Mass Shootings, Dinner, and the Cognitive Dissonance of Just Living in America

ON FRIDAY EVENING, my wife and I were on our way to dinner with our three youngest kids when I happened to learn from Twitter that a man in Virginia Beach had just shot and killed 12 people. And so my struggle, which I am sure is also regularly your struggle, began. In almost every developed nation in the world, 12 people being killed in a mass shooting would make that incident the deadliest in years. In some nations, it would be the deadliest ever. But in the United States, they happen so often, with such ferocity and carnage, that when we learn about the next one, we hardly skip a beat. Indeed, 2018 was by far the most violent year ever measured for school shootings in the United States, and 2017 was the deadliest year in at least a half-century for gun deaths altogether in this country — with an astounding 40,000 people killed by guns. That’s 110 people per day. We couldn’t keep up if we tried.

After seeing the news of this latest mass shooting, I wanted to somehow relay the fact that 12 people were just murdered to my wife without actually saying the specific words in front of our kids. “Oh no. 12 people,” I said to her, not speaking in a complete sentence. “Virginia Beach,” I continued. I know my kids are aware of gun violence and mass shootings, but it just seemed like too much in that moment to say in front of them something like, “12 people were just shot to death.” Between the seriousness of my tone and the six words that I assembled for her about the shooting, she knew exactly what I was trying to relay to her without the kids quite catching on.

They were happy. And we were pulling up to a fun restaurant in Brooklyn. And so I used the strange skill that none of us should have but all of us use almost every day. Somewhere deep in my mind I tucked the thought of that horrific shooting in Virginia Beach away. I compartmentalized it — boxed it up and closed the door to the memory — so that I could be emotionally present during dinner, so that I could listen to the kid’s stories about their day at school, and excitedly order from the menu with the family. And I did it. I moved on in that moment so that I could enjoy the taste of Vietnamese food. And while I ate dinner, as I reflect back on it, I don’t think I once thought again of the victims in Virginia Beach.

That’s the game we play. To get through dinner, to get through a movie or a game, to get through quality time with our loved ones, we must temporarily suspend our knowledge that people are being slaughtered all around us. We speak of the wild, Wild West as some nostalgic era of the past, but we’re living it. The United States is the only nation in the world estimated to have more guns than people. And it shows. Americans are shooting and killing themselves and killing others with guns at a pace that should be treated as a dire national emergency. If we just enacted a fraction of the basic standards and norms held by the rest of the world, our nation would be so much safer.

In New Zealand, after 51 men, women, and children were shot to death earlier this year while gathering for prayers in their local mosques, the nation, in a matter of just a few days, made radical shifts in their gun laws: banning assault rifles and so much more. And that urgency is just what the United States needs, but I am afraid we’ve crossed some invisible threshold, having given up after burying so many thoughts of so many shootings and so much violence — so that we can just have dinner in peace.

This article originally appeared in The Intercept on June 1, 2019