Sunday’s attack in Las Vegas has our nation struggling with a storm of emotions, but for most, shock is not one of them. There is helplessness and hopelessness. There is rage and fear, and sadness and horror.
But while the largest mass shooting in the history of the United States is terrible, it is not terribly surprising.
It only took about 16 months to exceed the death toll in the last record shooting, the killing of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Charleston. San Bernardino. Sandy Hook and Aurora. Columbine and Virginia Tech. Fort Hood and Chattanooga. The litany relentlessly grows longer.
This is who we are right now.
This is something that happens in the United States.
Police say at least 59 people were killed and more than 500 were injured after 64-year-old Stephen Paddock began shooting at a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas from his 32nd-floor room at the Mandalay Bay resort, where at least 16 weapons were found. The shooting happened at the end of a weekend festival, as country music star Jason Aldean performed. Monday, along with stories of crushing loss, details began to emerge of extraordinary bravery and kindness among concertgoers and first responders.
This, it cannot be forgotten, is also who we are.
In truth, these acts of humanity are much more who we are than focusing on violence allows us to remember. There was one Stephen Paddock there Sunday. There were hundreds or thousands of selfless and brave people whose actions were far more representative of our true nature.
Our good people far outnumber our bad ones, but healthy cells far outnumber deadly ones in those stricken with cancer, too. We are an ill nation. We are suffering from a soul-sickness that goes far beyond the gun laws that need changing and the mental health needs of individuals who demand treatment. Our tendency to splinter into hostile camps every time any serious attempt is made to address these needs for sensible regulation and necessary treatment, is at most a part of the problem. More likely it is a reflection of what ails us, or maybe just a symptom.
Americans are united in this moment, at least. In the immediate aftermath of another astonishing tragedy, we are not divided. We want the senseless killing to stop. We want to be safe from attack, and to know that our loved ones are safe, and that all Americans are.
That means the toxic stew of emotions, justifications, grievance, violence, hatred, pain and contempt for each other has to end. That means that pointlessly loose weapons laws and objectification of victims that leads furious men to repeatedly slaughter Americans have to change. That means addressing all of it, together, understanding that even those with differing views are not enemies in the fight to heal this nation and make it safe. Are we not all allies in this, really? Can we not remember that we are, tomorrow and next week and next month, and build on that?
Details about Paddock will emerge over time. What’s known, sadly, is the checklist most of us now have ready in response to such an act, whether Paddock turns out to fit it or not. We wonder which culture war he thought he was fighting, and on which side. Religion, maybe, or race, or some other abstraction that convinces men that mass murder is justified.
Las Vegas comes at a moment when Americans feel more and more powerless. We are beset by the difficulty of responding to hurricanes, and the threat of rising water and rising temperatures. We are worried about a madman with nuclear weapons. Our political and cultural differences seem to lead to hatred rather than debate, venom rather than compromise.
We are not powerless, though. We are writing the ongoing story of a great nation. We can pass better laws, provide better care, exhibit better behavior. We can be more loving, more united, less prone to anger and aggrievedness.
It is important to become a country where it’s harder to commit mass murder. But it’s more important to become a country where people don’t feel the need, or the right, to go on such a spree.