Monthly Archives: June 2015

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.