So There’s Just Been a Mass Shooting

So there’s just been a mass shooting. The newsfeed is full of it, the TV can’t stop. Ugly scenes. SWAT cops running around in combat armor like beetles with ballistic shields and submachine guns. Ambulances and camera crews somewhere where they’re not supposed to be, where they shouldn’t be. The reports are confusing. Maybe the shooter is dead; maybe he’s still at large; maybe he’s been taken alive; maybe the cops killed him, maybe he killed himself (regardless of outcome it’s pretty safe to assume the shooter is almost certainly a “he”). The current casualty count is uncertain. Some victims may pull through; others may succumb. The dead bodies are still warm.

Here’s what happens next. Depending on circumstances and timeline, some of what follows may be attenuated, some of it may be condensed. But here’s what you should expect, and what you should know.

First, not all “mass shootings” are created equal. The very fact that we’re paying attention to this event in the first place, and calling it a “mass shooting,” is the function of selective economies of attention and predetermined narrative framings.

Much like “gun violence” itself, there is no settled, universal definition of what a “mass shooting” is. When counting and talking about “mass shootings,” some academics and members of the media will use the FBI definition of a “mass murder,” others will use its working definition of a “mass killing.” One key difference between these definitions is body count: if your definition of “mass shooting” is synonymous with the FBI’s “mass murder,” then it’s four dead, not including the shooter; if you’re using their definition of a “mass killing,” it’s three. The kicker here is that people have to die in order for it to qualify. In other words, if you’re wedded to either of these definitions, when seventeen people are shot and injured in a single incident at a block party in New Orleans, then this is technically not a “mass shooting.” As Gwyneth Kelly pointedly notes, variations in mass shooting data provide ready fodder for some pro-gunners to wave away the problem and discredit research in general. Meanwhile, crowd-sourced datasets like the Mass Shooting Tracker (which Jennifer Masica has written lucidly about here) count incidents where multiple people can be wounded, but many of these are acts of violence tracked by other FBI datasets (i.e., gang-related incidents) that rarely capture the same degree of media attention – or activate the same public emotional response – as do rampage killings by active shooters.

In other words, for you to be seeing that “Mass Shooting” news alert, a whole range of selection processes have already occurred. It’s not a one-way-street, though. The media is giving you news that you are presumed to care about, and your attention to it fuels the process. And so we need to ask a question here. It’s so obvious, and yet also asking it seems like violating a taboo, like callousness. Here it is, regardless:

Why do we care about these events so much? Of rather – why do we perform caring about these events so much? Not that caring and performance are mutually exclusive, of course – but what if there’s something about the latter that undermines our ability to do the former?

There’s a certain hierarchy to which mass shootings capture the general public eye. Shootings that happen in schools and on college campuses grab headlines, followed by those that happen in recreational venues (malls, theaters, trendy districts), and then workplaces and lastly homes. Body count and the age of the victims plays a role, but it seems that what matters most is that such shootings occur in public spaces that enshrine cultural values of education, leisure, consumption, and productivity. In other words: violence that strikes against the nurturing and flow of precious human capital is a collective horror. And since this is America, where life is cheap and some lives are cheaper than others, you should fully expect our attribution of value to be very much constrained by our biases with regard to race, gender, and class.

Second, the question of the shooter’s identity and motives will simultaneously become a rhetorical football, an object of dismissive, knee-jerk righteousness, and, above all else, and at every possible level, a derailment from actual political action. I game this out in real-time on Twitter practically every other week, and the song is always the same. The immediate rush to perform bullshit digital forensic psychology on the shooter’s social media footprints will selectively follow frames that simultaneously foreground “politics” (in the most point-scoring sense) while also effacing and sustaining deeper political structures. Considering race is the most obvious example. If the shooter is black, there will be barely-even dog-whistle characterizations of thuggish criminality, coupled with an attempt to tie his actions to black activism – to call upon leaders in the “black community” to answer and apologize for “their” “responsibility.” A similar pattern of racist targeting and a logic of collective guilt will be brought to bear if the shooter is suspected to be Muslim, where the vocabulary of terrorism is ready-to-hand, and especially if the target can be tied to our never-ending Global War on Terror. Meanwhile, if the shooter is white, there will be an immediate push to individualize his actions and to paint him as pathological, mentally ill. There’s a double lie in this latter, pathologizing move: it cynically stigmatizes the mentally ill as a group, and simultaneously disowns the normalization and influence of cultural pathologies which are shared by “normal” people and cultivated by cynical politicians and media figures.

The agenda underlying all these moves is two-fold. First, to muddy the waters and stoke rage by activating tried-and-true stereotypes and associationist assaults that quickly derail serious attention (“He liked Media Matters on his Facebook – he was a Liberal!” “Oh yeah? He followed the NRA on Twitter and posted this meme!”). Second, to depoliticize both the mass shooter’s individual motives and the phenomenon of mass shootings itself. A white man can assassinate a black State Senator in the name of a pretty-damn-familiar brand of Southern chauvinist irredentism and talking heads will question if he had “political” intentions or whether he really is a “terrorist” instead of just some poor lost soul. Meanwhile, male mass shooters from the killer in Killeen in 1991 to the killer in Isla Vista last year espouse a shared ideology of entitled, violent misogyny that is recognizable and overlaps with broader cultural attitudes, yet our refusal to grapple with that fact (or to put their acts on a continuum with a grotesque national landscape of gendered violence and domestic abuse) remains resolute. The deep structures of our culture and political process are extremely invested in not talking about racist violence, gendered violence, and the role of guns in both – let alone their intersections – and selective depoliticizing in favor of pathologizing is a favored national coping mechanism. The violence which spurred this post – a shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood Center – is an act for which the motive remains, at the time of my writing, per media insistence, “unclear.” I know as little as anyone else, but even now the stirrings of the framing process are visible: if the clinic was targeted, we are being told, it must be the solitary act of a madman, hygienically sealed off from the months of gory Right Wing vilification of PP that preceded it; if it wasn’t, then PP should apologize to its critics for having the gall to think that suffering an extended shootout on its own premises was somehow a political matter – even as those same critics none too subtly implicate PP may have deserved to be targeted. Implicit behind both these cognitive pretzels is not just a disavowal of the political stakes of abortion rights and cultural misogyny, but a truly remarkable notion of what constitutes “the political” itself: “Don’t worry folks – this wasn’t a political act, it was just a normal mass shooting. You know, one American going on a rampage in a high-profile public place and gunning down a whole bunch of other people, a phenomenon that happens pretty damn frequently, but which is of course not a political problem in and of itself. How could it be?”

Third, the “conversation” will inevitably end in general exhaustion, stultification, and monetized rage. Derailment and posturing from the Right will meet with self-sabotaging and posturing on the Left, and both sides will shadowbox over “gun control” while favoring magical thinking over an acknowledgement of the actual horizon of possibility. Meanwhile politicians will rise to occasion to utter the usual and increasingly pathetic pieties or pandering with promises of radical change that they couldn’t realize even if they were serious about them. And then we’ll all take a break for a bit, our energies spent, and walk away, likely less informed and more sure of ourselves than ever. Meanwhile, this mass shooting, like the previous mass shooting and the next mass shooting, won’t just spawn retweets and shares and Tumblr posts and thinkpieces and shoddy stump speeches. It will also sell guns. If you listen carefully enough, above the sound of keyboards and thumb-taps, you can hear the bills being rustled out of wallets, the metallic snap of rounds loaded into magazines.

Safe Spaces: Guns in Neoliberal America

It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything here. Writing for publications is great, but there are also ways in which that kind of work can exist in tension with more open-ended thinking. This blog is a space where I can tackle that kind of thing. And where I can talk about something that I’m not seeing many other people talk about much, if at all: the place of gun violence and gun control against the landscape of contemporary American neoliberalism.* This is an immensely complicated issue, and I’m planning on trying to tackle it with more focus and at length elsewhere. But I think we need to start talking seriously about how the American appetite for guns relates to our contemporary market, political, and affective landscape.

Because whatever you may think of it, we already have “gun control.” We just have it in a very precise neoliberal sense, complete with its own rhetoric of freedom of choice, consumer rights, and individual responsibility. Likewise, America’s booming market for guns exists in no small part thanks to deregulation, a collapse of faith in public institutions, the widespread pillaging of social services, the redistribution of resources upwards, and more.

But what’s driving that market is neoliberal affect as well. I think that the current tenor of many American gun cultures (and, yes, there is more than one) can be directly tied to the ethos of the militarized surveillance state, to the operations of the security state, and to the same forces that have given us a privatized carceral state. This state is a behemoth that simultaneously generates fear as its reason for being and outsources monetization of that fear at every possible turn. These forces don’t operate in a vacuum – they’re deeply related to one another.

A case in point: if you follow headlines and watch political speeches, you’ve probably noticed a growing shift in rhetoric from advocating for “gun control” to talking about “gun safety.” You don’t need to be George Orwell to see “control” and “safety” as two sides of the same coin, and you don’t have to be Michel Foucault to see appeals to “safety” as also being very much about ideologically coding people’s relationships to one other and to the state, stoking, legitimating, and channeling their fears even as it promises to alleviate them.

I’m not taking any policy advocacy stance here, but I do think we need to be honest that, beyond the slogans, we’re dealing with institutions, practices, and attitudes that are durable and interrelated with each other. Moreover, since this America, these factors are embedded within a deep matrix of white supremacy, gendered violence, and other forms of oppression as well. Forget the epiphenomenal dog-and-pony show of the primaries: whatever future “gun control” (or “gun safety”) we may eventually wind up getting will necessarily emerge from that backdrop, and be constrained by its horizon of possibilities. We need to confront that possibility rather than just bemoan how “other countries don’t have this problem.” That’s true – they don’t, and they never did. But we do.

How does this play out, for us, in America, in our contemporary neoliberal moment? Well, one way to think about gun control and gun violence in general involves emphasizing spaces, and the flows of things through them. Spaces can be literal (streets, schools, offices, etcetera) but also metaphorical, just public “space” in general. The things can be guns, bodies, capital, attention, fear and “safety” itself. Today, in American academic spaces, there seems to be more attention to safety than ever. I’m not just talking about active shooter safety drills, or “gun free zones,” or absurd anti-shooter countermeasures, but about the idea of schools or class rooms as “safe spaces” or spaces that should be safe. Safe not just from gun violence, from physical violence, from sexual violence, but from other modes of violence as well.

But gaze at the national landscape and you see a sudden apparent paradox. In the name of making  schools “safe spaces,” some students, faculty, and activists will clamor for a student paper to be boycotted or a controversial teacher to be fired; elsewhere, in the name of making a campus “safe,” students, faculty, and activists will insist on expanding concealed carry rights to campuses so that everybody can bring guns with them to class.

We could mine this juxtaposition for all sorts of reductive thinkpiece fodder (“PC Culture Run Amok in Our Schools!” or “Gun Culture Run Amok in Our Schools!” – take your pick) and draw a lot of fine-grained, ultimately bullshit comparisons, but I think we should just let the juxtaposition sit for a minute. Let’s just contemplate, for a moment, how the safety of faculty and students boils down to regulating the presence and flow of ideas – and of weapons. What’s at stake here?

An emotional undercurrent runs through all of it: a sense of fear, of precariousness. This emotion is no less real even if some of its expressions may strike us as exaggerated or pernicious. Because whether or not they are safe in practical terms, campuses are not experienced as safe. Empirically speaking, they certainly don’t offer everybody equal grounds for the same sense of safety: it’s hard to overstate how much campuses are already saturated with emotional stress, abuse, and financial precarity for practically everyone on them. And so people reach for what guarantors of safety they can, be they slogans or sidearms or both.

I’m going to be teaching again in the Spring. I find myself half-jokingly contemplating a scene where I begin a class by saying “Trigger warning: gun violence!” and a jumpy student pulls out a Glock and starts shooting. It’s an absurd scene, but, in honesty, what isn’t absurd at this point?

Guns and bodies; capital and souls. Thinking and writing about guns for a decade now, it seems to me that most folks don’t care about the flow of lead and blood in spaces they don’t live in or care to think about on the regular. Straw-purchased guns drop bodies in Chicago and Baltimore and most people don’t care. But suddenly guns and bodies appear in places they do care about, or that they could see being inhabited by people they know or who look like them — now, that’s a five-alarm fire. Untraceable guns killing socially marginalized people in the streets? That’s where they’re supposed to be, the implicit logic goes, killing whom they should. But legally bought guns killing people in spaces that disrupt the precious flow of human capital? A national crisis.

Our unique brand of white supremacy and neoliberalism may well be able to tamp that crisis down. We certainly have the technology and profit motive to make everybody we deem valuable stakeholders in the American enterprise feel safer, or at least, feel just safe enough that we can continue to monetize their generalized sense of fear in other ways (analogies to the War on Terror are more than incidental here).

But can America – in 2015, or 2016, or ever – offer much in the way of a corrective to the deeper structure, to the underlying, fundamentally unequal distribution of who-gives-how-many-fucks-about-whom?

Your guess on that one is as good as mine.


*Update, February 2016: I want to comment that there *is* indeed a superlative book on neoliberalism, affect, and debates over gun carrying, which I hadn’t read in its entirety before writing this – Jennifer Carlson’s “Citizen Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline.” It’s an all-around brilliant and non-pareil intervention into contemporary debates over guns by way of rigorous ethnography and an unflinching analysis of race, class, and gender within the context of the American post-industrial landscape, and I cannot recommend it more highly.

Real Talk

I’m going to be frank here. In the wake of Charleston, there’s been a lot of thought-provoking conversations about mass shootings, gun violence in general, and, inevitably, “gun control.” Many of these conversations seem divorced from reality at multiple junctures. Here’s what I think should be stipulated as the stark facts against which the seriousness of any discussion of “gun control” should be measured. They are specific features of our political process, our contemporary cultural landscape, and past history that demand acknowledgement, whatever your position on “gun control” may be.

1. There are at minimum 280-310 million guns in private hands this country. Plenty of their owners vote, and a hard-core group that will not compromise on gun rights does so with particular regularity and high impact in party primaries in key states.

2. The market for guns is not slowing down. Moreover, polling and market sales data indicate that there is a particular growth in favorable attitudes towards gun ownership and a correlative increase in gun purchases among African Americans. If you are white and scorn that impulse, I think you should reflect hard on why – and you should probably read this book, too. In any event, that expanding market of consumers is unlikely to vote against their own gun rights, especially since “gun control” has on numerous historical occasions been wielded specifically to crack down on African Americans owning guns.

3. If the murder of twenty-six toddlers and teachers in one of the wealthiest communities in the nation wasn’t a tipping point in terms of generating a counterbalancing grass-roots mobilization of pro-“gun control” voters in this jaded, violence-numbed country, then no single dramatic event ever will be. Period, full stop, end of story. There might be cumulative impact years down the line, but that’s a complicated discussion for another time.

4. On the national legislative level, lawmaking in the House is broken, and dominated by legislative capture. Not only is the Senate just as broken, its makeup skews votes on gun issues in favor of extremely low-population Western States where gun ownership and a fierce protection of gun rights is baked into voters of all affiliations.

5. On the state level, militant pro-gun actors have successful pressured legislators into expanding gun rights through a series of bellwether actions. Open Carry activists have entered State Houses and the personal offices of opposing lawmakers to tell them that voting against expanding gun rights is treason – with the obvious penalty being death. If you don’t think that impacts legislator behavior, you are fooling yourself. Because as Texas has proven, this tactic works. And mark my words – we will see much, much more of it in the next two years.

6. As far as the courts are concerned, since DC v. Heller, SCOTUS has enshrined individual Second Amendment rights more firmly than ever in American history. This has sparked a cascade of ever-expanding State-level court challenges and “preemption” laws which will only broaden gun rights. This also is not going to slow down.

7. President Barack Obama arguably never could have brought about “gun control” even if he had made it his sole priority in his first term; the fact that he couldn’t after Newtown only cemented this. The particular character of events in Charleston, in my opinion, pre-empts any substantive action on his part from the outset, and makes “gun control” a dead letter for the rest of his Presidency.

Now, even if all the above weren’t true, and “gun control,” somehow, miraculously, were to manifest on the horizon as an actual possibility, I think any serious talk about such “gun control” should also acknowledge as realities that:

8. “Gun control” and gun violence have been equally and inextricably bound up with white supremacy and white supremacist violence since before this country was founded.

9. Any Federally imposed registration process, mandated buyback program, or massive confiscation would quite likely generate violent resistance unlike anything this nation has seen since the Civil War — while also inflating an already abusive Security State apparatus ridden with white supremacy. And, as Alex Gourevitch compellingly argues, any such effort at “gun control” would also inevitably be marked by profound racial disparities and injustices in enforcement.

Whatever your position on “gun control” is, I think these are basic premises that should inflect it one way or another. They should also shape your choice and consideration of analogies when comparing “gun control” in the US to other places (Australia among them).

For my part, in addition to these premises, I believe some other things. I think that gun violence in general and mass shootings specifically implicate white supremacy at nearly ever possible juncture: in their genesis, their enactment, their representation in media, their treatment by our medical and criminal justice systems, and more. Hell, you can’t even define what a “mass shooting” is or count how many we have without immediately encountering complexities of racial framing: per most law enforcement calculi, “mass shootings” encompass acts of violence (gang shootings specifically) which decidedly do not correspond to the popular media association of the term with rampage killings carried out by young white men. I think this terminological instability is itself an index of the power of white supremacy to shape how we frame violence and measure the value of some lives over others. Likewise, I believe even Sandy Hook itself would have been unthinkable if not for white supremacy, and that the gendered dimensions of gun violence also implicate white supremacy as well.

I know some people may take issue with these other beliefs, but I think the nine assessments listed above share a sound grounding in reality. If you disagree, let me know, and I’m glad to talk. Because talking is important. We need to talk about Charleston, we need to talk about white supremacy, we need to talk about racist terrorism, we need to talk about gun violence, and we need to talk about mass shootings. But as Jennifer Carlson wisely cautions, and as I also believe, we should beware of facilely collapsing discussion of one concern into another or of gesturing at them all while saying nothing substantive about any. And all these conversations have to be reality-based — because at the end of the day, it seems to me, talking about things is only meaningful if you intend to actually do something about them.

A Sick and Broken People

A sleepless night; a morning torn between tears of rage and grief. I should not be writing, but I am. I want to say three things. What I say will perhaps be intemperate, but at least it will be honest.

One: this is terrorism. Even given the countless ways in which the label of “terrorism” has been warped, abused, and cynically evacuated of meaning over the past decade-and-a-half, refusing to call this what it is is intellectually and morally indefensible. If anything was ever terrorism, this is. If this is not terrorism, than nothing ever was. This is white supremacist terrorism, and terrorism made possible by white supremacy. Full stop.

Two: the impulse to narrowly pathologize the shooter serves the interests of white supremacy. If, once the identity of the shooter is known, we roll out a tired, ready-made media narrative that solely focuses on his background, upbringing, personal frustrations, and other life details – in short, that paints him as a mentally ill “lone wolf” – then shame on us. This framing not only slanders the mentally ill, who are vastly more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators, but it also ignores the fact that the term “lone wolf” is not an exculpatory psychological explanation. The historical origin of the contemporary phrase refers to an explicit strategy for recruiting and mobilizing terrorists. And not just any terrorists either: the first self-described “lone wolf” terrorists were proudly white supremacist ones. And yet now, when media figures and politicians use the phrase to talk about white mass murderers (but not, tellingly, those supposedly “radicalized” by Islamic fundamentalism) they do so to effectively obscure their shared racist ideology and instead beguile us into focusing on them narrowly as merely misguided or tragically demented individuals. In other words, it’s about whitewashing, and like all whitewashing, it preserves and protects white supremacy.

All this is because, three: We pathologize individual white terrorists so we don’t have to talk about the collective terroristic pathology of white supremacy itself. In May, a group of openly armed white men picketed a mosque in Arizona and menaced and harassed the congregants. Now, another armed white man has decided to murder nine people inside an African Methodist Episcopal Church. Once we know more, when the shooter is apprehended, or killed, or tried, we can talk about pathology, fine. But then, and now, we need to be talking first and foremost about another pathology – not an individual pathology, but a collective one. And this conversation shouldn’t be for purposes of exculpation: it should be about indictment. Because how many more places of worship need to be desecrated with the tears and blood of other human beings before White America shows at least some bit of spine and confronts what it has wrought, what it will not stop wreaking, and what is consuming what we have left of a soul from within? If we do not confront this, then we are a sick and broken people, and if the judgment of history shows us any mercy, we will not have deserved it.


*Update, 2:15 PM.

I wrote the above at around eight this morning and posted it a bit before nine. Since then, the alleged shooter has been identified as a twenty-one year-old man named Dylann Storm Roof, and has been captured in North Carolina. Descriptions of events inside the Church have also become available. Per the New York Times:

The gunman walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after 8 p.m., and the first call to police came shortly after 9 p.m. Among the dead was the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, pastor of the church, who was also a state senator. Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of Mr. Pinckney, told NBC News that she had spoken with a survivor of the shooting who told her the gunman reloaded five times. The survivor, she said, told her that the gunman had entered the church and asked for the pastor. Then he sat next to Mr. Pinckney during the Bible study before opening fire. “I have to do it,” the gunman was quoted as saying. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

The alleged gunman (Roof) walked into a place sacred to other human beings. They welcomed him among them. He sat with them as they prayed. And then he murdered them in cold blood. I cannot bear to imagine this scene; the mind reels. South Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley appears to sympathize, stating that: “We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”

At face value, this strikes a chord: some things some people do, we will never understand.  When it is not being marshaled as a distraction, as a sideshow to keep us from confronting white supremacy, even the most astute psychopathological workup of a single individual can only ever take us so far. Haley’s brief statement seems to gesture at this, asking us to see what happened in the Church as a “senseless tragedy.” Senseless: beyond comprehensibility, beyond reason itself — not an act of political violence or the recognizable product of an ideology historically cultivated and shared by more than a single, deranged person.

And yet: In the photo accompanying the NYT piece, Roof appears wearing a jacket stamped with the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and the defunct white supremacist Republic of Rhodesia. According to the relayed witness testimony, during his attack, the shooter invoked one of the most durable and vile tropes of the American white supremacist imaginary, straight out of The Birth of a Nation. He also essentially articulated an agenda of ethnic cleansing in the name of nationalist irredentism. And he did all this while assassinating a black State Senator and eight other people inside the Emanuel AME Church.

Sometimes you do not have to understand the why of a thing to recognize it for what it is. Pathologizing Roof as an individual is besides the point here, because what we recognize in him is nothing unfathomably inscrutable at all. It is actually very, very familiar, and the pathology in question implicates all of us insofar as it is the pathology of white supremacy itself. So the questions then become: how up-front are we willing to be about this, and about ourselves — and what are we going to do about it?

Life is Not an Integer: On Aurora and James Holmes

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.

– Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9; Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a

From the beginning of James Holmes notebook, via The Denver Post

From the beginning of James Holmes’s notebook, via The Denver Post

Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters, a life has value. Lives matter, lives have value.

These are platitudes, sure. But read them again, a few more times, until the words look weird, until they sound odd, until “life,” “matter,” and “value” float on their own, a little denatured, a little strange, and then sense how much you may feel a relation tugging the concepts together, an affinity pulsing between them. Maybe you don’t, maybe you won’t, but try it all the same.

Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters; a life has value. Lives matter; lives have value.

This seems profoundly reasonable, doesn’t it, these symmetries, between living and mattering, between mattering and having value? Your life matters, life in general matters, and your life and the lives of others have value. It would be vile for a third party to say otherwise, wouldn’t it? Likewise, isn’t it obvious that the things that matter to us in life, or that should matter to us, have some value, at least insofar as they deserve our awareness, if not expenditures of our dollars and votes, our care and our time? Life itself is precious, a thing to be cherished, and lives have value in and of themselves, on their own terms. These are premises that, to be sure, we can dishonor or forget, but which we presumably can be brought back to respect, or be educated to more compassionately and expansively recognize in the real world. Part of the power of #BlackLivesMatter, for example, leverages precisely this possibility, and pivots on our implicit equation of mattering with having value. To say that “black lives matter” is to state the obvious, or rather, to state what ought to be obvious, and thereby throw into sharp relief our gross social and personal failures to recognize that fact. Unarmed black people are twice as likely to be shot and killed by police officers than unarmed whites. These are human lives – they matter, they have value. Your brunch? Not so much.

Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters; a life has value. Lives matter; lives have value. Repeat this to yourself until it becomes a mantra; clutch it close. It is a life raft, a board to cling to in the horror of the headlines and the numbness of the day-to-day.  But it can also be a plank, a gibbet, and a cry of despair.


After two years of legal wrangling, the James Holmes trial is finally well underway. His name may mean nothing to you, which is fine: in a world of limited economies of attention, that you do not immediately recognize the name of a yet another American mass murderer may well be a sign that your care is productively and righteously distributed elsewhere. On some level, James Holmes should not matter to you – or at least, he should matter far less than the dozen people whose lives he took, or the seventy he wounded. Arrested without incident despite wearing body armor and being holed up in a car with at least four guns and various grenades, James Holmes should certainly matter less to you than the toy-carrying children or the mentally ill individuals who pose no harm to anyone but themselves, but whom our nation’s police nonetheless seem disposed to summarily execute “in fear for their lives.” When so many innocents die apparently undeserving of media attention or public memory, dignifying a mass murderer with our attention seems perversely to focus on what shouldn’t matter.

And yet by some common metrics of value – education, prestige, and, above all, money – James Holmes certainly matters, or at least did.  Before withdrawing from his studies, Holmes, now 27, was one of only a half-dozen applicants to make the cut for an elite neuroscience Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado, Denver, and successfully applied for highly competitive NIH funding; he would later give himself the job description of “laborer.” Even after he dropped out, his cash was certainly as good as anyone else’s: he spent thousands of dollars on a pair of pistols, an assault rifle, a shotgun, body armor, a gas mask, 6,000-plus rounds of ammunition, tear gas, and bomb-making materials, all legally, and all without raising any red flags; unlike other mass shooters, he also appears to have had no compunctions about paying for sex. After dying his hair like The Joker and shooting up a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012, Holmes and his mental state became the subjects of a series of legal inquiries and court hearings that cost the State some $2.2 million, all before his trial even began. Meanwhile, the cost of the ongoing trial is still unclear, the price tag of his defense remains uncertain, and the impact, financially and otherwise, for the families of those he killed, paralyzed, wounded, and traumatized, is incalculable.

Or so you would think. But against this horrifying accounting of who matters to whom, and why, and how much, we have a remarkably clear, methodically logical rejoinder from an unexpected source: James Holmes himself. Because, you see, Holmes says he knows exactly how much a life is worth. And while Holmes may be insane – and I certainly concur with clinical diagnoses that classify him as schizophrenic – his insanity reflects back to us a madness that is collective, presenting in stark, clear terms the true calculus of the value of a life, and of how much a life matters, that governs how we live now.

James Holmes has no problem endorsing the proposition that life has value, that a life has a value, that lives are valuable. As reported in the Associated Press, in interviews between Holmes and state-appointed psychiatrist William Reid, videos of which are currently being shown to the jury, the question of the value of human life is a recurrent theme. From the AP:

James Holmes believes he gained a specific amount of self-worth for each of the 12 people he killed in a Colorado movie theater, but he regrets that one of the victims was a child, according to a videotaped conversation between Holmes and a psychiatrist played in court Monday.
In a flat, emotionless voice, Holmes tells psychiatrist William Reid he collected one “value unit” for each person who died.
“I was worth 12 more people than I was before,” Holmes says.
Did the wounded count? Reid asks.
“I only count fatalities,” Holmes replies.

A life, a “value unit.” The erstwhile young scientist who conducted neuronal mappings of finches and ultra-high resolution photographs of the muscles involved in the flight of hummingbirds offers us the weight of a life in a simple, tautological equation. One equals one. A life has the value of one unit of life. Of course, the “value unit” of a human life, Holmes goes on to elaborate, is not a matter of inherent dignity, but rather an existential opportunity cost:

On another part of the video, Holmes tells Reid that human life has value, and by taking lives, he added to his own worth.
“Anything they would have pursued gets canceled out and given to me,” he says.
Asked by Reid if that calculation still makes sense to him, Holmes replies, “Yeah.”

The cool, quantifiable observations of a scientist overlap with the grim and inexorable efficiency of the free market, of professional precarity, of a worldview wherein life is win-lose and always zero-sum. A document in his writings, titled “Insights into the Mind of Madness” and scrawled in a classic lab Computation Book, Holmes reiterates this cruel, unflinching logic. “What is equal equal to?” he asks. “All men are created equal,” comes the first response, written in tiny letters. But this is clearly only a prima facie answer, marked as provisional by a tiny asterisk. The real answer follows next, larger and more authoritative. “All men are uncreated equal.” A diagram fleshes out the corresponding calculus: one stick-figure killer turns ten standing (living) stick figures into ten stick-figure corpses (laying sideways, eyes X’ed out), followed by a “= ?” As to the value of that “?”, Holmes notes, it could be “1 or 11 or -9” but, “Regardless, value of murderer ≠ 1.” And whereas all the victims are only “1s”, being anything other than that, even a negative number, must presumably be better – ergo, kill as many people as you can, to your own greater glory.

Holmes does not “count” non-fatal casualties, even the people who testified in front of him, including a recent father whom he had shot through the eye, and who told his story, haltingly, from a wheelchair. These folks are “collateral damage,” not his problem. “I didn’t figure the collateral damage had anything to do with me after the crime.” Although Holmes does “count” the child he killed, he has indicated that he chose a late-night showing of a PG-13 movie precisely in order to avoid killing children. The child he did kill, Veronica Moses-Sullivan, was six at the time. According to reports, “The 58-pound child was shot four times before she died. A bullet tore through her liver, spleen, kidney and pancreas. Another went through her right buttock, her hip and her bladder and remained lodged in her 4-foot-4 frame.” Holmes supposedly regrets this death, although he does admit, when pressed, that he would have done the same thing anyway even knowing that children were there: “I think I still would have carried it out.” For Holmes, Moses-Sullivan’s life did matter, a bit, but not so much that he won’t not take credit for killing her in his tally.

At this point, setting aside the complexities of mens rea as a technical legal matter, one wants desperately, in plain language, to insist that Holmes must be insane, since only someone who is something other than sane would methodically plan to massacre strangers based upon their notebook calculations whereby the value of a human life is a singular, numerical quantum. But, the thing is, Holmes’s logic, however insane, converges with the logic of the State precisely insofar as they deploy shared vocabularies of value, even if what “value” denotes for the law, the everyday speaker, and James Holmes are not at all the same. When the courts make determinations of value, it’s frequently in terms of damages: statutory, nominal, or otherwise, value is quantifiable. When it comes to punitive damages, judges or lawyers may also come close to speaking about values qua principles the significance of disrespecting which monetary fines or years in jail can only gesture to, but never encapsulate, repair, or make whole. This latter use comes close to what ordinary speakers frequently denote by “value” when they speak about human lives: an absolute, indivisible value that inheres in every human being above and beyond quantifiable determination. This value is understood to be universal, but also unique to the person in question, as irreplaceable as they are; it is the value that animates slogans like “People, not profits!” Holmes’s worldview at once appears to come close to each of these senses, but is in fact radically different: as he states, all lives have value, and equally, but that value is determinate. It’s singular, but not in the sense of being related to uniqueness or individuality; rather, it is, quite literally, a unit of one. And these units, like people, are, for Holmes, interchangeable, liquid, and disposable. Everyone may be “created” equal, but the value of a person can be taken from them by “uncreating” them, that is, by taking their life, at which point its value becomes yours, and no one can take it from you. In other words, the lives of other people mattered to James Holmes only insofar as he could gobble them up like Pac-Man eating dots. And thus, under questioning from the District Attorney, the psychiatrist observes that “Whatever regret [Holmes] had, he makes it clear that getting the points and killing the people was worth it.” In the eyes of the law, this is both a sane-enough acknowledgement of the “value of life” and the sign of a premeditated plan to disregard it nonetheless. It only follows, then, that the State, in full realization of the principle of an eye for an eye, seeks to take Holmes’s life in return. But of course, since the State cannot kill him a dozen times, Holmes, who acknowledges that what he did was “legally wrong,” will nonetheless see himself as the winner to the end, as always more than just 1. For him, life is an integer, positive or negative. It may be measurable as an absolute value in the narrow mathematical sense, but this is the exact opposite of what we mean, in a moral sense, when we say life has absolute value, when we say a life has value, that each life matters.


If Colorado prosecutors succeed in their objective of getting Holmes the death penalty, and current challenges to the death penalty in state courts are overcome, the mandatory appeals and cost of the execution will likely run in the tens of millions of dollars. If Holmes’s own accounting is a sign of insanity, this seems like a different order of insanity, a different species of madness. Commit a massacre, and Colorado will spend tens of millions of dollars prosecuting and then (maybe) executing you. Meanwhile, if Aurora police are found legally liable for the shooting death of Naeschylus Vinzant, a 37-year old unarmed black man whom local officers killed this March, one might well wonder how much any trials involved might cost, and how much the municipality might pay his family in damages, and what could be inferred, from that, about the comparative value, in dollar terms, of the life of an unarmed black fugitive parolee gunned down by police while “resisting arrest” versus that of a white mass murderer whom the state will quietly tie to a special bed in an brightly lit room and inject with a sodium thiopental cocktail before an audience of witnesses.

But there is yet one last bit of madness on display in Aurora. Jessica Redfield Ghawi was 24 when James Holmes killed her in Aurora. In an eerie prefiguration of events in the theater, Ghawi had missed being present for another mass shooting in Toronto by a matter of mere minutes only a month before. When Holmes shot Ghawi six times with his Smith and Wesson M&P15, an AR-15 style assault rifle, a friend tried to administer first aid to her until he discovered that part of her skull had been blown apart, exposing her brain – at which point, unable to do anything else, he prayed as she died in his arms. Two years later, with help from lawyers from the Brady Center, Ghawi’s mother and stepfather, Sandy and Lonnie Philips, brought a suit against several of the online retailers from whom Holmes had acquired his ammunition, body armor, high-capacity magazines, and tear gas grenades. This suit did not ask for damages, but instead sought an injunction to stop the retailers’ “negligent and dangerous business practices.” This suit entered into complicated legal territory, involving not only the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields ammunition and gun manufacturers and retailers from suits by shooting victims, but also several Colorado statutes. The merits of this particular suit, and the issue of online retailing of guns and ammunition are topics worth discussing another time, but what matters for our purposes here is the outcome of the Phillipses’ effort: not only did a US District Judge throw out their suit, he ruled that the Phillipses should be on the hook for the online retailers’ legal fees. The total amount? Some $220,000.

Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters, a life has value. Lives matter, lives have value. But how much? The parents of the victim of a mass shooting owe the people who supplied the shooter with his gear just shy of a quarter of a million dollars.  The police officer who killed Naeschylus Vinzant in what coroners have since ruled a homicide is back at work, albeit confined to desk duty; the coverage takes pains to observe that he “has been honored for helping save lives during the Colorado theater shooting.”  And the Colorado theater shooter himself will consume our attention and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, sitting there, implacable, as his victims and their families lay out how much the lives he ended mattered, trying to express, impossibly, the value of the lives he took. And if Colorado does ultimately kill James Holmes, returning to him what he visited on others, he will leave this earth in confident self-vindication. For the State will have not just ratified that he matters enough to prosecute and to kill, but, in so doing, in his eyes, it will let him walk away with the balance sheet in his favor.

Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters, a life has value. Lives matter, lives have value. We will tell ourselves and each other these things, and we must, even though we know the words mean everything, and yet nothing. And James Holmes may well be telling them to himself, too, and to anyone who listens. But when he says them, he will speak neither from hypocrisy, nor from heartbreak, but from triumph.

Cross of Irony


Last Friday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the NYPD will be upgrading its equipment by acquiring $7.3 million dollars worth of high-end bulletproof vests. These vests, which Police Commissioner Benjamin Bratton calls the “Rolls Royce” of body armor, cost $700 each and contain a ceramic plating capable of stopping knife thrusts as well as shotgun blasts.

No one disputes that police need protection, and it’s a basic fact of materials science that bullet-proof vests degrade over time and need to be replaced. The issue here, though, is that these particular vests are made by a company named Paraclete Body Armor, and, if the photos from the press conference are any indication, they bear that company’s logo: a cross. And not just any cross, either – it’s a big red one with distinctively tapered corners that is immediately recognizable as the symbol of the Knights Templar. The Templars were an order of European warrior-monks that arose during the Crusades in the Twelfth Century and who, among other things, were involved in numerous atrocities – including systematically decapitating some three thousand prisoners, largely women and children, at Acre in 1191. Like other monastic orders during the Middle Ages, the Templars followed a “Rule” (a sort of personal code of conduct and set of organizational practices). But unlike more friendly monks whose Rules involved morning prayers and guidelines for brewing beer, the Templars’ Rule was obsessed with martyrdom – and the red crosses they wore explicitly symbolized their willingness to die for their faith.

It’s not a coincidence that the company in question uses this logo. “Paraclete” is the Greek name for the Holy Spirit, and Paraclete Body Armor itself was founded by one Tim D’Annunzio, a former paratrooper and born-again Christian. To call D’Annunzio a colorful figure is an understatement: he’s a strident gun rights activist, a multiple-time Tea Party-favored candidate for Congress in North Carolina who held “machine gun socials” to support his campaigns, and a donor to the notorious anti-John Kerry “Swift Boat” ads. He’s also denounced President Barack Obama for “associating with terrorists,” and stated that “As a Christian, I cannot vote for Barack Obama.” Although his blog, “Christ’s War,” is now no longer operational, and much of his online presence appears to have been scrubbed, he’s still on Twitter, where his thoughts on Islam and Muslims in general are a matter of public record.

Although D’Annunzio sold off Paraclete a few years back, the company still uses his preferred logo. Which, I emphasize again, also happens to have been the symbol of an order of religious fanatics dedicated to putting nonbelievers to the sword and who believed that dying in battle while wearing that Cross guaranteed them entry into Heaven. Now whether under D’Annunzio’s stewardship or otherwise, Paraclete can use whatever it wants for its logo, much as scope manufacturer Trijicon can inscribe Biblical verses on optics shipped to US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The question, rather, is: should the NYPD be buying this product? What kind of message does that patronage send to the general public, and what kind of message does an individual cop wearing a Crusader’s Cross on their chest send to civilians with whom he or she interacts? The NYPD has previously taken the stance that religiously symbolic garments must be more or less concealed beneath uniforms. Presumably these crosses, which appear on the ceramic plating within the vest, will be hidden, but will the logo be visible elsewhere? And even if it is hidden, what about police officers who find wearing that symbol to be abhorrent to their own beliefs – but who still need protection regardless?

I hope and presume the contracting process was transparent and fair, and that the NYPD got the best product they could. That said, I think it’s inadvisable and unacceptable if the department actually uses models that have the crosses on them, and I question the judgment of choosing this particular brand (all other alternatives being equal) in the first place. If you think I’m overreacting, consider a counterfactual example: what if the NYPD just dropped seven million dollars on bulletproof vests with a big scimitar on them, manufactured by a company called “Ghazigear” that was founded by a darling of the Muslim Brotherhood who had run for Congress after making a series of statements saying GW Bush was behind 9/11?

After the absurd, profoundly ignorant kerfuffle over the President’s comments about the Crusades and religion’s role in American racial violence, can you imagine the response? And yet here we are, in 2015, dressing armed public servants in garb that hearkens back to one of the most violent religious conflicts in history. What are we thinking – or are we thinking at all?

Update 2/10: My friend Scott Moringiello – who remembers his Jesuit education vastly better than I do mine – correctly points out that “cross” and “crucifix” are not technically interchangeable: a crucifix features the suspended body of Christ (a corpus) on a cross, whereas a cross is just, well, a cross. I have updated the terms used in this piece accordingly.

Update 2/19: The Village Voice’s Jon Campbell, who contacted the NYPD about this issue, reports that the Department wrote back to him and insisted that the vests it has procured will not feature the cross, “which it describes as an adhesive and an optional component.” The Department admits that it was “aware of the logo” although it remains unclear why a model with the cross was featured at the press conference; Campbell describes the procurement of the vests as “unusually rapid.”

American Snipers

James Earl Ray's Remington Gamemaster 30-06. via the National Archives.

James Earl Ray’s Remington Gamemaster 30-06. via the National Archives.

This past weekend, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper banked $90.2 million in ticket sales. In case you weren’t already aware, Eastwood’s action-packed biopic stars Bradley Cooper as the late Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who claimed to have killed over 250 insurgents during the course of four deployments in Iraq. Although some of Kyle’s exploits are dubious – for example, while he boasted of shooting “dozens of bad guys” in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, there is no proof of this – his own attitudes are matter of public record, expressed in his writings: “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis,” he wrote, “I hate the damn savages.” Nonetheless, Kyle’s co-authored memoir, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in US Military History became a runaway NYT bestseller, and Eastwood’s film adaptation has been nominated for no less than six Oscars.

The success of American Sniper unfolds against the broader landscape of a widespread cultural fascination with snipers. You can donate to sniper-specific charities and even “Adopt a Sniper” by sending them a care package. Sniper-themed apparel, bumper stickers, and other merchandise is all over the internet – including “I  My Sniper” T-shirts. A large subculture of people online track record-breaking distance shots and confirmed kill counts of military snipers; sometimes, such feats even make mainstream headlines and are re-dramatized on “educational” TV shows. If you’re a video game fan, you can rack up extra points pulling off long-distance Call of Duty and Counterstrike kills, or play sniper-specific video games that luxuriate in slow-motion video clips of bullets tearing through anatomically correct bodies, pulverizing organs and shattering bones as they go.

Now, I find this mania over snipers deeply troubling. The sniper represents the allure of power through the long-range projection of deadly force – a fantasy with a distinctively American ideological appeal. They’re the paradigmatic lone warriors of the War on Terror, patriotic avenging angels who inflict righteous destruction on evildoers from far-off, hidden positions. Like drone operators, snipers wield cutting-edge, high-precision equipment to produce tremendous destruction from afar. But unlike drone pilots, whose work is sanitized, largely base-bound, and removed from the zone of action, the sniper offers the image of a wily hunter of men, embedded on the battlefield, to be sure, but cleverly hidden, and still far enough way to pick away his enemies from relative safety, although with just enough of a frisson of personal exposure to get an audience’s adrenaline pumping. The sniper is grizzled, impassioned, and athletic, but also cool, composed, and professional; although alone, he is capable of inflicting devastatingly disproportionate mayhem. All this combines to appeal to various quintessentially American ideals of personal independence and masculinity – and to imperial fantasies of our own national power.

Of course, the contradictions here are obvious any day of the week. We revile our supposed “barbarian” enemies in the Middle East for decapitating people with swords, and then go to the movies and cheer every graphic headshot a badass Texas-born SEAL in a ghillie suit delivers from a mile away by pulling the trigger on his $7,000 rifle. But on today of all days, the ugliness couldn’t be clearer. Writing in Buzzfeed, Adam Vary observes that, “By the end of the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, the film is projected to make roughly $105 million at the domestic box office.”

Dwell on that sentence for a moment: “By the end of the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend…”

A movie about an American sniper – the killer of at least 160 people, and a man who expressed odious, bigoted views – breaks box office records on the same day that our nation honors the legacy of an American Civil Rights icon who was murdered from a block away by a white supremacist assassin with a scoped Remington .30-06.

That’s America for you. America: a nation where it costs $60 million to make a movie transforming a man who bragged about gunning down hundreds of Iraqis abroad and dozens of desperate Louisianans back home into the celluloid hero of a global war that will ultimately cost US taxpayers anywhere from $4 to $6 trillion. America: the same nation where a Civil Rights luminary who preached nonviolence and denounced the “triple evils” of poverty, racism, and militarism can be cut down by a rifle bullet that cost 26 cents.