Article: “You all ok?” The Impossibility of Being Alright amid Mass Violence

by Christopher G. Robbins (Eastern Michigan University)

Bauerngarten (1907), Gustav Klimt, Private collection

In response to the 17th mass shooting in only 14 days of February 2023, or the 71st mass shooting in 45 days of 2023 in the U.S, this time at Michigan State University, my friend who lives a world away in Australia wrote a short, caring message, “You all ok? Re Lansing?” I live approximately 60 miles away from Lansing and have colleagues who work there and close friends whose children attend school there. In fact, an MSU colleague’s daughter was, except for a scheduling glitch, supposed to have class in Berkey Hall, but was in another building during the murders. Was my friend, a world away, concerned about our safety? Our children’s safety? Was he concerned about our emotional state? Having the view from 9876 miles away and his deep understanding of politics, culture, and modern history, he certainly knows that we aren’t politically ok. I was flummoxed in answering his question. My family, fortunately, doesn’t have the acute grief of the 3 murdered and 5 critically wounded students’ families. Nor do we (although, really, we should) have the immediate worry about our children’s and colleagues’ safety. Nor do we have the trauma that the MSU students will carry as they try to read, study, laugh, even possibly love, and sleep in their rooms—rooms and campus—that instantaneously became war zones as they barricaded doors with piles of furniture and burrowed in their closets for safety, while others risked their lives to catch classmates as they jumped from classroom windows. Now, there’s a postcard from the land of the free. Maybe Dylan was partly right: “They’re selling postcards of the [shootings].” How does one answer that seemingly simple and kind question: “You all ok?” Is an honest answer, not complicated by qualifiers and ambivalence, even possible?

“Ok” cannot be appropriate or complete, much less correct, as an answer. Ok suggests that we’re neither moved by nor connected in both direct and indirect ways to the bloodletting we collectively allow to happen again and again and again in this country. If we were moved by the tragedy and we felt bonded, immediately or even remotely, to each other and the wanton disregard for life, we would confidently say, without pause, “No!” We wouldn’t answer with a face of steely stoicism or out of concern for the other’s feelings about our blunt answer. What about reading my friend’s question as, “Are you and your loved ones safe?” Safe? This, too, requires some acute ambivalence, if not a short-circuiting of the moral impulse: Safe, as in my loved ones and I aren’t physically injured? Yes, but this answer blunts our commitments to the various relationships that sustain us by allowing me (and others who can provide a similar answer) to somehow divorce related injuries, psycho-moral for one and physical or terminal for another, that stem from a common source and, in the process, insert moral distancing where none should exist. Safe, as in confident and secure in our freedom of movement or our freedom to say “no” to both this boundaryless shooting range that we call home and sincere questions about whether we are ok? Safe in our trust in each other or our politicians and their private interests that they privilege above and beyond and before the public’s at every turn? No and no. The clipped “NO.” would be the honest answer, but it also provides little explanatory power; there is no good answer in these conditions to the genuine question: “You all ok? Re Lansing?” And, that’s because Lansing, Buffalo, Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, San Francisco…fill in 71 other victimized locales only 47 days into 2023, all these places are us, the U.S.

We experience a split screen with each frame fractured in multiple directions. On one side, we try to grieve and grieve again, never able to move to anger and, ideally, the collective anger required to challenge the backroom bullies who make bank on bulk-rate bleeding because we are getting blasted back into shock, disbelief, and denial stemming from needless killings at a rate of 1.6 times/day in the first 6 weeks of 2023. I am an educator, and I am a parent of school- and college-aged children, so I possibly respond with admittedly obvious anger due to my primary role performances. These role performances shouldn’t matter for justifying or contextualizing indignation at violence and, ultimately, mitigable, if not mostly preventable, death. That it does seem to matter (“Oh, this is terrible, but do you think that you might be so angry because you are an educator?”) reflects a calcifying of casual callousness and insensitive risk calculation that track alongside the widening of our capacities for moral distancing in our culture: It could be worse; it didn’t happen right here (yet); at least it wasn’t here; it’s just horrible, but what can we really do, what about “gun rights,” the rights of guns, in other words, etc. The cynical calculations, equivocations, contradictions, and rationalizations can—and do—continue ad infinitum. Yet, I am a citizen, too, and, as such, cannot act as a citizen, by definition, outside of the company of other citizens who confer and protect my rights and without my protection of their fundamental rights, the first being the right to life. If someone shot up the local post office, are we really at a point where I would have to qualify my anger by disclosing that I am a mail recipient? (“Uh, I’m sorry for being so angry, but you know? Full disclosure: I’m a mail recipient.”) Or, along the caustic contradictions fracture line in this frame, do we have to be gay or queer in order to be outraged when a LGBTQ establishment and its patrons get mowed down while celebrating friends’ and loved ones’ birthdays? Does one have to be a member of a particular religious or ethnic group to be enraged when a community’s religious and cultural sites become bloodbaths? Does one have to be a Walmart employee or some other under-appreciated service worker to be angry when employees get splattered across the break room that management allowed them to use all-too-infrequently? No, and this is because we are also, in point of fact, human; we should be righteously angry without the need for qualification and expect and demand more of each other and those in office.  

On the other side of the split screen in the immediate background of the newly commenced handwringing and platitudinous “thoughts and prayers,” we still have the horrific images of a hunting pack dressed as police tracking down and then mercilessly beating every last living daylight out of an unarmed, young father, Tyre Nichols. The unarmed Mr. Nichols is one of 79 people killed by police in the month of January 2023. While the police performed their work expeditiously and skillfully in responding to the mass murder at MSU, the institution of policing in general has blood on its hands, as we cannot convincingly persuade it to at least interrupt, much less cease, the patternistic killing of unarmed African Americans who, like many of the MSU students did, chillingly call out in fear and pain for their mothers’ help as they get terrorized running away from danger—for them, the police. The collective we are rightfully stunned by and sad about these many instances of state-sanctioned violence. Yet, how do WE square these images—disappointed, maybe disgusted, with our government (technically, us) hunting citizens in the streets and then the “we” that is widely and openly—seemingly collectively—stunned, frightened, saddened by the mass murder at MSU? The police, as arms of our local, state, and federal governments, are our collective arms slightly extended—in the service of the good and bad. Did the wrestling coach-turned-reliably rank Congressperson Jordan say the quiet part out loud when he said, “no amount of training’s going to change what we saw in that video” of the police killing Tyre Nichols? This is US. This is the U.S. Actually, we might be “ok” with it all, all of the violence and excess death, the blood of young fathers and bright students, alike, on our hands. A multiply fractured split screen with violence being the reagent that hemorrhages between and binds the frames, with some violence perpetrated on some people being “ok,” other violence perpetrated on others being outrageous, and then there’s the violence we do to our basic humanity and intelligence when we accept Rep. Jordan’s (R-OH) and others’ sage cruelty, stunning ignorance, and unabashed self-interest that basically says, “Nothing can change (because we will ensure that it doesn’t).”  Is this US? Yes, no, and it depends.

Yes, according to the following truncated inventory. In 2003, Henry Giroux wrote The Abandoned Generation. In his ever-trenchant approach, Giroux detailed the many ways that our society, bent on neoliberalist politics and culture, symbolically and institutionally positioned youth in such ways that exposed them to any range of harms associated with diminished education opportunities in k-12 schooling, a then-intensifying and expanding “garrison state” that increasingly monitored or cordoned their movement while widening its global reach, and the selling off of higher education at the very moment we began to shunt the costs of college onto students so the wealthy could enjoy repeated tax cuts. At the core of Giroux’s aptly titled book was the observation that we abandoned Generation Y, in part, because we evacuated shared commitments to democratic ideals and the future or, for that matter and in Giroux’s phraseology, a future that doesn’t simply replay the present. Twenty years later, we might call ourselves the abandoning society, a mass of flight crowds, fleeing not only our shared commitments to loftier things like democratic ideals, but also, and more fundamentally, our commitments to each other—in many ways, fleeing each other. A bit Fight Club and a bit Flight Club. The land of the flee. Active shooter protocol does indicate, after all, “Run. Hide. Fight.” To be sure, these outcomes of the erosion of our public trust and trust in each other, and the love affair with “the market,” are related. With that flight from those shared commitments, we have witnessed a sometimes slow, and other times rapid, naturalization of and increase in various types of violence, and not only mass gun murder.

Consider an abbreviated index of some of these forms of violence from recent years, hallmarks of “the new normal” as the heads put it. Meet the new normal, same as the old normal—if only more insidious and even crueler. We have the quiet violence of mass death associated with the politicization of pandemic responses. This violence is so quiet that somehow, now that the pandemic is “politically” over, it still produces nearly a 9/11’s worth of death (approximately 3000 covid-related deaths) week upon week as we enter the 4th year of the pandemic, and this is a lull in the covid-production of death. Yet, we shouldn’t know as much. Many of us don’t. What about the quiet violence experienced by the 140,000+ U.S. children orphaned by covid-death? What about the violence of missing or being denied treatments for chronic or emerging health concerns because a purposefully botched initial pandemic response coupled with the mixed messages of “be safe,” “get back to normal,” “wear a mask” and “fuck masks” rebounded in repeatedly outstripping hospital capacity with severely ill covid patients? Many of the 1.5 (or possibly 3) million U.S. covid deaths are related to power and inequality as the early death waves disproportionately took poorer and darker lives since they were hyper-exposed to both unsafe work conditions and purposeful misinformation about the dangers of covid, while others sheltered in place.

Inequality, and historically sharp degrees of inequality in the most unequal country of “wealthy” nations, acts as the master violence of many quiet forms of violence. Think about the quiet violence experienced by 1 in 6 U.S. kids who are food insecure in a land of excess, or the quiet violence experienced by 2.5 million homeless children, that is, 1 in 30 children, who do not have a reliably safe and quiet room to sleep in. And this is at the same time—during the pandemic—when U.S. billionaires saw their wealth increase by 62% or by an aggregate value of $1.5 trillion. There is the quiet violence of poisoned water in Flint, MI, and now Jackson, MS. These aren’t the only such communities facing this kind of violence, and this quiet violence reflects a combination of market calculus and shrewd indifference, adding a layer of additional violence after death in Flint’s case as dozens of deaths related to the city’s poisoned water initially weren’t worthy of being counted. Think of the quiet violence experienced by African Americans, Latinos, and LGBTQ youth when they see themselves disappear from school curriculum in schools that remain egregiously under-funded and overstretched or, alternately, see their friends and family disappear in disproportionate numbers into jail. What about the quiet violence of legislation that would greenlight children (and adults) to deadname trans and non-binary students, and thus subject these children to a double symbolic death, a disappearance from the universe of moral obligations? There is the quiet violence of children being denied safe recreation space either because of environmental or violence concerns and the quiet violence of uncertainty as children get shuffled from one house to another as their parents construct a patchwork of childcare so they can work. And, obviously, there is the quiet, daily violence of children being compelled to go to school at the same time that they have to wonder and worry if their school will be the next West Paducah, Columbine, Sandyhook, Mary Stoneman Douglas, Oxford, Uvalde, Virginia Tech, MSU…Give them a pail of rocks and some martial arts training; they can throw rocks at or karate chop banquets of bullets.

This shameful but woefully partial list of quiet violence reflects harm or exposure that people experience due to the way we order our society and, consequently, our minds, and how we determine and confer value and worth. Quiet violence is structural. When quiet violence becomes audible or visible, the ordering of our lives encourages us to see violence, quiet or otherwise, as an aberration or, as with the loud, subjective violence, goads us into concocting all kinds of comfortable fictions as to why it exists, except for it being both a basis for and outcome of how we have patterned our lives and allowed others to pattern them. Some groups somewhere (D.C.? Wall Street? Bushmaster’s boardroom?) benefit from the devastation and disorder and the idea that we simply need more people to have access to the primary tool of that devastation—the roughly 399,999,999 other privately owned guns did not prevent any of the 71 mass shootings so far in 2023 (and none of this addresses the countless homicides, suicides, accidental shootings, etc.). How else to explain the politicians’ unflappable intransigence on violence in general and gun violence in particular? The U.S. has a gun violence problem, in large part, because it has a violence problem at every level of the social system and across virtually every primary domain. Being shocked at gun violence is akin to being in the Louisiana bayou and crying, “Shame!”, at the sight of alligators. Such regularized violence consequently requires us to enact another violence: the quiet violence of disciplined forgetting, of forgetting that the choices we collectively make affect, in very real ways, whether others even can live to make choices, much less make the choices that they would say contribute to a meaningful life. “You all ok? Re [U.S.]?”

Still, this is not all of us, and not all of us all of the time, and it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s certainly not the overworked and undervalued teachers who show up, day in and day out, to their schools that seemingly stand as spontaneous shooting ranges. It’s not the police who expertly performed their job when risking their lives in response to the MSU murderer, knowing only that he was present but not exactly where. It’s also not the police, perforce, who stood with my colleagues and me during a strike. It’s not the Sandyhook parents who, 10 years removed from their devastating losses, continue to advocate for reform, or the now-young adult survivors who were terrorized in the massacre at Mary Stoneman Douglas 5 years ago who engage in gun reform and anti-violence advocacy, to name a few important examples. We have evidence indicating that we do want change. Even the NRA membership supports some change which, on the matter of gun death, has to be better than no change at all. And, perhaps, the first change they should support would be to stop paying membership fees until the NRA’s lobby wing stopped doing its bloody work in congress that contradicts the opinion of rank-and-file membership and the overwhelming majority of the U.S. public.

Consequently, my “it depends” response to “Is this us?” relies not only on how we define violence and understand the interlacing of and interplay between different types and scales of violence. It also depends, as Judith Butler eloquently explains in The Force of Nonviolence, whom we constitute—and value—as grievable lives, and who gets discursively constituted as ungrievable, that is, who can be exposed to harm or subjectivized as targets of state, structural, or patternized forms of subjective and symbolic violence. It depends, in short, on how universalizable we make the “we/us.” Power and inequality transect both sides of this claim. Who has a say in what violence is, when it is legitimate, where it can be inflicted, and how it can be inflicted all reflect power. And, where there is power that is not collective in its form and distribution, there is inequality. What’s more, as Butler explains persuasively, inequality plays a role in every act of violence, whether it’s the murderer with his finger on the trigger and an unsuspecting victim, or state and federal legislatures with their fingers on the pen and categories of children experiencing the uncertainty of not knowing if they will have a meal, if their parents/caregivers will be home when they need them, if their parents can both access and pay for mental health services that help them maintain their employment and perform their duties as parents, or if they will have a home in which to find comfort after dodging bullets at school.

Should we be able to grieve the many Mr. Nichols and Mr. Floyds, and the many Sandyhook, Uvalde, Mary Stoneman Douglas, and MSU victims? Grief is grief. One can’t sort of grieve, and one cannot be sort of grieved. So, to ask in response, “Don’t we already grieve all of them, just in different ways?” exposes the inequality inherent in our definitions of violence and how we constitute legitimate or illegitimate targets of violence: This the split screen of violence that is our current condition. To be grievable means that one’s life is discursively constituted and institutionally delimited as worthy of grief were it to be lost and, thus, worthy of protection, of care, of being valued while it is a life. For this reason, Butler argues, and I agree, that the counter to violence has to be, on the one hand, a commitment to radical equality, demanding that no category of life has greater or lesser worth and committing in both symbolic and material terms to that equality. On the other, we could do well by rethinking our commitments to a mythical and rabid individualism. This is because individualism not only benefits power as it is institutionally organized, but also averts our attention from the many ways we live in relation with and rely upon many others—in a “web of dependency.” And, because of this, individualism also sediments inequality, while running at cross purposes with nurturing the really existing dependencies, both human and non-human, that we have and need to support in order for us to exist. This suggests a different way of thinking about equality and rights claims such that Butler argues, “When equality is understood as an individual right…it is separated from the social obligations we bear to one another.” She continues by explaining that, when equality is seen from “the basis of the relations that define our enduring existence, that define us as social living creatures…claims of equality…emerge from the relations between people, in the name of those relations and those bonds” (p.45).

I want to revise my caring friend’s question: “[Will] you all [be] ok?” The honest and appropriate answer to this question is: Maybe. It depends. “Maybe. It depends” creates an opening, however small it seems in this moment, that the definitive “NO, we are not ok” closes. It depends. Whether or not we will be ok depends on a whole host of considerations. The first is whether or not we want to become ok or, better, inhabit an affirmatively just State/state, or if we have grown accustomed to the mass loss of life, as long as the loss is not one that we see as similar to our own, and are confident in our capacities to run and hide fast enough. This can only be answered collectively. What’s more, the “what” and “how” of what we need to do to become ok can only be answered collectively, which means the “who” of the answering has to be all of us, victims’ families and survivors beginning the answer, not some suit brought to us and paid for by Browning, Bushmaster, Century International, or the NRA. It depends on whether we both accept and sustain the dependencies we have with others and will strengthen the bonds of the relations that underpin those dependencies, or we diminish or ignore those relations. It depends on whether or not we want a super minority to determine how or even if we live and how we define a life that we see as worth living. It depends on whether or not we are finally tired—and tired collectively—of providing an impossible answer to the question, “You all ok? Re Lansing? Re San Francisco? Re Pittsburgh? Re El Paso? Re Patterson? Re Sweetwater? Re Louisville? Re Brooklyn? Re Bronx? Re Laurinburg? Re New Orleans? Re Elizabeth City? Re Corpus Christi? Re Peyton? Re Stockton? Re Tuscon? Re Newport? Re Huntsville? Re Los Angeles? Re…   

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