The so-called mass shooting in San Bernadino that killed 14 people and wounded 17 more created the usual flurry of wall-to-wall media coverage. Such stories, of course, have become commonplace. According to Reddit, there have been 355 mass shootings — incidents in which four or more people are struck by bullets in a single attack — so far in 2015.
But, we were told, the San Bernadino shootings were different. There were two shooters, a man and a woman, with exotic, Arabic names. They were heavily (and, it must be added, legally) armed. A search of their home revealed an enormous cache of ammunition and bomb-making material.
Almost from the start, another word found its way into discussions of this incident. It appeared this might not only be a mass shooting; it might also be an act of terrorism.
American policymakers at all levels of government parse their words with exquisite care when it comes to crimes like this. They have their reasons — having to do with motive, jurisdiction and the kinds and intensity of response.
But as gun violence spreads across the surface of American society like a toxic algae bloom (four people, by the way, were also shot in Savannah Georgia the same day as the San Bernadino killings, representing a bullet-hole shaped asterisk), the terms we use to label these events seem increasingly academic.
Just days before shots were fired in San Bernadino, Indianapolis posted homicide number 138. This put 2015 on track to be the deadliest in the city’s history and continues a disturbing trend. The death toll was 135 in
2014; the year before that, 126.
Firearms figured in the vast majority of these killings. You can find a listing here.
Mapping these incidents reveals that large clusters have occurred on the near east and north sides of town. If you live in these neighborhoods, it seems likely the sound of gunfire is a familiar part of your experience. And if that’s the case, who can say you are not being terrorized?
But these crimes have become part of our daily grind. As one reporter on the scene in San Bernadino noted, a group of onlookers living near the service center where the shootings took place expressed frustration that shootings were commonplace in that part of town. They had never before seen such a massive response.
Mass shootings. Terrorism. As gun violence escalates, we find new ways to label it. There are valid reasons for doing this. The sickening thing, though, is that it begins to feel as if this naming process is normalizing the daily killings happening in Indianapolis and other cities across the country.
Some people actually think this is the cost of freedom. They treat every shooting as a kind of promotion for the gun industry, claiming more guns will make us safer.
Yet it is easier for someone who is mentally ill, a gang member or, yes, a bonafide terrorist, to buy guns in this country than it is anywhere else in the developed world.
Call it what you will, this isn’t freedom. It’s cultural suicide.