By Victor D. Infante
There is a level where the very phrase “mass shooting” has become stripped of its shock value. A school in Florida or Connecticut, a movie theater in Colorado, a church in South Carolina, a country music concert in Nevada. They’re all more or less the same story, after all: A broken man stitches himself together with specious ideology, some twisted scripture where the hatred fed by their rage and pain boils them into explosion: call it white supremacy, or radical Islam, or misogyny, or just a seething resentment that’s been left to fester under their skin too long. There are variations on the theme, certainly – the Boston Marathon was attacked with a bomb, not guns; a woman was one of the shooters in an Oregon office park – but really, it all ends the same: People are dead, and we’re left to explain to the children watching this unfold why we failed to stop it. Again.
Dimly, I recall a comic book from the ’90s, where Superman is asked by a student what it feels like to fight supervillains. “It feels like failure, every time,” he says, and although I remember literally nothing else about that story, I remember that. That’s stayed with me a long time.
There are only two personal things you need to know about me to understand my perspective on violence. The first is that my father was shot to death in an act of street violence in 1974, when I was 2 years old. That event has been my magnetic north for the entirety of my life, the trauma that’s pushed me as a writer, trying to transform that omnipresent pain into something … beautiful? Useful? I don’t really know. Not something to make the pain go away. I’ve learned by now that doesn’t happen. Something to help anyone else feeling that way feel less alone? Something to stop anyone from having to feel this way at all? Maybe. It’s not a logical pursuit. Let’s try not to put it in a box.
The second thing you need to know about me is that I grew up loving comic books. Indeed, I learned how to read on The Amazing Spider-Man, as my mother amusedly reminds me. In my childhood, I think I was drawn to what seemed to be a sort of Manichean purity: the good guys were good guys, and the bad guys were bad guys, and it doesn’t take any great psychologist to see I was looking for a father figure in the fictions to fill the void in my world. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Flash, I wrote in an overly earnest poem in college, My unknown father in photographs.
In many ways, then, my inner child is delighted to live in the age of superhero TV and cinema, with all its moments of brilliance and formulaic shoddiness, and while mostly they manage to skim the surface of merely being fun, occasionally they can hit something primal, ideas about what it means to be a hero or villain that are deep-baked into the four-color concept.
One such moment, on the CW TV show Supergirl, resonated with me immediately, and echoed later at the end of the Marvel movie, Black Panther. On the TV show, in the most recent episode before a mid-season hiatus, Supergirl has discovered that the villainous “World Breakers” – seemingly alien women with powers that surpass her own, hell-bent on razing the entire planet – are controlled by some sort of alien consciousness. Beneath that, they’re just scared, confused women unaware of what’s happening to them.
“Maybe we’re not supposed to beat them,” muses Supergirl, to he her sidekick Winn. “Well,” he replies, “then how are we supposed to win?” Says Supergirl, with an air of epiphany: “We save them.”
We save them.
Culturally speaking, we twist ourselves into knots trying to genrefy people who shoot other people, and the effort tells us more about ourselves than it does the actual act of violence. If the shooter is Muslim, he’s a terrorist; if he’s Latino or African-American, he’s a thug; if he’s white, he’s a mentally disturbed lone wolf. If he’s a cop of whatever race, and a chorus of voices arise to say he had no choice. We pick at any of these generalizations, and the truth is almost always more complicated, but nuance isn’t welcome in the discussion of violence in America. We do this because it’s easier to buy into a pre-existing narrative. We do this so we can justify holding onto our guns. We do this so we can eschew any responsibility in the matter.
When Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, it was easier to write it off as a tragic accident than to take on the deeper work of addressing institutional racism in the police force.
When Dylan Roof murdered nine people in a church, it was easier to write him off as mentally deranged than it was to address the growing toxicity of white supremacy. Recently, when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 students and faculty at Stoneman Douglas High School, the public outcry finally grew so loud that politicians began shambling toward some action, but their efforts have been minuscule, barely perceptible as action at all.
Most politicians – particularly but not exclusively Republicans – are terrified of gun control legislation. It puts them into the cross-hairs, pardon the pun, of both the influential Nation Rifle Association and the fetishists who believe in a fairly extreme interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, such as the Pennsylvania churchgoers who has their AR-15s blessed in a dramatically publicized service. But as terrified as politicians are of gun control, they’re even more afraid of what lies underneath the posturing and protectiveness over what is really just clumps of metal.
Gun apologists talk to me about the need to feel safe, and I have two thoughts: 1.) I’ve actually had my life irrevocably altered because of gun violence, and I rarely ever feel unreasonably safe, even in what people tell me are “bad neighborhoods,” and 2.) The least safe I have ever felt in public was in Cairo shortly after the first Gulf War, with automatic weaponry on every street corner. I couldn’t help but become hyper-aware of the weapons, and they made me anxious in ways that traveling elsewhere in Egypt didn’t. They made me nervous in ways that traveling anywhere didn’t.
“Security” is the word people use to explain why they feel they need to own and carry guns, but from the outside, it just seems like they’re frightened all the time, and rather than allaying that fear, the guns only seem to heighten the anxiety.
George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin because he was terrified of a young black man. Timothy Loehmann shot Tamir Rice because he was terrified of a black child. Dylan Roof shot up a church because he was terrified of black people. Omar Mateen went on a killing spree because he was afraid of homosexuals. And so on, and so on, and so on …
Who taught these people to be afraid? Was there a moment, back before these collision courses were set, that someone could have stopped this?
When do we begin to make a monster?
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of Ryan Coogler’s brilliant Black Panther movie is the arc of its primary villain, Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan. Killmonger – the son of the king of Wakanda’s brother – is abandoned in Oakland after his father’s slaying at King T’Chaka’s hands – a sin in the distant past that becomes the first kernel of Kilmonger becoming a monster, embarking on a career of scorched earth and murder that he dresses in ideology – the end to the political and economic oppression of person of African descent around the world – but which is really centered on feeding his all-consuming rage, a rage undoubtedly born when he was a terrified, abandoned child.
But Killmonger is not a cartoon, and amid the madness and violence, he has some good points, which is what makes him such a compelling villain.
“In spite of his ambitions for global domination,” writes Adam Serwer, in The Atlantic, Killmonger does something remarkable and perhaps unprecedented for the superhero genre — he wins the argument. When T’Challa learns that his father killed N’Jobu and abandoned N’Jadaka (Killmonger), he is horrified: The truth shatters his faith in his father and in his father’s infallibility. On the spirit plane, T’Challa declares to the manifestations of his ancestors, the previous Black Panthers, You were wrong. All of you, you were wrong.
“Where was Wakanda? Wakanda failed. Killmonger was right. He is blinded by his pain to the evil of his own methods, but he is correct that Wakanda abandoned its responsibility to use its unmatched power to protect black people around the world. They could have stopped the endless march of souls into The Void. They did not.”
Pain recognizes pain, and while I am not African-American, I can relate somewhat to that ache of abandonment, the feeling that it didn’t have to happen, and the rage that simmers beneath the skin from that thought. It is very easy to let that rage consume you. Indeed, I was easily drawn into fights as a child, always angry and off-balance. Over time, I came to an understanding of that rage, and the pain and fear from which it was birthed: I assuaged my rage by finding things to cling to: comic books to Dungeons & Dragons and Rush, then poetry, then Rocky Horror Picture Show and punk rock. Those things I clasped for support were benign, and helped shape me into the person I am today. A few different turns, and it could have been something far more awful. Orange County, California, where I was raised, had a thriving White Supremacist scene in the ’80s, and I was a lost white boy. With my affinity for punk, I could have easily stumbled down that road, given the wrong set of acquaintances. I was lucky, and “lucky” is the most bitter-tasting word that I know.
The Parkland shooting has, understandably, returned the nation’s attention back to the safety of America’s schools, with old suggestions such as metal detectors and armed guards now joined by the absurd new suggestion of arming teachers. Never mind that sheriff’s deputy Scot Peterson was present and armed during the Parkland shooting, and failed to do anything. Never mind that teachers’ possession of guns on campuses have created unsafe conditions before, such as in 2014, when, according to MSNBC, Utah teacher Michelle Ferguson-Montgomery shot herself in the leg while at school, or in 2016, when Pennsylvania teach Jean Dixon, according to CBS, accidentally left her gun in an elementary school bathroom. And of course, there’s the bizarre case of Georgia social studies teacher Jesse Randal Davidson, who was recently arrested for firing a gun in an empty classroom.
The suggestion of arming teachers seems, on the face of it, a recipe for tragedy. Online, teachers complain about the risk of accidents or of the guns being stolen, they point out how police – when entering an active shooter situation – are taught to shoot anyone they find holding a gun. They point out the increased danger that situation would pose to non-white teachers: If Tamir Rice with a toy gun looks threatening to a cop, how does a 40-year-old black algebra teacher look?
But even here, we’re looking at the adults, and not really looking at the children. What happens when we create an environment where their fear and anger is regularly stoked? Where going to school is an exercise in anxiety. At the best, it reminds me too much of the Cairo streets, where it became impossible to block out the sense of danger radiating from everywhere. At worst, it feels like an effort to acclimate children to a prison environment. I worry for children who grow up in that environment – a set of circumstances that’s already extant in urban centers. How can that not shape a child’s perceptions? How can that not embed fear in their bones?
But it’s not all cynicism and woe. Worcester Telegram & Gazette columnist Clive McFarlane, a longtime critic of the prospect of putting guards in the Massachusetts city’s schools, shifted his opinion somewhat after seeing the program’s success, but he’s quick to point out that it worked because the city did more than simply introduce armed guards.
“The police presence in the schools is just one of several critical components of a collaborative, comprehensive initiative put together by City Manager Edward Augustus to reduce and prevent juvenile violence in the city,” writes McFarlane. “And according to Mr. Augustus and others, the city’s declining school suspensions are just one indicator that the initiative, which tracks youth and young adult arrests, gun and knife incidents, out-of-school suspensions and school arrests, is paying dividends.”
McFarlane writes that, while there’s still a distance to go on the program, the effort of engaging students and their families on multiple levels. And that’s the kicker, isn’t it? The politicians keep looking for the one thing they can get away with doing before the problem goes away – maybe banning bump stocks, maybe swatting at the chimera of “mental health.” They seek one small solution at any given time, when the problem really demands a spectrum of efforts.
If anything will change that, it’s the efforts of the kids themselves. The survivors of the Parkland shooting have been enormously active, as were the black youths of the #BlackLivesMatter movement before them, especially now that a dialog has begun between those twin movements, and while that activism has been dismissed by pundits and politicians, it shouldn’t be.
“These kids have spent their lives bracing for a dystopian future,” quipped a teacher on Facebook, and she has a point: They grew up on The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, on teenagers like Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fighting evils that the adults around them either can’t see or disbelieve. And now they have Supergirl and Black Panther, retrofitted for the modern age, telling them that punching the bad guys doesn’t always solve the problem. Sometimes you have to save the villain, too.
Says rapper Kendrick Lamar, on a song on the “Black Panther” soundtrack: “You need a hero, look in the mirror, there go your hero.”
Maybe they’re the ones who can save the day, because so far the rest of us have failed.
Victor D. Infante is the Editor-In-Chief of Radius.