There is, by now, a grim routine to all of this.
That’s how frequently it happens, how unremarkable it has become in America for some lunatic with a gun to shoot up a public place: we have evolved a script for it. Take Sunday night’s massacre in Las Vegas — at least 59 people dead, over 525 wounded — as an example.
Like a favorite movie, you can recite the lines by rote. Politicians pronounce themselves “shocked and saddened.” The left demands new gun safety measures, the right says “now is not the time” for that debate. Landmarks all over the world dim their lights. People say “we are all” Las Vegas — or Newtown or Aurora or Orlando — today. And everybody offers “thoughts and prayers” for the victims.
On social media, at least, that last draws particular scorn from the more secular among us for whom it is by definition an impotent gesture. But one need not be atheist or agnostic to feel frustration with those whose whole answer to this crisis is to invoke God and look away.
“Thoughts and prayers” do not diminish the need for more concrete steps. Indeed it might be argued that the one requires the other. James, the brother of Jesus, certainly thought so.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters,” he wrote, “if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
There is, then, something both morally and spiritually bankrupt in the idea that sending “thoughts and prayers” finishes our obligation to confront this scourge. Send all the thoughts and prayers you can. But as you’re thinking and praying, ask yourself: how is it that we live in a representative democracy where, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, 54 percent of us favor a ban on assault-style weapons, 54 percent support a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, 66 percent endorse the idea of a federal database to track gun sales, 74 percent want people on federal no-fly or watch lists barred from purchasing guns, 81 percent think people with mental illness should not be allowed to buy guns and 83 percent advocate background checks for private and gun-show sales and yet, the representatives we democratically elect ignore us year after year?
It’s a rhetorical question, of course. You already know the answer: We may elect them, after all, but we don’t buy them. The NRA does that.
Here, however, is another question and it isn’t rhetorical at all: Why do we as an electorate let them get away with this? Why do they pay no price at the ballot box? Why do we do nothing?
Because we do nothing, Sandy Casey, Charleston Hartfield and Sonny Melton are dead now. Because we content ourselves with “thoughts and prayers,” Angela Gomez, Jenny Parks and Neysa Tonks are, too. Because so many of us willingly swallow the lie that the Second Amendment cannot co-exist with reasonable regulation, the next batch of dead is only a matter of time.
“This is the price of freedom,” Bill O’Reilly wrote on his blog. And seriously, does this look like freedom to you?
Freedom is not terror. And free people are not supposed to be helpless to impose change. That’s the point of democracy: the government answers to its voters. But this one apparently does not. So yes, by all means, send the victims of this latest mass murder your thoughts and prayers.
But your deeds and actions might help, too.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.