look at the violent events of the past 10 days in America.
When Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber,” was caught with a “bomb” in his shoe, the world of airport security was turned upside down. While Reid hadn’t killed or injured anyone, suddenly 350 million Americans had to take off their shoes and change the way they go through airports. The transformation took only days.
And yet mass shooting after mass shooting produces no change in policy or behavior. Is it just guns? Or is it something deep within the culture of America, in the DNA of our birth as a nation?
On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we are joined by WhoWhatWhy Senior Editors William Dowell and Jonathan Simon to discuss both Buffalo and Uvalde.
We originally recorded this conversation on Monday and focused on Buffalo, race, hate crimes, and the vengeance of angry young men. Before we even had a chance to share it with you, the events of Uvalde overtook us.
Yesterday we sat down again to amend that conversation about guns, hate, alienation, identity, education, and what all this — even more than any election — says about the shaky future of the American experiment.
Full Text Transcript:
(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. When the mass shootings in Buffalo took place two weeks ago, we at WhoWhatWhy were like the rest of America – we were confounded by the brutality, the hatred, the perpetrator’s easy access to guns, and the fact that this kind of thing keeps happening over and over and over again.
Earlier this week, I was joined by two WhoWhatWhy senior editors, Jonathan Simon and William Dowell, to talk about the Buffalo shooting and the state of the country that allowed it. We had a pretty good conversation. Now, 24 hours after that conversation, the shooting in Uvalde has traumatized the nation and caused us to reconsider some of the things that we talked about in that initial conversation.
Bill and Jonathan and I reconvened to try and once again see if we could even begin to put events in perspective, events that were certainly about the easy access to guns, but also about the state of America, about the alienation of young men and about the country and culture that spawned them, about politics and money, and the soul of the country. It’s our job at WhoWhatWhy to report on the facts of this event. But we are human and, as such, we come to this with the anger and pain shared with most of you.
As we look at the modern history of mass shootings, they’re all different, and yet in so many ways they’re all the same. From the Texas Tower to Columbine, through Sandy Hook and Parkland, and then Buffalo, and now Uvalde, we echo the words of Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy yesterday in asking Why? Joining me to talk about this are WhoWhatWhy senior editors Jonathan Simon and William Dowell, two wise men who have covered, thought about, and agonized over what all of this says about us. Bill, Jonathan, thanks so much for doing this.
William Dowell: Thank you.
Jonathan Simon: Thanks for having us.
Jeff: It’s shocking that we’re back here 36 hours after our last conversation about the shooting that took place in Buffalo. We covered a lot of territory, which our listeners will get to hear. We talked about guns, about alienation, about young people today, and about the culture. Having had that conversation in such granular detail just 36 hours ago, talk about how that echoed for you, as you saw the events unfold yesterday and last night. Jonathan, start with you.
Jonathan: Yes, the sense of futility and impotent rage only increases. I think when I looked at it, and I look back to what we had discussed, we handled a lot of complex issues. We talked about motivations, as you said, and culture, and the subculture, and video games, and all sorts of stuff. But it boils down to something I think a lot simpler. And at some point, I’d like to play in Steve Kerr. The coach of the Golden State Warriors gave a very brief media appearance last night in which he really put it all together very nicely.
And the simplification is fundamentally that we can’t pass national legislation to address this issue in any serious way, even though the vast majority of the public wants to see it addressed, and that is because there is a legislative blockade by the Republican Party, period. The NRA buys a lot of politicians, but the politics on this is really simple and really stark.
And you just have the filibuster and you have the opposition of basically 50 Republican senators or however many Republican senators have been in office whenever this has come up. We had an assault weapons ban from 2004, I believe, to 2014. It was sunsetted, it expired. There were attempts to renew it. It was blocked. [The ban had] worked. These shootings didn’t go away 100%, but they went down dramatically. The weapons ban expired and they went up dramatically.
And we really are just a country that want something and a bunch of supposed representatives that are preventing that from happening and making sure that these, I don’t know whether to call them tragedies or outrages or whatever, will just continue and we will just accept them the way we accept roadkill when we’re driving. And this is political, and it is partisan, and it’s bullshit.
William: Yes. Well, I totally agree with Jonathan. I think this is a crime that no one dares speak its name. The Republican Party is directly responsible for this. The fact that Donald Trump; Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas; and Ted Cruz, one of the senators from Texas, are slated to talk at the NRA convention and promote even more guns is striking. We have a mountain of evidence now that having more guns does not give people safety; it just increases this happening.
And I think Joe Biden probably hit it on the nail. He said other countries have people that are mentally deranged, but they don’t have these mass killings, and they don’t have the number of mass killings. And right now, I think the estimate is that 40,000 people a year are dying from shooting. I know here in Philadelphia, it’s getting enormous.
The number of shootings and the number of people killed because of this. And we’re just selling guns like Coca-Cola. I think at this point, it doesn’t really matter who is carrying out these mass killings. It’s the Republican Party that is making it possible to happen and that’s got to stop.
Jeff: And while there’s talk about background checks being popular among 90% of the population, that would be the maximum that could happen at this point, politically. Would that even be enough?
William: Well, Greg Abbott the governor of Texas tried to loosen up the background checks and prevent them. And I think we had in Georgia some people trying to pass legislation saying that people had to carry guns. So, obviously, there’s an insane element within the political structure here, and that element has to be removed, and the only way to remove it apart from shooting it is to vote.
Jeff: There are some 400 million guns in America right now and that number continues to go up every day. And oddly enough, these events and things like the crime rate in Philadelphia that you were talking about, Bill, it’s just encouraging people to buy more.
William: Right. It’s also the environment, the image that’s projected in television series, dramas, films, everything – the basic message, the underlying message, is you got to shoot, and that’s not the way to handle these problems. And, also, this has been promulgated by people who have probably never fired a gun in their life. These are people– they’re promoting this thing because they think it’s some kind of image-building tool, but it’s killing people.
Jeff: Jonathan, do you sense that anything is different this time in terms of what may come of this, or will it be just something that fades into memory once again until the next one?
Jonathan: My cynical spidey sense says no, it’s not different. We’ve seen this pattern repeat over and over and over again. It’s a little too early to tell whether there might be some approach to some political critical mass. I think one of the ironies here is the NRA over the past several years, they faced bankruptcy, they faced accusations of being conduits for Russian oligarch money influencing the political system here.
I once had an experience with the NRA. I gave money to the Blinded Veterans, good cause, and the next thing I knew I was an NRA member. I never asked to be an NRA member. I never applied for anything. I never paid any dues. I just was an NRA member, and so I began to wonder about their membership rolls, how many people they were just making members so they could have this “influence.” And then look at the elections, and it didn’t take a lot of shocking electoral victories in general elections and in primaries for the NRA to establish itself. This is in the age of computerized voting and I think those who know me know what my concerns are about the legitimacy of some computerized counted elections. They knocked off these candidates and won these victories that then served as a warning to all the other candidates that were running, that they had to kiss the ring. And they developed tremendous power, as if they had more numbers than they had and as if they had more influence than they had, and then it just became an established fact and it terrorized politicians really in both parties.
And this corrupt, bankrupt, politically, internally just a clown show of an organization has been holding the nation hostage via the Republican Party at this point. So the whole thing just, is it going to be different? It reeks, the whole thing reeks and I don’t know what’s really going to be different because I think the will to maintain the current situation – the attitude among the defenders of the all-mighty Second Amendment, the only absolute words in the Constitution, the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms unqualified, the hell with these subordinate clauses like a well-regulated militia or whatever – their will is so strong that their attitude when these things happen is, “Okay, the news cycle is X amount of hours or days long, and we’ll just hunker down, and we’ll actually try to exploit this and talk about things like the need for arming teachers, and we’ll get through it.”
And my best guess is that’s what’s going to happen this time, Steve Kerr, and, Joe Biden, and Chris Murphy notwithstanding.
Jeff: It was interesting on, I don’t know if anybody looked in on Fox News last night, but their take on this was, “We didn’t really know what happened yet and it was all Joe Biden who was exploiting this to raise his sagging poll numbers.” That was the whole message on Fox News.
William: Yes. Well, Fox News, it’s become the TASS, [chuckles] the Russian disinformation service of American politics. But I think there are definite things that could be done. I mean background checks could be intensified and more systematized. But I think that the real thing that needs to be done is to stop the sale of assault weapons. I have nothing against somebody having a hunting rifle or even a pistol if they need it, but there is no reason for somebody to have an assault weapon.
And I think what people need to understand is about the AR-15. The M16 fires a super high velocity, very small bullet. That AR-15 bullet [however] fishtails; in other words, the back of the bullet spins in a circle. So when it hits something, it’s like being hit by a dumdum bullet or exploding bullet. If it hits you in the arm, it will take your arm off. There is no reason for that to be sold in public in the United States. Nobody needs it unless they want to actually carry out a mass killing.
And if you get hit by a hunting rifle, the chances are you will survive. The wound can be dealt with. If you get hit by one of these assault rifles, your chances of survival are very small. So imagine that kind of bullet hitting a five-year-old child or a six-year-old child. Imagine it hitting your own child. And do we need this? Do we want to promote it? And this is insane. We have years and years of evidence and proof of what happens when we take this route. And if we’re still asking ourselves questions about it, there’s really something wrong with us as a country.
Jeff: Somebody pointed out last night that you remember Richard Reid, the shoe bomber who got caught with this bomb in the sole of his shoe, never injured anyone – nobody got injured from that, nobody got killed from that, and yet, literally within days, it changed airport security around the world. Making changes based on this stuff happens all the time, and yet shooting after shooting after shooting here and nothing happens.
Jonathan: We had an assault weapons ban and it worked. It actually came in, if I remember correctly, during the Bush presidency. This was bipartisan at the time, and we had it, and it worked, then we went backwards. And of course, with the hyperpolarization, everything is politicized. The rights to privacy are going down one by one, obviously with Roe and there will be others to follow.
And the 14th Amendment is from the standpoint of the Right an abomination, and well, let’s get rid of that, but the Second Amendment is absolutely holy scripture. An amendment that probably wasn’t all that important for a large part of our history suddenly becomes this peg. Can we put Steve Kerr up and listen to his reaction?
Steve Kerr [recorded from the previous evening]: I’m not going to talk about basketball, nothing’s happened with our team in the last six hours. We’re going to start the same way tonight. Any basketball questions don’t matter. Since we left our shootaround, 14 children were killed 400 miles from here and a teacher. And in the last 10 days, we’ve had elderly Black people killed in a supermarket in Buffalo. We’ve had Asian churchgoers killed in Southern California. And now we have children murdered at school.
[Yells] When are we going to do something!? I’m tired. I’m so tired of getting up here and offering condolences to the devastated families that are out there. Excuse me, I’m sorry. I’m tired of the moments of silence. Enough! There’s 50 senators right now who refuse to vote on H.R.8, which is a background check rule that the House passed a couple of years ago. It’s been sitting there for two years and there’s a reason they won’t vote on it: to hold onto power.
So I ask you, Mitch McConnell, I asked all of you senators who refuse to do anything about the violence and school shootings and supermarket shootings, I ask you, are you going to put your own desire for power ahead of the lives of our children, and our elderly, and our churchgoers – because that’s what it looks like? It’s what we do every week. I’m fed up. I’ve had enough.
We’re going to play the game tonight, but I want every person here, every person listening to this to think about your own child or grandchild or mother or father or sister, brother. How would you feel if this happened to you today? We can’t get numb to this. We can’t sit here and just read about it and go “Well, let’s have a moment of silence. Yes, go Dubs. Come on, Mavs, let’s go.” That’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to go play a basketball game.
And 50 senators in Washington are going to hold us hostage. Do you realize that 90 percent of Americans, regardless of political party, want background checks, universal background checks. Ninety percent of us. We are being held hostage by 50 senators in Washington who refuse to even put it to a vote despite what we, the American people, want. They won’t vote on it because they want to hold onto their own power. It’s pathetic. I’ve had enough. [Gets up and walks out]
Jonathan: And that was Steve Kerr before the conference final game. You can’t say it much better than that. The problem is with this as with a lot of other issues, the single– It’s easy to rescue a cat from a burning building. Anybody can muster the courage to do that, but the difficult part is sustained heroism, and you need more than one person standing out on the limb, you need a whole bunch of Steve Kerrs to come forward.
And I know some of the late-night hosts last night did, Matthew McConaughey did. There’s got to be a real swelling of this kind of outrage to the point– crescendo to the point where they can’t– the Abbotts and Trumps and Cruzes and McConnells can’t just duck and cover and wait for the storm to blow over.
Jeff: Wasn’t there the same level of outrage after particularly after Newtown?
William: Yes, there has been in the past, but the thing is that I wouldn’t make an assumption that this is never going to be dealt with. At some point, the American public will become aware and there will be a political price to pay for this kind of thing. I think, besides controlling guns, what could actually be controlled is ammunition. In other words, the sale of ammunition should be controlled also.
And also you can tag ammunition so you can have evidence of when a bullet is used, where it came from, who used it, and everything. So what we need is accountability of people who have guns. And that’s what all of this recent legislation, mostly by Republicans, has done is to try to make sure that there is no accountability. And that is just not sustainable. I think that has to stop now.
Jeff: We are in an election season. There was a lot of thought that the leak of Alito’s opinion on Roe would have an impact on the electoral process this time around. Certainly, the polling indicates that if it is, it’s going to be very, very minor. Is there any reason to assume this is going to have any larger impact?
William: First of all, I’m not sure that the Alito decision will be minor because it’s a question of who cares, and a lot of women do care. But I think what’ll be interesting in this case is to see if Donald Trump does appear at the NRA convention. Ted Cruz came out and more or less suggested that more guns was the answer to stopping the use of guns. And the reaction on social media was amazing. Cornyn, the other senator from Texas, was also due to attend the NRA.
Jeff: He canceled.
William: He canceled right away. He’s smart. But in any case, it’ll be interesting to see how these guys deal with it. And it’ll be interesting to see what the NRA does, which is probably saying it’s not our fault, even though we did spend billions of dollars to make sure that this kind of thing would happen.
Jonathan: Look, the economy is a huge concern for a lot of Americans. And it’s strange because the economic indicators are good, but you have inflation and we’ve had inflation before and it’s had political consequences. To me, it’s a mixed bag. But what you hear is that it’s a tremendous albatross for the Democrats and in all likelihood, the 2022 election will turn on the economy.
But then, wildcard issues do come up. And it’s all well and good for somebody like Cruz or somebody on that side of this whole thing to say, “They’re politicizing it.” And it’s like any politician, when they’re arrested for, I don’t know, rape and murder. And the first thing they’re going to say is, “Well, my opponent is politicizing this incident.” Yes, they’re politicizing it, they’re politicizing it because it’s politics. And because there’s a very clear line of right and wrong and a very clear majority opinion.
So the Democrats have every reason and every right to politicize this. After all, the senators who are blocking this and those who are carrying out the NRA’s and probably Putin’s wishes as well, they’re certainly politicizing it. It’s a political issue. It’s something that has to be decided.
William: They’re not politicizing it because it’s politics, they’re politicizing it because that’s the only way that you can deal with it. In other words, short of a revolution, the only way you’re going to stop this thing is to get out and vote. It has to be politicized.
Jonathan: That’s right. And look, of course, they have collateral political interests, both sides want power. There’s–
William: So what these guys are doing also is trying to shift power away from federal government to the state governments where most of these states – like Wyoming has got what? 600,000 residents – so they can control a state situation. They can’t control the federal situation. And they’re trying to break the country up instead of being the United States of America, it’ll be the Separate States of America. And they can have their little systems.
Jonathan: And unfortunately some of that’s built into the Constitution. Last I checked half the population of this country is represented by 17 senators. And the other half is represented by 83 senators. And because of the nature of urban, rural, and the size of the states and the red and blue of the states, that gives an enormous built-in structural advantage to these small states. That’s also reflected to some significant degree in the Electoral College. So there’s actually constitutional thumbs on the scale when it comes to voting that are legal, legitimate, they’re built into the fabric of our country.
[The Founders] may not have anticipated fully how they would play out in the 21st century, but that’s how they’re playing out. So there are huge obstacles here. And impotence never plays well politically. The majority of voters – and I don’t say this out of elitism, I just say that it’s the fact that they’re generally not sophisticated enough to delve into these structural issues and understand the reason for this impotence, that the Democrats are actually doing pretty well ever to get close to 50 senators, given the [demographic] makeup of the Senate. So there’s lots of factors.
And at some point, you got to turn out your voters and at some point, you got to hope that they’re allowed to vote. And then you got to hope that those votes are counted as cast. Republicans are clearly trying to shut down, things like mail-in voting and reduce the number of drop boxes. So this is an asymmetrical political total-war that we’re fighting. And we’ll see how it plays out. This issue probably cuts in the right direction as far as where that war goes for 2022.
Jeff: The question really is then, whether this brings people together in a sense that something has to be done about this in the way that Steve Kerr so passionately portrayed it, or whether it’s another issue and maybe an ultimate issue in dividing us even further.
William: I think it brings people together. And then what’s happening is that the proponents of more guns are trying to divert the togetherness into separateness. In other words, they’re trying to make explanations as to, “Okay, this isn’t really something we have to do something about,” and they’re trying to steer the public in a different direction. But I think the public feels that this has got to stop.
Jonathan: We could very easily in these states wind up arming teachers. Brave new worlds come into being one step at a time. And it’s a nightmare to think about, you’re a first-grader. I know going off to first grade, I had plenty of anxieties in 1963 without worrying about the teacher with a shoulder holster or whatever, with a rifle sitting on their desk.
So from my life experience, this is insane. But from their life experience, maybe, it makes sense: you arm the teachers and these things don’t happen. So, we could go off the rails state by state, if there is no federal intervention, into some really, really sketchy and crazy places.
William: I think it’s important to point out we were there before. During the 19th century, the west, everybody carried a gun – depending on who was the fastest on the draw and the most accurate. And everybody was shooting everybody. People resolved personal disputes with duels or gunfights. And we moved away from that. I think why we’re moving back to that, everybody independently defending themselves, is because of a lack of decisiveness by the government itself. And a lot of that is coming from Congress.
Jonathan: And I think that’s part of the strategy and tactics. That’s the Steve Bannon playbook. The Civil War was won and lost in the history books on the battlefield. But if you want to say we, the North, the Union won the Civil War. But the Civil War really never ended in our history. And right now we’re losing it because what we’re seeing is a kind of resurgence of a way of life, a culture that was big on guns and in all these things that seemed to have begun to recede with modernity. And they’re making one hell of a comeback right now. And it’s really – in my mind, it’s part of that – it’s still the Civil War going on.
Jeff: And somehow a conversation about the Civil War seems like an excellent way to segue into our conversation about the events that happened in Buffalo – whether or not, because that wasn’t a school shooting, it was arguably a hate crime; whether it was any different from some of these other shootings that we’re talking about.
William: Well, it struck me as being very similar to many of the shootings that have taken place before. It was somebody who said that he basically was bored and wanted to make an impression and somehow found himself wrapped up in these extreme-right racist groups, which gave him recognition and actually made him part of that particular tribe.
And I think more and more we’re facing something where many of these people are playing war games and video games and shoot-em-up, world-at-war and everything. And at a certain point, you want to tie reality into your imagination. In other words, you’re not just playing a game anymore, but the game becomes real. But the victims had nothing to do with the shooting. This person drove 200 miles for three hours in order to find somebody that he knew nothing about and just shoot them. So what he wanted obviously was to be recognized on television and radio.
Jeff: Certainly there’s always talk about video games and the role they play in these shootings but a lot of research has been done on it at this point. And the research indicates that there’s very little connection between the games and the shootings. And certainly, if we look at the Japanese culture, for example, where video games are even more violent than they are here, they’re not facing the mass shootings over and over again that we are.
William: I think it depends on the personality of the person playing the video game. In other words, a lot of people can play them just like you play a game of chess, as a brief catharsis or something, but somebody who’s deranged and who has serious mental problems, when he plays a video game, he may get something entirely different out of it from the ordinary player. And since guns are so readily available and so easy, it’s a very easy way of expressing yourself. Let’s say.
Jeff: Jonathan, your thoughts about this? How did you respond to this relative to so many others that we’ve seen over and over again?
Jonathan: Well, I’m with Bill in thinking that it does follow the pattern in one sense. I think the added ingredient here is it was racial, and it was so thoroughly planned along lines of “replacement” theory and various other canards that have been offered up in social media – and frankly by mainstream commentators, like Tucker Carlson, for instance – that it went somewhat of a step beyond. You have all these ingredients. You’re making a roux here, a very toxic broth, and there are many ingredients.
America clearly is exceptional in the sense of the availability of guns, and the reliance on guns throughout our history, and you add in video games which can absolutely, as Bill said, distort one’s sense of what’s real and what’s virtual. And then on top of that, you throw in these various toxicities of the mind along the lines of, “You are going to be a hero. You’re going to be an 18- or 19-year-old hero. You’re going to storm the Bastille. You’re going to take this country back for its rightful owners,” and you keep spewing that and spewing that and spewing that.
Without a whole lot of pushback, if any pushback, in the media that somebody like Peyton Gendron was following, and you create a heroic sense. And it’s a fine line between storming the Bastille in 1789 – historically approved violence and killing – and this kind of thing. And when I say a fine line, not objectively, but subjectively in somebody’s impressionable mind, they can very easily think that they are on the heroic side of this.
And you add to that again the toxic masculinity idea. It bears more discussion, but men in general and young men in particular, have been taken down several pegs in terms of the value that society puts on the male virtues – strength, aggression, getting the wagon out of the mud. And while all that may be indeed true progress towards equality, towards a healthier society, it does have those for whom it’s very difficult to assimilate. And you add all those ingredients together and you get incidents like this.
Jeff: Go ahead, Bill.
William: Yes, I would question whether this was really racial or not. He had to drive 200 miles to find victims of opportunity. Now he made it racial, but simply because that was an easy way out. But you basically have an unstructured personality, doesn’t know where he is going, what he’s doing, why he’s doing it. And he gloms onto a racist internet website or something like that, becomes part of the group, is welcomed and comforted and reinforced by the group. And then, he finds, in this case, African Americans were a victim of opportunity.
They might just as easily have been Jews or Arabs or Pakistanis or anybody. In other words, I think that what you’re finding here is somebody who’s trying to find a compass for his personality. And so why I say with video games, when the initial studies on video games didn’t find that they were causing any problem, but now you have people who are spending virtually their entire life in an artificial reality. And that’s the environment that they’re reacting to. And I think it does – this is how they orient themselves.
Jeff: One of the things that seemed different about this shooting – and it was the racial aspect, or at least the perception of the racial aspect – was that there was a stated reason. In so many of these cases going all the way back to Columbine and even in Uvalde, one of the questions that always comes out afterward is: Why? Why did the shooter do it? What was the motivation? At least here people felt like there was some motivation, and I’m not sure if that was a positive or a negative in terms of the way the public has perceived this.
William: Well, I think I had mentioned to Jeff before that, after Columbine, I went on the internet and cruised through a lot of chat groups with young kids and I expected them to denounce the shootings. But in fact, I found that there was overwhelming support, at least among these chat groups, for the shooters who had randomly shot their fellow students in Columbine. And the reason was that they felt that nobody had ever paid attention to them.
Nobody recognized even their existence, and they referred to themselves as “piss-ants.” And they said, “If we have to kill somebody to get noticed, then we’ll kill somebody.” And I thought it was probably the most direct and clearest explanation for this thing. Why would somebody like the Sandy Hook shooting– Why would somebody go in and shoot five- and six-year-old kids? It was five- or six-year-old kids there.
It was fellow high school students at Columbine. It was African Americans in Buffalo. The victim is picked mainly because it fulfills the need, but actually, it’s not a hatred for that victim. They don’t even know who the victim is. It’s just that they need to do something that will make a splash and will get recognition and they will have an existence once they’re recognized.
Jeff: Do you think this was a hate crime, Jonathan?
Jonathan: You know, the first thing I would say is that I’m not an expert on hate crimes. We’re not experts, we’re observers. And I don’t know whether it was a hate crime. It comes down to my impression that there is inevitably a certain amount of nihilism floating around in the subconscious of humans. There’s inevitably some dysfunction in any society and we’re social creatures. We need the societies but they are not pure and they’re not all benign. And so, whether this was a specific hate crime directed at Blacks, whether it’s self-hatred, or, as Bill says, just the sense of being invisible and you think of Death of a Salesman with the tagline there, “Attention must be paid,” where somebody who felt like an absolute nobody winds up – his demise basically ends the play, Willy Loman.
And you got a lot of Willy Loman’s out there now. You got a lot of people who feel personally insignificant. And they also feel that the whole cultural enterprise is insignificant: it seems to be leading to cooking the planet, it seems to be leading to more and more dehumanization, and robots, sexbots, whatever.
There’s an appetite for, in a nihilistic way, participating in a destructive act, just rejecting the whole damn fabric. And you put a gun into [the hands of] somebody like that… Yes, I mean there might be 100 people like that, and you provide all 100 of them with assault rifles, and the odds are pretty good that one of them is going to use it.
William: But after Columbine, I went and interviewed a selection of high school students who are all honors students. They got 800s on their college boards and everything. And I said, “If you see a fellow student who’s got psychological problems, would you take the time to talk to him and try to understand what’s going on, why he’s upset, and everything?” And they said, “No. Why should we?”
And I think that’s a reflection on American society more than it is on the kids. We have a society that you make money, or you don’t matter; you compete, you’re at the top, or you’re you don’t exist; and you back people into a corner, and you don’t give them any exit. And finally, a lot of these shootings are suicide by cop. In other words, the guy knows he’s not going to get out of it; he knows he’s going to get killed, but he’s going to get killed and he’ll matter for a few milliseconds.
Jonathan: On his terms, he’s going to get killed.
Jeff: But in the case of both the Buffalo shooter and in Uvalde, the perpetrator was wearing full body armor.
William: Yes. He wanted to take a little bit longer before he got killed. And probably he didn’t want to get killed. It looks like he was avoiding getting killed. But he did want to make a splash, and he wanted to have a purpose in his life.
Jonathan: I think it’s hard to admit this. I’ve always tried to look on my own dark side and say, “Geez, what’s in that box?” And it’s hard to acknowledge in a personal way, but I know, just speaking for myself, I’ve had plenty of violent thoughts and angry thoughts, and fantasies of all sorts of things that we would regard as sinful and wrong and whatnot. And, Bill, I think at one point, you said that it’s hard work to be civilized. And I absolutely agree with that.
And I think it’s a component of that, it’s really hard work to control our own whatever that side is, that inside, the dark side of our being, the aggression, impulses. Also simplistic thinking, white-and-black thinking, and lazy thinking, where we would just go off-hand: “We’ll nuke em!” or “Fry him with the death penalty, just fry him!” It’s the simplest solution. And it’s a solution that, for a moment, gives us a sense of power.
We are running all our lives in front of the locomotive of death. We are hunted in the sense of being mortal. We are perpetually hunted. And turning the tables with even just a very offhand, “I’ll kill them, nuke him, fry him.” That’s an impulse, but I think it’s pretty much hardwired. I’m not sure into everybody, but it certainly in some of us.
William: I think there’s an interesting twist on it. I’m not sure it relates to this, but I was in the army; I was drafted in the army and went through basic training, and we used to have to take a bayonet rifle and charge at a straw figure and shout, “Kill!” And the sergeant would come over to me and say, “You don’t sound like a killer to me, Dowell.” But after a while, it’s a thin veneer of civilization. And what I learned in basic training was that it’s very easy to kill. And after that, I had to make a conscious effort to hold myself back in situations.
But these people, a lot of the people, I think, here who haven’t been in the military, are living in a virtual existence. In other words, they go to films, they see how many murders, how many wars, how many people blown up and everything – and it’s not real. But eventually, they cross the line and it becomes real. And we make it so easy. Why should anybody buy–
When I was in the army, they had an M14 rifle, it was accurate for 400 or 500 yards, The M16, or the AR-15 is accurate for about 100 yards. It’s a bad rifle, it’s not good, it can’t do anything, it’s no good for hunting because you shoot an animal with it, you blow the animal apart, there’s nothing left to eat. So why do we sell rifles that are expressly designed not to be very good at aiming but just to kill people? Why should an average American buy them? Why should body armor be sold to people we have no idea of what they’re buying it for? So indeed the society has gone crazy. And I don’t know why. But it is insane.
Jonathan: Yes. And that’s why I was saying we don’t need to be experts here, because that’s right out in the open. And you just look at a little factoid, the Buffalo shooter Gendron, used the same weapon as the Sandy Hook shooter: the Bushmaster, the XM-15. And after Sandy Hook, there was a serious consideration there of federal legislation. And I think [Senators] Joe Manchin and [Pat] Toomey got together, the Republican senator, and they had drafted legislation and Gabby Giffords was behind it and Joe Biden was behind it.
There was a real attempt to pass legislation. And not only didn’t it pass, but four Democrats actually voted against it. It couldn’t make it over the filibuster and it barely had majority support and it wouldn’t pass. And since then, it’s been basically a dead letter. There have been little executive actions to try to deal with [a few things]. But they’re band-aids, at best, band-aids.
William: So they’re all basically kids because anybody who’s seen combat would never want to see it again. These are people who have a dream life, they’re urban cowboys. They’re going around imagining that they have all this firepower, but they have no idea of what it represents, or what it does, or what it looks like when it actually happens. And it’s play-acting, but it’s play-acting with live bullets.
Jeff: So it seems that the fundamental question is: What can change in the culture? If the availability of guns isn’t going to change – and that’s hard to imagine with 400 million guns out there – and if whatever legislation might pass is tinkering in the margins, what can we do to change the culture that is creating this?
William: Well, I think Hollywood plays a role in this because when Hollywood shows a war film, you never see anybody being blown apart, you never see what it actually looks like. And in the news, now, it’s arrived at the point where the editors have decided that the public shouldn’t be “hurt” by actually seeing what this stuff really looks like.
And Time magazine arrived at the point that there was a terrorist bombing in the central train station in Madrid, and there were pieces of bodies lying all over the platform so they used Photoshop to airbrush it out because they said that’s too much for the public to see. But if the public never sees what this actually is, they will never know, and their decisions are based on false information. And I have a friend who was an Airborne Ranger in Vietnam and he said he has five pistols that he keeps in his house; and I said, “Have you ever used any of them?” And he said, “No.” Most of these people have this. It’s some kind of– like a totem. They know they’re never going to shoot it, but they have to have it.
Jeff: Gun sales are through the roof. We know that, and they just keep going up.
William: But it’s more like an icon or a totem or something that they’re worshiping or that makes them feel good, but they’ll never use it. Most people won’t, most police never use it.
Jeff: But the larger framework is that as you say, Bill, it makes them feel good to have it. That says something about the cultural underpinnings right there.
William: And it gives them a delusional picture of reality.
Jonathan: I was going to actually mention that – it’s not just power involved in a gun. The last time I shot a gun, I was 12 years old. I was at camp, it was a .22. That much from personal experience, but I know what the feeling was. And I know what game playing with “Zebra” guns, with peashooters felt like. It’s not just that there’s power, like there’s the power to smash a glass with a hammer or blow something up. This is a particular projection of power – power at a distance, and there’s a phallic aspect to it as well that is very seductive and it fits with the less powerful you feel. This I think doesn’t just go for the overlooked younger generation there. I think it can be pretty widespread through the humanity that on some deep level, you don’t really feel sufficiently potent – especially men, and you have this capacity to project power somewhere over there.
What you do here very subtly and quietly causes an enormous change in someone’s existence or more than someone’s existence. And there’s a visceral feel to that until as Bill says, you’ve actually seen it. Then you could go one of two ways. You could start glorying in it which is probably the small minority response, or you could step back and say, “Wow, I don’t want to go there anymore.” There could be for this a certain amount of remorse — but until you’ve actually done it, it just feels like a potential [to be powerful].
William: It’s a fatal delusion, and I spent six years in Vietnam. After that I was in Beirut during the Civil War. I was in Iraq during Desert Storm. I was in Iran during the revolution. I was in Afghanistan. I never carried a gun, because if you don’t have a gun, you use your brains to get out of the situation. And I’ve been held at gunpoint at numerous times, and it’s always been a situation where you could, in some way, if you didn’t have a gun, you could talk your way out of it. If you did have a gun, it was going to escalate into somebody getting killed.
Jeff: To your point, Jonathan, about the power, why is this such a uniquely or seemingly such a uniquely American phenomenon?
Jonathan: I think one element of that, is that we are a nation of the displaced. And we are a nation that in some part of our subconscious we’re either refugees or conquistadors or both. We’ve displaced and we’ve lorded it over, and we’ve enslaved more recently than many countries that we consider civilized democracies. And we continued to enslave even after slavery was over.
There continued to be an effective apartheid in this country, and yes, it’ll make something like the Buffalo shooting, especially ironic because here you’re targeting a group that has always been oppressed on the grounds that somehow they’re finally rising up and they’re going to turn around and oppress you or be used to oppress you.
But we are a country that’s had this inbred conflict between races, between the native peoples of this country and the new arrivals, between every new wave of arrival against those who have been here. That’s an unusual history. It’s not really reflected in a place like Japan or a place like many places in Europe for all the troubles they’ve had. And the other little part of it is that in living memory and beyond living memory, we’ve really never had a war on our own territory.
The war of our own making, the Civil War, was really the only one since 1812, [except for] very minor little skirmishes. This country hasn’t experienced up-close-and-personal war. It’s experienced war as filtered through, as Bill says, the media – which for at least the last 80 years or so, has been very sanitizing of it. So there are several elements there, and I think one is that there’s a pervading national insecurity, and there’s also the lack of experience with actual death.
William: I would add, I think if you’re a corporate executive in America today, you are a slave because you are a member of a system. And you know that if you break out of that system, you will lose your family, your house, everything. And so you have to follow the rules and the rules are, you are not in control. There’s always somebody above you, who’s telling you what to do. And yet the ideal of what it is to be a man in America is to be brave, independent, creative, not too cower when you’re challenged and everything.
Jeff: Isn’t that part of the American Western mythology, the idea of bravery and independence?
William: But the Western mythology is 180 degrees opposite from the American reality of most people. And so like Erich Fromm the psychiatrist pointed out, the reason for James Bond movies being so popular was it was a cathartic moment – when you could imagine that you were actually a man of action, even though you knew that you were just a wimp following the corporate line and operating within the limits that were set to you. So we’re all talking about African Americans having descended from slaves. We’ve all descended from slaves and we’re slaves right now. We’re caught in this system that gives no mercy and make one slip and you’re dead.
Jeff: Jonathan, do you want to opine on that?
Jonathan: That’s pretty grim. I thought I was the prince of grim, but I got to say I give you the crown on that one. Maybe not quite that strongly held a belief on my part, but pretty close. There’s a lot of confusion about identity and about role. And there is a lot of– I hate to bring Freud in this, he’s been quasi-discredited, but there’s the id, the ego and the superego or whatever you want to call them within us. There’s parts, different parts, different selves, and multiple selves and they have dialogue with one another.
And you need a pretty strong witness self. You need a pretty strong compassionate self-witness. Compassionate is key – you’ve got to be kind to yourself, which is very different from making excuses for everything you do, but [rather] understanding yourself and understanding your own motivations. For my own life that takes a tremendous amount of work, and education doesn’t hurt either and exposure to literature. Everything that gives you insight into how you actually tick. And I can’t even imagine my own life without those things, because I grew up with a lot of stress, a lot of tension, a lot of sense of wanting to fight my way out of the paper bag. I can’t even imagine getting through that fight without a serious destructive meltdown without the help of that education.
William: I think that’s an important point. Is that what we are? I was thinking of writing one article saying that if you don’t want to be surrounded by an ignorant ethnic group that doesn’t know how to do anything and is mired in poverty, then invest in education. But what has this country done? It’s cut education! Arizona and New Mexico, they wanted kids to go to school four days a week because they couldn’t afford to pay more. Virginia, all of these states that nobody cared because where was the profit in it? We don’t have factories anymore. We have machines that do the work of a factory worker. So why spend on education?
Because we don’t need people to show up on time. We don’t need anything and yet we pay a price for it.
Jeff: But Bill, wait, wait one second. We do need that. We still have a service economy, for example, which is the largest part of the economy, which relies on all of those things.
William: Of course we need it, but we are so shortsighted we can’t see that we need it. And another question is why and when are criminals heroes? The 1930s was a depression. John Dillinger was a hero. All of these guys, Machine Gun Kelly, everybody, because they broke out of the system, they asserted themselves, they were “men.” I had to do a story in France. There was a criminal named Jacques Mesrine who said, “I’m going to take the skin of a cop before they catch me.” When they finally did catch him, they shot him 150 times.
But I went over to another magazine to get a dossier on this guy’s background and this librarian said, “He’s wonderful [unintelligible 01:01:08]” Well, that librarian doesn’t want to necessarily go out and shoot people, but he felt that he was in the basement of the magazine and he felt that his life was just shit. He said, “Mesrine at least has asserted himself.” So we’ve created the conditions for the things that are attacking us in a sense.
Jonathan: Look, a lot of people backed Donald Trump. Even coming from the left, some of the people we know and our friends, because he was going to supposedly drain the swamp or go up against this system. And my tendency is to look at it and say, “Well, democracy is the worst of all forms of government… pause… except for all the others, and OK, our globalist system, however it’s evolved, is horrible. It’s absolutely awful. But before you want to blow it up and go nihilistic on it, at least have an idea what’s going to replace it that’s going to be better.
William: Jon, you’re acting as though Donald Trump has a philosophy. He doesn’t. Donald Trump is like your average African dictator. He senses what people feel and he gloms on to it; and five minutes later, the public mood has changed, he’ll say, “I never said that. I’m the man of the moment.”
Jonathan: I’m in violent agreement with you about that. I’m in total agreement with you. I’m just saying that the perception, even of some of our highly educated colleagues, they’re so distressed, as your librarian was, by the “system” that anybody that even poses as somebody that’s supposedly going to take on the system – which, in the case of Trump, we know is BS, more than BS; you got the chief of all plutocrats “taking on the system” – but there is that sense that the system is enormous and something of an octopus and people do feel that criminals can be heroes and I just don’t know…
Jeff: Isn’t there a fantasy element in that the criminals can be heroes? Well, that is a notion that has been with us for a long time, regardless of the system or regardless of globalization, or whatever the political climate is at the moment.
William: Of course, you hang around a few criminals, and I have, then you find that they’re boring people who have limited imaginations, but the public doesn’t see that; it mythologizes these people. And one of the problems in America is we’re living in consecutive mythologies is one after another.
Jonathan: Yes, you could go all the way back to Homer, wily Odysseus, hero of the Odyssey. The guy was a liar and a cheat and anything else that he could pull off – he was not quite Donald Trump-level, but pretty bad. There is that. It’s hard to run an advanced society. You need the system to be fair and at the same time, power has a tendency to accrete itself and consolidate itself.
So periodically, there has to be some shake-up in one form or another, and revolutions are not – they’re not fun. Bad things happen in their course. It’s an open question in America about how far this has to go and what form that uprising will take or whether maybe… [crosstalk] we can pull through.
William: Well, you have a choice between revolution and evolution. Until now, America has managed evolution, but these guys are rejecting any compromise or any discussion even. So you’re heading towards revolution, which as the British say, is your head on a spike. That’s how it ends up.
Jonathan: Bill, who do you mean by “these guys?”
William: Well, basically Trump Republicans.
Jonathan: OK, [I see] – you’re not talking about the shooters, the players. It’s being— [exploited]…
William: No. They’re random sparks in the system.
Jeff: The fact is, Bill, that by talking about wanting to see an evolutionary approach versus a revolutionary one to deal with some of these pressing societal and cultural issues, that looking at it from that perspective is a very conservative approach. It’s a very Burkeian way of looking at progress.
William: Well, Nietzsche – whom there are some things I like some things I don’t like that he said – but he said that every society has to go through a period of regression in order to free itself to move up to the next level. We’ve pushed that a bit far right now. Both the US and the world in a sense are in an undisciplined, everywhere confusion right now. So naturally, people are looking for some direction to move in, but we’ve got 2000 years of history in which we’ve experimented with this.
And basically, the Greeks came up with most of it, the ancient Greeks, but what’s happening with the Trump Republicans is that they want to turn away from knowledge, they want to turn away from science, they want to turn away from progress. Well, that ends up in just everybody’s starving to death. When you look at Egypt, you look at India, you look at China, these were great world-dominant empires, and they degenerated into impoverished messes. There’s no guarantee we won’t go the same way if we can’t pull it together.
Jeff: Jonathan, you want to respond to that?
Jonathan: I think that some would guarantee that we will go the same way – pace Steven Pinker – that this talk about fate of the Republic, that this is the fate of all republics, the road that all runners come. That’s a very gloomy point of view. On a pragmatic level, how do you begin with mass shooters? If we’re positing that we’re not going to get rid of guns – which of course would be a movement in the right [direction]. And by getting rid of guns, [I mean] put some controls, go in the right direction in terms of licensing and control and permitting and safety and whatnot; although from my point of view, you could get rid of all of them and I’d shed no tears. But we got that Second Amendment embedded in there, like a bone in the throat. The other thing that could have stopped something like this shooting would be surveillance.
The problem is surveillance is a very, very sticky wicket.
It raises all sorts of freedom issues and it raises– I guess if you’re going to do surveillance or you’re going to do censorship, and you’re going to shut down social media sites that are promoting violence, or targeted, pointing at certain classes of victims, it raises all sorts of “I know it when I see it” issues. What is your definition of what is impermissible speech in these circumstances? We’re certainly nowhere near agreement on that as a society. So that would be another area. Like this guy put out a manifesto. It was apparently available publicly at some point, at least. I don’t know how early in the game. I’m not fully gotten up to speed on all the facts there, but there were signs. There was a lot of planning here and it slipped through the cracks. I believe that quite a few of these potential mass shooters are stopped along the way, either with psychological intervention or law enforcement intervention, or both. I don’t know what the percentage is and I don’t know what the cost we pay for ramping that percentage up to 100 or 95 or 98 percent, whatever it would be to reduce the frequency significantly of these incidents. We’ve accepted collateral damage basically as a culture.
William: Adding to what you’re saying that we’re very quickly moving into a new era in which there’ll be killer drones that have facial recognition, and I think there’s already one on the market. It’s about the size of a large dragonfly and can carry two or three grams of plastic explosives. So it can pick out an individual and assassinate them right on the spot.
So we have the technology to do all this stuff right now. I live in Philadelphia where they had 5,000 shootings this year and the whole area is under video surveillance right now. So the question is, I would say I’m for free speech, but not for incitement to violence. And there’s a difference between that and–
Jeff: Is all of that surveillance in Philadelphia doing any good?
William: It’s doing some good, but it is mostly after the fact. So at some point, artificial intelligence will say, “Well, this looks like a dangerous guy who might commit a murder. And so let’s take him out before he does it.” Philip K. Dick did a–
Jeff: “Minority Report.”
William: And we’re very close to that now.
Jonathan: I’d suspect that we’d be moving it along further if– The racial element here in Buffalo, I think, is more clear. There are obviously a lot of shootings without a racial element, but just do the thought experiment and take all the white shooters that have shot up the Jewish synagogue, or in this case the Black enclave neighborhood, and you reverse that and you had Blacks on the rampage or Muslims on the rampage, shooting innocent white children or white victims, I think you’d see a lot more action in that way, just as there was after 9/11.
Some of it is the asymmetry of societal control and it’s not like we’re rooting for them or anything, but we kind of accept a certain amount of slaughter as Second Amendment collateral damage. We chalk it up with auto accidents and such. And obviously, it’s morally and ethically in an entirely different category, but death is death in some ways.
So as a society, we’ve decided that we’re not going to get rid of the guns, we’re not necessarily going to heighten the surveillance enough to really stop these things. So we’re just going to experience them, report on them – they are a gift, after all, to the media. It’s a lot of copy there and move on. And that’s an endlessly repeated cycle, I think.
William: But nothing is forever, you–
Jonathan: Endlessly within limits. But it’s not one that really points to a moment of convergence. Because if Sandy Hook wasn’t that, and if Parkland wasn’t that, and if Buffalo wasn’t that, and Columbine wasn’t that, I don’t know what would be. If this poison were not being mainlined into the veins of the susceptible, I don’t think we’d have a real problem.
You look at the vast majority of the country. Obviously the media, the news focuses on catastrophes and death and sex. But you look at the vast majority of people – I referee soccer, I see it every weekend and weekdays, and kids playing soccer, adults playing soccer, colleges, high schools, whatnot. There’s the occasional brouhaha or whatever, it’s part of the sport; but all these things [still] look pretty normal.
People are out there just doing their thing and enjoying themselves. And the vast majority of people are living, they may be somewhat troubled by where we’re headed or climate change or whatever, but they’re living – the vast, vast, vast majority of people – things still look pretty normal on the surface. Starbucks is still going strong.
William: We’ve survived 2000 years. I don’t think we’re going to end that quickly. Each generation faces the same sort of test, each one has gotten through it so far. So I’m hoping the next generation–
Jeff: That’s a positive note to end on.
Jonathan: Well, after all that grimness you end on a positive note!
Jeff: I know. I’m shocked.
Jonathan: I don’t know how to respond, except to say that I don’t share your optimism to quite the same degree. I think this could be qualitatively different, and a lot of that has to do with our modes of communication, and the speed of such things may introduce an element into the chemical equation that accelerates it over the rate-determining step to critical mass. I hope you’re right and I’m wrong.
Jeff: We’ll leave it there. William Dowell, Jonathan Simon, I thank the both of you so much for this conversation.
William: Thank you,
Jonathan: Jeff, thanks.
Jeff: And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.