Right now, it feels like there’s only one thing to put into context, and so I gave it a try. I don’t know that I made much progress.
I made word clouds with all of the post-mass shooting speeches from the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years (lots of uses of the word “community”).
I plugged “thoughts and prayers” into Google N-gram (it does show a spike in the last twenty years).
I used Lexis Nexis to see how often “mass shooting” and “quiet town” showed up in the same article (a whole lot, usually linked by surprise that such a terrible thing could happen in a place like this).
I took screenshots of Google searches that revealed it’s not just The Onion that’s at the point of changing the figures and posting the same story (it eventually went up to 16 speeches, I believe).
I did all this while sitting in the same place I once sat stock still for hours, listening to Connecticut’s NPR reporters piece together the scraps of information coming out of Newtown.
There’s a sense now that nothing ever changes, but looking at some of these speeches, it’s clear that the way we talk about things has changed. Mass shootings, even school shootings, happened well before the Clinton administration, but before we talked about “the worst school shooting since Newtown,” we talked about “since Columbine,” despite a notable school shooting the year before that many people forget until they see the name of the shooter. Even this arbitrary starting point reveals how differently we talked about things twenty years ago.
Clinton’s speeches at Thurston High School in 1998 and at Columbine a year later are remarkably different from more recent speeches, not least because they were directed to students, rather than the community or the nation. Both are full of 1990s fears: violent movies and video games, social isolation, and Marilyn Manson, who, in an absurd twist of fate that could only happen in 2017, was recently injured on stage when two giant prop guns fell on him.
In both speeches, and in his brief remarks to the community in Jonesboro, AR, following the March 1998 shooting at Westside Middle School, Bill Clinton referred to “dark forces” driving young people to commit these terrible crimes. We don’t seem to talk like that anymore, whether because we have different understandings of the dynamics of teenage isolation, mental health, and violent fantasies, or because we’ve given up trying to change people, even young people with plastic minds.
That shift, however, appears in combination with an ever-firmer refusal to do what a nation of laws does to protect its people from danger: pass laws. This has led to truly absurd statements like that from Kentucky governor Matt Bevin, who yesterday said gun regulation was useless in the face of these tragedies because “You can’t regulate evil.” With his commitment to using laws to regulate women who seek abortions and interpretive dance majors, it seems clear the issue here isn’t whether regulation works, but rather over what is evil enough to be regulated. If we can’t change people, and ideology and political donations mean no one in power will ever change laws, it should be no surprise that the tone of speeches has shifted to consolation, resignation, and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
In the late 1990s, Clinton emphasized that we now had to face that “it could happen anywhere.” No president needs to mention that anymore, because it feels like it has happened everywhere, and will happen everywhere. I was in Austria when Columbine happened, a junior in high school on a trip abroad; I watched the news reports with my best friend, depending on our mediocre German to try to understand what was happening. I later spearheaded an effort to plant columbine in our high school’s courtyard in memory of those who had died, because what had happened felt singular in some way. The effort seems ludicrous in retrospect.
In the classroom, one of the hardest things is getting students to realize that the world around them is historically-specific, just like the moments in the past that we’re looking at, and didn’t necessarily have to turn out the way it did. Right now, it feels like things couldn’t have ended up differently than this, because our nation just values some rights more than others, and always has. Nothing will ever change.
This is the tricky thing about the past, though. Despite it looking like things could never change, they still changed, in ways that we might like and ways that we might not like. And they don’t just change because, or because of chance, or forces totally outside of our control, they change because of the choices people make. One goal of terror organizations – be they the Klan, Al Qaeda, or those who bomb Planned Parenthood locations – is to change our behavior, make us too afraid to do things, force us to abdicate control over our fortunes to others, make us give up. I certainly don’t stand in judgment of people who changed their behavior in the face of direct threats from these groups. But we want to recognize that groups like this wouldn’t work so hard to get people to give up if human agency and organization wasn’t a powerful thing.
The national debate over gun regulation right now feels so closed that it’s tempting to say it was inevitable, and can never change, at least in the United States. It’s permanently ossified. Reflecting on the last 20 years, even shallowly, reminds us that the debate has changed. It’s changed drastically, in my adult lifetime, and I have to believe it can and will change again.
If we believe historical change has happened (and boy, I hope we do, or a lot of us will be out of our part-time, precarious jobs), we have to believe that it will continue to happen because of the choices that people make. Sure, not everyone has the same range of choices available to them, not everyone can or should have to commit themselves to every cause, and not everyone has the power to make a choice that will change the course of history. The discussion around and politics of around gun violence in this country have changed, and will change, whether you’re involved in them or not. Historical change will happen without you, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it happen without you. Surely, as Barack Obama said in the wake of Sandy Hook, we have an obligation to try.