Mass shootings’ collective toll on the American psyche

News of the Monterey Park mass shooting broke early Sunday morning, crashing expectations of a new day. Details were slow to emerge – one shooter still at large – but the extent of the tragedy was soon revealed.

Ten people were killed and at least ten others injured when a gunman opened fire on a ballroom dance studio.

The shooting happened on a main thoroughfare in Monterey Park, California, where earlier in the day a festival was held celebrating Lunar New Year Eve, a major holiday in many Asian communities.

A familiar dirge had begun, voices rising, struggling to find the words to describe this horrific act.

But nothing succeeds, only silence. We’ve been here too many times – Sandy Hook, Orlando, Parkland, Buffalo, Colorado Springs – and stood on this awful topography.

And now we’d landed in a familiar suburb — among Los Angeles’ many well-known suburbs — where the story felt more intimate and familiar. The victims were our neighbors.

On Monday the record was complete: 11 victims, six women, five men. The grueling and necessary drama of press conferences, vigils and calls to action soon followed. It’s almost formulaic now.

We have been here before and we will be here again. Saturday’s shooting in Benedict Canyon, which killed three and wounded four, confirms this, and a week before Monterey Park, six people were killed in the Central Valley town of Goshen. Less than three days after Monterey Park, a gunman opened fire in Half Moon Bay, killing seven. And the urgency of those losses is losing its grip, almost dissipated by the numbers, the heartache, and the confusion.

The dead have died on a scale and by such violence that defies assumptions about what life, especially life in America, is meant to be, and the details — casualties, shooter profile, community impact — hardly matter . They only differ in degree.

Gun violence has become the drumbeat of our day. We say we’re shocked, but we really aren’t. We say we’re unbelievers, but we really aren’t.

“Anesthesia takes place,” said Dr. Paul Nestadt, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “It is human nature to normalize tragedy. It’s called adaptive psychology: if we allowed these deaths to live in our heads, we wouldn’t be able to live ourselves.”

Nestadt draws on the work of Robert Jay Lifton, who coined the term “mental numbness” after conducting research in Hiroshima in 1962 and witnessing the restricted emotions of survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing. Where feeling is a burden, psychic numbness is a reality.

Since the New Year, 43 mass shootings from Minnesota to Florida, Baltimore to San Francisco have left 78 dead and 176 injured, according to the online dashboard Gun Violence Archive, and the number is rising almost daily.

Not every incident is high profile; well they should be. The night Huu Can Tran rampaged in Monterey Park, gunfire erupted at a nightclub in Baton Rouge, La., injuring 12. Earlier this month, 19 people were injured in two incidents four days apart, according to archives in Miami Gardens, Fla.

The paradox of this bloodshed – to understand the meaningless, to understand the incomprehensible – leads to a strange calculus. As much as we try to fulfill the moral imperative not to look the other way—say, at the laying of wreaths in Monterey Park—we eventually turn away.

Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychology professor who studies empathy and mass sacrifice, made this point clear in the wake of war, genocide, and the pandemic. “Our feeling is not good with the quantitative assessment,” said Slovic. “As the numbers increase, we become more and more insensitive.”

“I don’t blame people for getting used to it,” said Dr. Jonathan Metzl, Professor of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University. “That’s what happens with repetitive stress and trauma.”

Metzl, who has studied and written extensively on gun violence in America, describes a sense of deja vu, resignation, hopelessness, anger and frustration even among those working so hard to end these tragedies. Such emotions, he said, inhibit our ability to appreciate the complexity of the problem.

“Part of what happens when you’re frustrated and resigned is that you’re not willing to engage in nuance and complexity — not just with mass shootings, but with American gun violence more broadly,” he said. The impulse is to look for “simple causal answers, but it’s never a thing”.

Instead, we design handwritten signs – “ban semi-automatic rifles” – and denounce politicians and the gun lobby, once again getting caught up in a long, unwinnable debate.

The course is predictable. Grief breeds anger, a more bearable emotion than grief. It drives the rhetoric. It demands an explanation, as if an explanation could ease the pain or prevent future killings.

“The deep irony,” said Scott Slovic, an English professor at the University of Idaho and son of Paul Slovic and part of his father’s research team, “is that we have this psychological armor, this insensitivity, that has prevented us from being appropriately sensitive be on the destruction around us.”

In the rush to find answers and motivations, cause and effect, we increasingly distance ourselves from lives that have been lost, lives that match our own.

“We’re doomed to the status quo until we develop new habits,” says Scott Slovic, who advocates for a broader understanding of compassion. “We can’t say I am who I am and this incident in Half Moon Bay or the Los Angeles suburbs has nothing to do with me. We must erase our identity and throw ourselves into someone else’s circumstances.”

in Monterey Park, they were mothers and fathersWives, sons and brothers who watched children grow up, mourned the death of a parent, sought happiness in the company of others and found the joy of music and dance.

Some had immigrated here, leaving memories of war, loss, and misery, and finding a semblance of peace, happiness, and even prosperity far from home. Through ritual, food, and memory, they found their place in America and celebrated their connection with the past in a new world.

In Half Moon Bay, they were a different community, maybe just a generation away from what they had dreamed of. They were farm workers whose lives were woven together by their work, their struggles, and memories of the lands and families they left behind.

They worked for a new life, supporting each other with love and the hope of finding a future that could support them. According to some reports, if the food they shared, the family reunions, the celebrations and sorrows they endured are any measure, they succeeded.

But more than words on a page, Facebook post, or GoFundMe campaign, their stories are a reminder of how alike we all are and that their deaths by gunshot could be ours, too. When it comes to mass shootings, there’s no such thing as them and us. Little protects us from complaints at work, marital or partner anger, racial revenge.

“It’s not just about the number of deaths,” Metzl said, “but the general psychology of feeling unsafe in public spaces, which has far-reaching implications for society.”

Our days, like those of the victims, depend on the certainty that they will end as they began. Anything else is a reminder that life is fleeting and precarious and can be cruel. Perhaps this is the truth we avoid by following familiar response patterns that keep us in a psychological and political stalemate.

“I think our society will increasingly struggle to respond effectively to these mass catastrophes unless we find it within ourselves to be more compassionate, and that compassion works its way into our public policies,” Scott said Slovic.

We caught a glimpse of this possibility last year when President Biden signed into law the most sweeping gun violence law in decades, increasing background checks on young gun buyers, restricting gun ownership for perpetrators of domestic violence, and providing grants to agencies trying to enforce warning signals.

“Mass shootings reflect a dysfunctional political system,” Metzl said. “Limiting the number of victims requires a functioning political system in which people can negotiate for adequate protection.”

Progress will be slow and at times faltering, but the lives lost in Monterey Park, Half Moon Bay and across this devastated land ask for nothing less. Mass shootings’ collective toll on the American psyche

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