We are all reeling from the news out of Las Vegas last night. After a mass shooting like this one, we often throw around the phrase “senseless violence.” We seem to say: this violence has no meaning, no direction to it. In other words, there is no cause for which these concert-goers died. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps the violence had a “meaning” to the shooter, yes. But once the shooter is dead, we have little access to that meaning. And in the case of a shooter who does not die and who makes clear his purpose, the violence still seems senseless. Take, for example, Dylann Roof. His interpretation of his own actions has been clear and consistent; he recently tried to fire the lawyers assigned to him because one is Jewish and one Indian.
If a clearly motivated violence like Roof’s is senseless, this simply reveals that we know the meaning of violence is about more than the meaning the perpetrator gives it. The meaning of 9/11 has transcended whatever purpose the attackers had for it. For the survivors, the meaning is tied to the victims: to the lives they led, the location where they were killed and their reasons for being there, any stories of courage they showed in those final moments. Stories of courage circulate from 9/11 and we rally around those: first responders who gave their lives, the story of Flight 93, even the determination it must take to jump out of a burning building.
I am confident stories of courage and sacrifice will emerge out of this latest shooting as well. But we cannot form the same narrative around this massacre that we were able to form as a nation around 9/11. More information may emerge, but thus far this seems to be a “lone gunman” with no known terrorist or otherwise violent ties. Here there is no enemy to attack or defend ourselves against. The enemy is within.
And so we reveal another layer of the term “senseless violence.” No known enemy to attack. Violence is “senseless” when we cannot fight back, when we do not have a clear enemy to accuse. In other words, when we cannot return violence with violence. The shooter is already dead. What to do now?
We found meaning after 9/11 in the stories of courage and sacrifice, yes, but also in the ability to name our enemies and go after them. Later we would turn to pre-emptive violence: attack Iraq before Iraq can attack us.
And so we see the logic in what will be the response of many to this most recent shooting: more weapons, more people armed, more citizens ready to defend their fellow citizens. This response is perfectly in line with the American moral framework in the face of large-scale death and suffering. Attack. Defend. Make sure you are not so vulnerable next time.
But the reality is that we are vulnerable. In this life, as human beings, we are vulnerable.
We’re vulnerable because we exist in and as these fragile bodies. But more so, we’re vulnerable because we live in community with other fragile bodies. And this is where our ethical reflection must begin. This is where we will “make sense” of violence. (Or not.)
We do not exist only for ourselves, but always in relation to others, from the time we are born. This is no less true in politics than it is in family life. And like family, we exist in a community not of our own making and not of our own choosing. Our very bodies belong not only to us, but always have a public dimension, as Judith Butler reminds us:
Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension. Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine. Given over from the start to the world of others, it bears their imprint, is formed within the crucible of social life…
(Judith Butler, Precarious Life:The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 26)
We struggle for autonomy and individuation, but we must also be willing to struggle for this sense of ourselves in community. For it is precisely this inevitable proximity of bodies that violence exploits: for violence is, always, an exploitation of that primary tie, that primary way in which we are, as bodies, outside ourselves and for one another (Butler, 27). We know this, implicitly, and so do the perpetrators, which is why violence targets places of bodies mingling and communities gathering: concerts, nightclubs, schools.
Our moral reflection as a country must begin here: our existence as a community of fragile bodies that always have a social and public dimension. Our moral reflection – and so our politics – must include grief and mourning (as Butler argues), if we are to take such vulnerability seriously. The meaning of violence will not be found in the purposes of those doing the attacking, nor in a defensive and reactive counter-violence. Rather, we must make meaning from the suffering through a reflection on our own vulnerability and fragility, acknowledging that our bodies are not (only) our own. Otherwise, we will have only a grief that is empty and a violence that is senseless.