3 things not to say after a gun massacre

We can permanently eliminate three overused and well-known linguistic phrases that prevent us from recognizing the grim reality, the brutal truth of gun violence in the United States.

A woman prays with a man after a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2017. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

(RNS) — Sutherland Springs is now one more name inextricably linked to murderous gun carnage in America. Even a partial listing of recent bloody assaults is chilling, and the number of domestic killing fields in our nation is rapidly increasing: Texas and South Carolina houses of worship, a Colorado movie theater, a Planned Parenthood facility, a Connecticut elementary school, a Nevada country music festival, a Florida nightclub, a Virginia university.

No person is safe and no physical location provides total security.

But we can permanently eliminate three overused and well-known linguistic phrases that prevent us from recognizing the grim reality, the brutal truth of gun violence in the United States. These stale phrases are frequently invoked after a mass shooting and they provide, especially for political leaders, the necessary and shallow protective cover that allows them to take no action on meaningful gun control.

The first phrase that needs to be removed from our public discourse after a gun massacre is: “What happened is simply unbelievable.”

It is not true. The slaughter of the innocents is quite believable and it is a convenient self-deception to believe otherwise. Dr. Sigmund Freud had it exactly right in 1930 when he warned that human beings have little difficulty “exterminating one another to the last man.”

Of course, the founder of psychoanalysis was sharply criticized when he wrote his pessimistic view of human behavior. But the catastrophic mass murders of the past hundred years remind us that nothing in human behavior is “unbelievable.”

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Perhaps Freud (subconsciously!) was reflecting the Jewish concept of the twin opposing forces that exist within each person: the yaytzer ha-tov and the yaytzer ha ra … from the Hebrew, the good inclination and the evil inclination that constantly wrestle for supremacy within each of us. And the mass gun killings are examples of the evil inclination at work. It’s not “unbelievable.”

The second phrase that needs to be scrubbed from our lexicon is the oft-heard “It can’t happen here.” There remains deep within the national psyche the false belief that terrible events like mass shootings happen “somewhere else,” but not in America’s idyllic supposedly peaceful small towns “far from the madding crowd.”

This protective phrase perpetuates the myth that America’s urban centers are more dangerous and crime-ridden than tranquil rural America. The truth is, gun violence takes place everywhere, whether in street shootings in Chicago or in a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Human nature and the evil urge to murder are not based on population density data or voting patterns. It is time to stop demonizing cities and sanctifying small towns. The orgy of mass shootings carried out by either legal or illegal weapons continues to accelerate in all parts of America.

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The idealized America where people proudly leave their cars and homes unlocked in picturesque villages with one “blinking amber traffic light” on Main Street are not now and have never been safe havens oblivious to or protected from gun violence.

The third phrase that must be eliminated from public discourse is the one that comes “trippingly off the tongue” of many politicians after a massacre like Sutherland Springs: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.”

This phrase provides our leaders with a thin gauzy veneer of spiritual concern and caring. But the words, usually spoken in rote fashion, meant to convey an expression of spiritual comfort and solace, have become an insulting cliché.

When was the last time a political leader was seen in authentic deep prayer asking God for guidance in the face of withering lethal gunfire? When have we heard a leader cry out for repentance for having condoned, or worst of all, facilitated the easy access of life-ending weapons?

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Few are the leaders who actually visit the broken families long after the TV news cameras have disappeared from the scene of mass murder. Few are the leaders who, after uttering the formulaic words “thoughts and prayers,” take any significant action to stem the wave of shootings that has endangered each of us.

Prayers after a shooting spree are too precious and too painful to be trivialized by robotlike predictable recitations by our leaders. So let’s remove “thoughts and prayers” from our national discourse. The phrase has lost all meaning and is a disservice to the sacred task of healing and reconciliation.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.) 

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