Sadly, it’s the sort of thing that happens on a regular basis these days.
Someone — whether a disgruntled employee, a mentally unstable individual, a socially-awkward or obsessive person, you fill in the blank — goes on a shooting spree and exacts vengeance through the barrel of a gun. People express shock that this sort of thing could happen where they live, in the safe environs far from the nation’s notoriously crime-ridden inner cities. Some will claim there were no indications the shooting suspect was capable of such violence.
Meanwhile, others will insist there was always something off about the person. In any case, after the obligatory media coverage and perfunctory surface-level discussions, after the memorials are held, the grief counselors are dispatched and the victims are buried, things generally go back to normal. All is forgotten, that is, until the next tragic shooting that leaves x number of people dead and y number of people injured.
It was said that Amy Bishop, that biology professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, was angry because she had been denied tenure by the university. She supposedly visited a shooting range before her shooting rampage. And she was obsessed with President Obama. We also know that she shot her brother to death years earlier in what ruled an accidental killing, and she was a suspect in an attempted pipe bombing of her professor at Harvard.
There are questions that are beyond the scope of this commentary, but deserve some mention nonetheless. We know that the three victims who died, allegedly at her hand, were faculty of color. Was this deliberate? Certainly there is a story hidden in there, somewhere. Had Amy Bishop been a person of color herself— perhaps an African-American, or a Muslim with an Arab surname—would she have eluded the institutional screeners and gatekeepers for so long, given her sketchy past? Was she given a pass because she is white, despite her issues? Perhaps for some, these are insensitive questions to ask at this time, or any other time for that matter, but ask I must.
Oddly and consistently, such questions are always raised after the fact. You never hear of a shooting rampage that was thwarted, with the perpetrator-to-be either apprehended or otherwise stopped in his or her (generally his) tracks. Never do we hear of an intervention that allows such troubled individuals to receive the counseling and treatment they need, to protect themselves, and us, from the demons that haunt them.
And yet, while we will dismiss the perpetrators of such vicious acts as criminals or mentally disturbed outliers, our response to these tragedies reveals far more about our sick society than the troubled souls who committed the crimes. Tens of thousands of people die from gunfire in America every year, and most never get media attention. And yet, in a nation that has normalized the notion of a gun for every person, this is apparently a situation we are willing to tolerate. Based on the lack of an adequate public policy response to America’s gun problem, one must conclude that these firearm deaths are viewed as collateral damage, the price society is willing to pay for a so-called “free” society of gun ownership rights.
No one can believe that the level of violence, of gun violence, in the United States is compatible with a stable, vibrant and free society. Add to the mix the high level of hopelessly unemployed and/or foreclosed citizens who lack an outlet to vent their frustrations; the legions of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have returned home with undiagnosed or untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; and the use of prisons as a repository for the mentally ill, with inmates returning to the streets sicker than when they were on lockdown. Lots of guns, economic despair, deprivation and mental illness—these conditions are a recipe for disaster.
In short, we are sick, and we need good medicine. The nation’s political leadership often has proven too cowardly or too compromised to provide anything more than band-aids, but the band-aids haven’t worked. In a country with so many crises, gun violence is yet another problem we have avoided for too long, only to have it shoot us in the face. But we cannot ignore it anymore, and we must make it right.
This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.