The sad truth of American violence

Can we finally be honest with ourselves? Too many Americans seem able to just shrug their shoulders when they see headlines about mass shootings and terror attacks, whether they occur in a black church, a Planned Parenthood facility, elementary school, gun-free zone or San Bernardino — as long as they can point to the blood running in any given street as confirming a belief they already held.

Facts don’t seem to matter. Trying to understand each other across difference is seen as a sign of weakness. Even the old boogeyman — shared fear of the scary other — can’t unite us.

But imagine, if you will, how different the debate — and media coverage — would have been since 2012, when the U.S. began experiencing this latest spate of mass shootings, had the ethnicity of the perpetrators been different?

Imagine, for example, if a man with olive skin had walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School, instead of the young white man who did, and murdered 20 children and the adults who were caring for them.

Imagine if it was a young al Qaeda supporter who had walked into a Charleston church and slaughtered nine people while yelling “infidels must die” instead of a young white supremacist fond of the Confederate flag.

Imagine if, in the name of Allah, a gunman got into an hourslong standoff at a Planned Parenthood clinic and talked about Sharia law punishment for “baby parts.”

Imagine if it wasn’t a young white couple who murdered two Las Vegas police officers at lunch during an “ambush-style attack” but a young couple who, instead of leaving a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and a Nazi swastika on the dead bodies and declaring it the beginning of a revolution, left an ISIS black flag and yelled “jihad” to terrified onlookers.

Imagine if it was a radicalized Muslim convert, not a white police officer, who pumped 16 bullets into a young black man in the middle of a Chicago street and tried to reload after emptying his clip.

Imagine if it was an ISIS sympathizer who lured a 9-year-old black boy into an alley and executed him, or ISIS gangs who controlled poverty-stricken American neighborhoods, not the Crips and Bloods.

Imagine if dark-skinned men with foreign accents shot up the meet-your-legislator event that changed Gabby Giffords’ life forever, and a movie theater in Colorado showing “The Dark Knight,” instead of white men.

Imagine all this happening in the years after Homeland Security released a report detailing why Islamic extremism was the nation’s primary threat, not homegrown terrorism that is mostly perpetrated by disaffected white men.

This is a confounding era of American violence — one in which mass shootings have become routine, gun violence has become normalized in too many communities, and the nation continues outpacing the industrialized world in gun-related deaths even as the overall level of crime remained well below the peak reached in the 1990s.

For a while, I thought that only the presence of a common, clearly identified enemy could convince enough Americans that change must come — to not allow a decades-long downward trend of crime to be reversed. That galvanizing force, I assumed, would be particularly effective if it came in the image of people with funny-sounding names, because there has always been something about violence perpetrated by those wearing dark skin that moves us like nothing else, especially when that violence is aimed at non-dark skin people, or even perceived to be.

Now, though, I’m not sure what it would take to get us back to our center.

Sure, if this week’s shooting in San Bernardino, which left 14 dead and 21 injured, is definitively linked to ISIS or some other form of international terrorism, we’ll finally “do something” about that particular form of gun violence. There’s a good chance, though, that it will just be to foolishly send thousands of American troops back into the Middle East even as our politicians talk tough and look for ways to curtail constitutional rights, as though we haven’t seen that movie before.

But we still won’t be willing to attack the problem at its roots, largely because we don’t even want to know what the root causes are if they threaten to undo our well-crafted ideological beliefs.

Just hours before the San Bernardino shooting, a group of doctors went before Congress begging them to remove a virtual ban on research into the causes of gun violence. Think about that for second. Not only are we unwilling to take a serious look at the laws and societal norms that have created the worst level of gun violence of any rich nation, but we refuse to even allow top scientists and researchers to help us understand what’s leading to the carnage.

So let’s stop pretending. We don’t mourn these deaths. We prey upon the memories of the dead, then go along on our merry way until it’s feeding time again.

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