When people open fire on crowds of strangers to let off steam, that’s a sign that you don’t have a society anymore. Crime is bad enough, but it at least follows a certain rationality — the motives are anti-social and dangerous, but legible. Terrorism is a step beyond normal crime, but again, there is some ostensible goal that the terrorist group is pursuing, albeit with tragically misguided ends. But something like a mass shooting isn’t even terrorism. It is sheer nihilism. It is violence as an end in itself, as the pure expression of a rejection of one’s fellow human being.
At this point, it is part of the ritual of a mass shooting for the shooter to be declared “troubled” or “mentally ill,” and then the liberals all point out that this happens every time and is a reductive explanation, etc. Yet there is a moment of truth in the individualistic explanation, because the systemic cause of the systemic problem of mass shootings is precisely a toxic individualism that, when thwarted, can find its way to a destructive annihilation of the other — any other will do.
We can also call it toxic masculinity, insofar as it takes the least desirable traits stereotypically associated with manhood — isolation, lack of empathy, rage — while completely discarding the more desirable traits like loyalty or duty. Surely it is no accident that only men — and almost always white men — participate in this nihilistic anti-ritual, but there is a false universalism in pinning the problem on masculinity. This is not always or even often how men behave. In fact, it is only in contemporary America that they have come to behave in this way at an epidemic level.
Call it toxic Americanism, then. That will allow us to include the ritualized non-response within the broader phenomenon. Systemic effects have systemic causes, and one of those effects is the utter refusal to take any steps to remedy the problem. Our political leaders are so enamored of the romance of gun ownership that they are willing to sacrifice dozens of us per year on the idol of the Second Amendment. Here I count all our political leadership — the Republicans who love their guns and the Democrats who spent the last couple decades attempting to placate the gun lobby (which refused to take yes for an answer and used every Democratic victory to prompt even more stockpiling of weapons). As ever, the choice between Republican and Democrat is that between active and passive nihilism.
As a result of this toxic Americanism, every one of us is potentially collateral damage of the distinctive form of aggrieved masculinity that America is producing in ever-greater quantities. And it is becoming clear that no amount of collateral damage will be enough to prompt action. The Las Vegas shooting claimed at least 50 lives and injured 200 more — an unimaginable loss that happened for literally no reason. Does anyone even remotely imagine that any action other than the ritual allocation of “thoughts and prayers” will come of it?
I am not being metaphorical when I characterize the mass shooting and its aftermath as a form of ritual. In a sense, it has become the baseline ritual of American civil religion — a ritual enactment of the dissolution of society, a ritual evocation of the apocalypse. Admittedly, this ritual has become so routine that we only bother to carry it through at the national level when the victims become particularly numerous (as at Las Vegas) or when the targets produce a special effect of horror (as a Sandy Hook). But it is of a piece with all our other distinctive observances: the rituals of blaming victims of disaster, of formally excusing police violence against the innocent, of brutalizing protestors with no legal or rational basis other than the demand for absolute submission. All of those ritual observances point toward the mass shooting as nihilistic violence in its purest form, with no claim to legitimacy or justification — a nihilistic violence that we collectively refuse to stop or even impede, because we don’t even remember what it might be like to be part of a society anymore.