Tribalism in an Age of School Shootings
The Nashville horror and the ugly social media battlefield we endure after every shooting.
YESTERDAY, ANOTHER HORROR. Six dead, three of them little babies not yet 10 years old.
The answer to the “why” of these atrocities is frustratingly simple: As long as people with hate in their hearts have easy access to powerful and deadly weapons, the massacres will continue.
We can work to reduce the hate on the edges. Invest in mental health programs. Try to minimize the exacerbating traumas. Beef up our school safety precautions. Be more generous to one another.
But we will never eradicate it. We are human; we are fallen; we ate from the forbidden tree.
We could accept this reality, try to offer kindness to one another, and advocate for meaningful action on guns. Instead, though, many of us feel compelled to conduct a forensic study of each new case of deadly gun violence to find a way to blame the opposing political tribe.
We go round and round on “door control.” We assess whether the weapons were acquired in a manner that was preventable. We scour the shooter’s social media feed to see whom they voted for in the fateful 2016 election.
This online forever war resumed after yesterday’s shooting in Tennessee, a state that had just banned drag shows in a purported effort to “protect” children from having a costumed performer read them a book.
The contrast between this gruesome child slaughter and GOP politicians’ idiotic and hateful legislative priorities—worrying more about drag queens than ARs—could not have been more stark. For one tribe it made for a simple, compelling narrative ascribing blame.
At least until a few hours later when another detail emerged that complicated the picture. This detail provided new digital ammunition for the ghouls who wanted to turn this tragedy into a vehicle for their campaign of hatred.
The detail? The killer identified as transgender.
In Why We Did It I wrote:
If you want to know if you are a tribalist troll, ask yourself this—when something horrible happens in the news does your mind impulsively hope someone from the other tribe is responsible? Nobody wants to admit that they do this. But social media has laid bare our darker angels, and we can now see in real time that a large swath of the participants in our civic dialogue have reduced themselves to the most base type of tribalist.
And here we are this week with this very example on display.
I ASSUME I SPEAK FOR others who support action on guns and oppose legislative attacks on trans folks when I say learning this new detail made my heart sink a tad—in part, because I knew what was coming next online.
The right wingers (or anti-liberal contrarians) who would’ve been happy to practice some “strategic silence” instead went on the attack. Within minutes I saw tweets from Clay Travis and Megyn Kelly and others linking to the Nashville police chief’s press conference identifying the shooter as trangender. Not long after that, Marjorie Taylor Greene was sharing transphobic tweets on two separate accounts, questioning whether “hormones” were to blame. And not long after that, Glenn Greenwald was asking which of his neoliberal foes had “radicalized” the shooter.
By then there was no need to continue to be logged on, no need to read or watch or listen to the takes because it was easy to figure what would come next.
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More dehumanization of trans people from MAGA media personalities. Then, from the left, a cycle of decrying the MAGA types’ hateful rhetoric and posting their creepy Christmas cards. Followed by the MAGAites nutpicking the most extreme progressive admonishment, maybe one that blames hateful Christian conservatives for their own slaughter.
Mind you, this inevitable, toxic social media rage spiral all occurs before these three angels are even buried. Before their parents can hold their little bodies and beg God for answers.
On the one hand, it makes sense. If ever there was a time for righteous anger, it would be after 9-year-olds are gunned down. On the other, the predictability and toxicity of it all is so dispiriting.
BUT THE WORST PART part of it all might be that the whole post-shooting social media kayfabe is not just harmless venting. It’s a contributing factor to these tragedies. By demonizing each other and treating each other as online combatants we are creating the conditions in which future school shooters will be born.
You can see that this is the case by reading past killers’ manifestos. The Buffalo shooter was radicalized online reading about Christchurch. Who knows what future shooter might be radicalized by the reaction to Buffalo or Uvalde or Highland Park . . . or Nashville. The list of politically motivated killers radicalized by their online battles grows by the month.
This is not to “both-sides” the problem. I have no illusions as to where the blame lies for the unchecked proliferation of guns or the mainstreaming of bigoted rhetoric in this country or the reemergence of unabashed white nationalism.
But identifying who is ultimately to blame doesn’t change the simple reality we are all living in.
Hate + Guns = Death.
It’s not complicated.
Hopefully one day enough will be enough. Gen Z will save themselves and the gun stockpile can be curtailed. But that’s a long way off.
In the meantime—as long as GOP politicians assure that we cannot take meaningful action—we all have an obligation to find enough grace in our hearts to lessen the intensity of the hate.
It’s hard, I know.
But the next innocent babies at least deserve that.
Our hearts go out to the victims of the Covenant School shooting: Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney, all 9; Katherine Koonce, 60; Cynthia Peak, 61; and Mike Hill, 61.
Click here to donate to a fund in support of the survivors and their families.