America is never at a loss for words — as long as the subject is football players kneeling for the national anthem, or a guacamole recipe that contains peas. But there is something about the utter heartbreak — not to mention the man-made hopelessness — of the nation's spasmodic bursts of gruesome gun violence that turns even the best minds of our generation into quivering mush.
Most politicians are well-trained — there's plenty of practice in a nation with more than 300 mass shootings a year, and where grim "records" for the most casualties are shattered yearly, like home runs during baseball's steroids era — to come out of the gates with something fast and something insipid.
Most invoke the phrase "thoughts and prayers" because that's been officially vetted as politically safe, and many of these tweets sound like they come from outer space, as few politicians dare mention where they have actually stood on meaningful gun-safety reforms. Even the despicable Dana Loesch, the mouthpiece for the National Rifle Association, whose violence-drenched, over-the-top videos urge gun-owning Americans to rise up with "the clenched fist of truth," feels like she has to say something about the bloodshed in Las Vegas.
Not surprisingly, President Trump — the least politically clued-in person ever elected to that office, a narcissist who wouldn't recognize human empathy if it bonked him on the head like an errant tee shot — struggles with this fairly rote task. His efforts to voice sympathy sound like a lost tourist plugged into Google Translate, or someone not sure whether he's wandered into a wake or a bar mitzvah. To Las Vegas, the president's random Hallmark card generator sends its "warmest condolences"
But then, who am I to criticize? The reality is that — with America in the fifth and final "acceptance" stage of a mass-shooting culture that occurs in no other nation in the civilized world — I don't have a much better idea what to say than Loesch or Trump. Neither do you. Thanks to so many of these ghastly events, we've had an opportunity to try out so many moods — mournful, conciliatory and pleading for unity, spiritual — and none of them feel exactly right. We are growing numb to this uniquely American brand of tragedy — just last month, a man walked into a football-watching party in Texas and fatally gunned down eight people, and the TV news producers didn't even think it was much of a story — and to the all-too-familiar images of victims ducking for cover or running from the shots, desperately holding hands.
The people who were actually there and experienced this nightmare didn't know what to say, either. "There was little we could do but hug people," Virginia McDowell, a Philadelphia-area retired casino executive staying in a hotel across the street, told PhillyVoice. There simply are no words left. That's partly because we, as a people, cannot tell these survivors, or those who lost a loved one in the carnage, the only words that we in a civil society could say that would have any real meaning. That we love you and we are going make sure that nothing like this happens again.
But the second part of that would be a lie, and we all know it. This nation saw 26 people — including 20 innocent, beautiful kindergartners and first-graders, with their entire lives ahead of them — slaughtered in a Connecticut schoolhouse, and yet we did absolutely nothing. There's not a single soul who thinks Las Vegas is going to be any different. And so we go to the well of "warm condolences" to drown out that horrible reality.
If the tone of this is too angry, too soon, well, too bad, because that's how it feels to fall asleep at 1 a.m. with the TV on Anthony Bourdain and his chopsticks and then wake up at 4:30 a.m. to the shock of automatic gunfire ripping a hot American night. It feels infuriating, and to those who tsk-tsk and say that now it not the time to talk politics, this is exactly the time to talk politics. The only "thoughts" that mean a damn at a moment like this are the political ones, because they are the only thoughts that will change anything in this world.
For starters, let's call the sick premeditated murderer on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort what he really is. Not a "local individual," in the mealy mouthed language of one law-enforcement official, but a terrorist whose goal was to instill fear and kill innocent Americans, regardless of whether the deity he worshiped was Allah or Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow or God. This is important because most Americans believe we can, should, and must do something about "terrorism" — even as we shrug over "gun violence."
Over the next few days — based on experience — you're going to hear one of two things about the Las Vegas gunman. Either that his arsenal of weapons — including, apparently, a machine gun or fully automatic weapon that caused much of the carnage, as well as an assortment of other guns — was perfectly legal, or else they will say his weapons were not legal, in which case … what difference does it make whether we pass new gun laws? The cynicism behind these arguments is ridiculous and obscene.
We don't even need to know the specifics of the gun that was used to kill in Las Vegas to know that automatic and semiautomatic weapons of mass death aren't for hunting deer but for hunting human beings at places like country music concerts or gay nightclubs, and that it's past time for our government to ban high-capacity magazines and assault weapons. If you say that laws — commonsense stuff like background checks at gun shows — don't make a damn bit of difference, why are you spending so much time on making them looser, like the proposal before Congress right now that would make it easier to buy gun silencers, so that the next madman with a rifle won't be so gosh-darned loud.
Indeed, the sponsor of that legislation calls it "The Hearing Protection Act," because our lawmakers are so concerned about the health of our ears. The hearts and brains that were shattered by bullets on the Las Vegas Strip are apparently outside their bailiwick, however. And yet, despite what happened after Newtown, and despite the overwhelming odds against Congress or the White House reacting in any meaningful way to what happened Sunday night in Nevada, our remaining shreds of humanity compel us to beg them to do something about the very real terrorism of gun violence in this country. Because right now, their condolences aren't worth a bucket of warm spit.