by Chris Jasinski
I’d like to tell you that my heart broke when I heard about the Parkland shooting in February. But how many times can the heart break? Considering how frequently mass shootings occur in the US, it’s hard to not feel increasingly desensitized: desensitized to the death tolls, to the vigils, to the platitudes offered by politicians and to the change that never comes.
Though, as an amalgamation of negligence defines this tragedy, a small group of young people in Florida have begun to shout, to walk out, and to organize themselves in an attempt to change the course of this exhausted, uniquely American narrative.
This has now mobilized a nationwide effort of people taking aim at the role that firearms play in defining our national identity. Youth-led walkouts are occurring elsewhere in the US, and this nascent movement descended on DC (as well as around the nation) on March 24th to call for major restrictions to gun ownership.
It’s exciting to see how these young people have rapidly transformed a latent energy into action. Though it’s in the groundswell of such moments that we must try to step outside the zeitgeist to ask if our focus is true and if our outrage targets the symptom or the disease itself. An interdisciplinary and systems-based reading of such a tragedy is not only critical to helping us identify blind spots, it is essential to creating lasting solutions to what we often tragically view as an isolated problem.
Calls for gun control are warranted, but a culture whose societal mechanisms are deliberately constructed on the principles of violence and justice through retribution will tirelessly work to destroy itself. I’m intimately acquainted with these mechanisms, because as an advocate against the ominous surveillance state, I’m forced to constantly reckon with the perverted cultural logic that they instill in us. It is a cultural logic that allows many of us to overlook the oppression of the innocent or to manufacture rationalizations like having nothing to hide in the face of an ever-watchful state apparatus.
I see a missed opportunity when, in searching for the shooter’s motivations, many rush to decry our nation’s epidemic of mental illness. Others focus on concepts like toxic masculinity, as these crimes are perpetrated almost exclusively by men. While these hypotheses are (relatively) more compassionate than the ones consistently ascribed to black and brown men, they nevertheless seek to identify a defect within the individual rather than diagnose the societal, and, more importantly, they give a pass to our national ideology that is obsessed with retribution and violence as a means to control our world.
I’m talking about a culture that resorts to war to put other nations in their place. I’m talking about a culture that arms police with military-grade weaponry to “uphold” the law with the explicitly coercive threat of violence. I’m talking about a system of mass incarceration that rips wrongdoers from their contexts and continues to hold them down even after (if) they’re released.
And while the public’s attitudes towards police brutality and the prison-industrial complex are beginning to evolve (Americans seem to still be unbothered by war), our culture is fixated on revenge as justice. Moreover, I believe that this way of thinking moves in lockstep with our hyper-capitalist culture and the commodified alienation that it produces.
In the US, our hyper-capitalist culture conditions us into an obsession with the accumulation of commodity. This obsession has become so extreme, that in many ways we now view each other as commodities (e.g. when’s the last time you decided to “invest in a relationship”?). It’s an ideology that permeates US culture, and capitalism justifies its existence.
But it’s this very same commodified alienation that quietly and slowly isolates us from each other. And the more divided we feel from each other, the likelier a “wrongdoer” appears to us as nuisance rather than our neighbor.
It’s one of the reasons why we still cling to ideas like individualism, or its uniquely American iteration “rugged individualism.” Such a myth is unquestionably focused on celebrating the wealthy, often explicitly for their ability to exploit and accumulate (if you disagree with me, then ask why we continue to venerate men like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, partly for their ruthless capacity to exploit their employees). But when we root our cultural messages in that belief system, namely on of “survival of the fittest,” are we propagating a system that cares for and restores itself?
Or, are we propagating a system designed to punish and isolate?
The darker side of “rugged individualism” is that if you feel like you’ve fallen far enough below the norm of success, you will very likely begin to blame yourself. You will begin to believe that you are defective. Even if you’re poor, oppressed, isolated, or mentally disturbed, our cultural messages clearly articulate that it’s you who didn’t work hard enough to get yourself out of such a hapless situation.
Society is fine. Something is wrong with you.
If you drill this notion into a population for half a century, worshiping an image of the triumphant, materialist individual over the restorative, connection-focused collective, you will inevitably be left with a society that manufactures alienation like clockwork. That’s precisely where we find ourselves today, as “one out of four American has no one to talk to even in the worst emergencies.”
We’re now seeing the consequences of a culture that’s reached its tipping point of economic and societal alienation. Massive swaths of the population either fallen into the escape offered by opioids (as a form of self-destruction), or, especially for many men deeply indoctrinated by the savage subtexts of state power, through violent retribution (as a twisted form of triumphant destruction).
So we can keep rallying for reasonable gun control, but if we do not widen our focus in this conversation (which we have a hard time doing in our sound-bitten, spectacle-driven media apparatus), we will fall horrifically short of our vision for peace.
But how, you might ask, does this relate to surveillance?
I think that the set of logical arguments that people use to justify extreme gun control draws from the same pool of implied assumptions that many surveillance advocates rely upon to justify the continued expansion of an already-invasive surveillance state.
Surveillance advocates often argue that surveillance technology (cameras, drones, wiretaps) is used to prevent terrorism or violent crime. And while both crime and terrorism represent serious societal ills, many anti-surveillance activists intrinsically understand that installing massive systems of tracking and control are not only short-sighted, they’re inherently defeatist. They represent a confirmation of our eroding humanity rather an effort to restore it.
A surveillance camera does not prevent theft, but it gives a society possible recourse to punish a thief. Gun control does not seek to prevent our deep-rooted, violent inclinations, but it gives us a way to try and mitigate the horror of a high body count.
My fear is that if we put all of our energy into something like banning assault weapons and succeed, many in this movement will go home will a feeling of “mission accomplished.”
With that, I hope that folks who plan to rally against gun control will equally commit themselves to building community in their town. I hope that they’ll work to talk to their neighbors more and seek out the lonely. I hope that when someone wrongs them, that they’ll work to step back for a moment and ask “how can I help this person restore themselves?” rather than “how can I punish this person?”.
But more importantly, I hope they’ll work for a world where instead of asking “how can we watch out for the wrongdoers?” they ask “when’s the last time I spoke with my neighbor?”
Without asking those questions, we will continue to treat our societal diseases with spectacularly superficial bandages, and that’s what worries me.
Chris Jasinski is an active member of Oakland Privacy