“My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do. You may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don’t think foolishly.” – James Boswell, “Life of Johnson”
What is probably my favorite episode of “Lost,” “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead,” tells the story of how Hugo “Hurley” Reyes wound up on the island. After winning the lottery, Hurley experiences the worst case of “lottery curse” imaginable: His grandfather has a heart attack, the house he bought for his mother burns down, his girlfriend runs off with his best friend, and a guy leaps to his death outside of his accountant’s office.
The curse culminates when he is interviewed by a television reporter, the eponymous Tricia Tanaka, during the re-opening of Mr. Cluck’s Chicken Shack, the restaurant he bought with his lottery winnings. A few minutes after the interview ends, a meteorite hits Mr. Cluck’s, killing Tanaka and her cameraman. All Hurley can do is yell “Tricia Tanaka is dead!” into the phone.
That scene is a metaphor for how Americans respond not only to events like the massacre in Las Vegas, and “natural” (more about those scare quotes below) disasters like the catastrophic flooding in South Texas, but also to the countless unremarked-upon tragedies all around us.
We react as if they were meteorites hitting restaurants out of the blue. We feel bad and look for ways to help those affected, while regarding what happened as tragic misfortune that was completely out of our control, the actions of a malevolent force majeure.
Thus, in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre, the White House said, “There’s a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country.” Now, if by “political debate” it meant trying to exploit the massacre for partisan advantage, they’re correct. That would be obscene.
But politics is more than “having to do with attaining and maintaining power of the apparatus of the state.” There’s another, more ancient definition of “politics” than this “Weberian” (as William T. Cavanaugh characterizes it) understanding. In this ancient definition, politics is that which “[gives] order through law and ritual to the social practices and everyday life of a distinctive community of people.”
It’s difficult to maintain that the large gap in gun-related deaths between the United States and other industrialized nations is irrelevant to the “social practices and everyday life of a distinctive community of people,” i.e., the United States of America. And it’s difficult to ignore that mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas are, with very few exceptions, a uniquely American phenomenon among rich democratic nations. If these aren’t appropriate subjects for political debate, then I don’t know what is.
So, as Samuel Johnson urged, we should clear our minds of cant. While no one could have predicted that Stephen Paddock would knock the windows out of his 32nd floor suite at the Mandalay Bay hotel and open fire on the crowd on the other side of the Strip, that something like this could and would happen somewhere was foreseeable.
After all, according to NPR, “seventy-five to 80 percent of your businesses are looking to now do some type of armed intruder/active shooter policy procedure and training.” And this was before the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando.
Similarly, the fact that someone might use an inexpensive, easy to install, and surprisingly effective “goofy little doodad,” a.k.a., “bump stock,” to convert what are called, depending on your viewpoint, “semi-automatic” or “self-loading” rifles into a “nearly fully-automatic weapon,” with a corresponding increase in lethality, was also foreseeable.
Now, if you’re thinking that this is a plea for gun control, it’s not. Ross Douthat is correct when he says that the “regulatory measures [gun control advocates] propose” in the aftermath of events like Las Vegas “often lack any direct connection to the massacres themselves.”
None of these measures would have prevented Stephen Paddock from arming himself to the teeth. He would have passed even the most stringent and thorough background check. He purchased his guns from a licensed dealer. And, given his “meticulous planning,” it’s risible to think that a waiting period would have had any impact on his actions.
And, while I’m not as skeptical about the possible impact of an Australian-type approach as Leah Libresco is in the Washington Post, advocating for such an approach in the United States is, for political, legal, and cultural reasons, a non-starter. You might as well propose that every American be given a Tesla, which would make David the Swede (not his real name) very happy, as a way of combating climate change.
What I am pleading for is that we clear our minds of cant, and stop reacting to events like Las Vegas as if they were the cultural/political equivalent of a meteorite striking Mr. Cluck’s. While they are unpredictable, they are foreseeable.
More to the point, they are the foreseeable consequences of the way we define “freedom.” As Douthat writes, “Gun ownership is a form of expressive individualism no less than the liberties beloved in blue America, and it makes sense that a culture that rejects erotic limits would reject limits on self-defense as well.”
One conservative pundit put it more starkly: The fact that “violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are” is “the price of freedom,” to which another conservative commentator replied, in effect, “Amen.”
It’s not only guns and sex. Obviously, there was nothing anyone could do to stop Hurricane Harvey from dumping so much rain on Houston that the Earth’s crust sank by two centimeters. But a catastrophic storm like Harvey was not only foreseeable, it was actually foreseen.
What’s more, Harvey was the third 500-year flood Houston has experienced in the past three years. In May 2016, “more than 15 inches of rain fell just northeast of Houston in a span of 12 hours . . . just a few days after more than 20 inches fell in two days northwest of the city.”
The potential for mind-boggling flooding in South Texas is something that anyone paying attention, especially our leaders, “cannot not know.” Yet, not only did our policies, especially land-use regulations, not reflect this reality, but they actively encouraged homebuilders and homeowners to ignore it.
As John Stonestreet recently said on BreakPoint, “some ‘natural disasters’ aren’t always entirely, well, natural. Human freedom and planning leads to homes and cities being built in places susceptible to earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions. . . . These choices can put people in harm’s way when nature turns dangerous.”
While we can be upset, saddened, and even appalled at what happened in Las Vegas (or Houston), we cannot be surprised, much less shocked. Doing so turns us into victims of fate without agency and, just as important, without responsibility.
I began with a reference to “Lost.” I’ll end with one from “The Godfather, Part II.” Hyman Roth talks to Michael Corleone about the death of his friend Moe Greene—a fictionalized Bugsy Siegel, the creator of modern Las Vegas, who was killed on Michael’s orders at the end of the first Godfather film.
He tells Michael that he wasn’t angry (actually he was) when he heard about Greene’s death, adding that “when he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, ‘This is the business we’ve chosen.’”
The world we live in, which made the events in Las Vegas possible, as well as countless other tragedies, is the one we’ve chosen, to a large extent, whether we wish to admit it or not. Believing otherwise is foolish.
Image courtesy of Lostpedia.
Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.