I’m playing this game with a friend the other night where we try to predict what Google will automatically fill in after we type a series of words.
“I like to –” or “My face smells like — ” or “How do you –”
We land on a Reddit-like forum after one particular hygiene-related search, giggling for awhile at the kinds of things people were seeking advice on: what does happen when your farts smell like rotten eggs, or is it normal to pee after sex?
My friend stops laughing suddenly. We both see it at the same time: a username that incorporates both of the phrases “Sodomize” and “Little Girls.”
“I don’t want to look at this site anymore,” she says.
A shooter opened fire at a community college in Oregon this week. Ten are dead.
A shooter opened fire during a live television broadcast in August. Three are dead.
A shooter opened fire in a movie theatre in Louisiana in July. Three are dead.
A shooter opened fire at a church in South Carolina in June. Nine are dead.
A shooter opened fire at a home in Tucson, Arizona in May. Five are dead.
I typed those sentences just now because I liked the way the sentence structure felt, in just illustrating the bare facts of those cases. I typed those sentences almost cavalierly, then went back and looked at them again, feeling shame creep up my body at how easily those sentences rolled from my fingers onto my keyboard. I just listed thirty deaths. That’s thirty people who aren’t on the planet anymore, the size of a too-full classroom, or three crowded elevators. Thirty is a good-sized house party.
That’s thirty families who are grieving.
I also handpicked those few examples, but the truth is that in the United States, in 2015, there have been 10,079 deaths by gun violence. 559 of those deaths were children under the age of eleven. 2,005 of those were teenagers between twelve and seventeen. It is, of course, only October.
Ten thousand. I can’t quite comprehend what that number looks like. There were slightly less than three thousand students on my college campus when I attended. So: if one day I woke up and the entire campus, times three, was dead. I’m trying to picture that and I still can’t quite imagine it, what ten thousand dead people looks like.
A shooter opened fire at a school. A shooter opened fire in an office. A shooter opened fire on the street. A shooter opened fire in a parking lot. A shooter opened fire and ten thousand families, this year alone, are going to have an extremely shitty Christmas.
A shooter opened fire and I maybe paused for a second when I heard it on the radio. A shooter opened fire and I thought, “not again.” A shooter opened fire and it was sad, but I’ve heard all this before and I’m no longer shocked. A shooter opened fire and I googled, “How to Buy a Gun,” because I wondered how easy it would be, and I learned that I could go to a gun show (there are fifty happening just this weekend across the country; the nearest to me is in Wilkes-Barre) and I could purchase a handgun, no background check required.
A shooter opened fire and teachers practiced huddling with their children in silent, locked classrooms.
A shooter opened fire, and in Missouri, students from the Troy High School Drama Club pass around containers of fake blood and baby wipes, learning how to create bullet wounds with makeup as part of their extra-credit participation in a fully-realized active shooter drill.
A shooter opened fire again and again and again and again, and I wonder how it is that in order to own and operate my car, I need to pass a driver’s license exam, register my vehicle with the state, provide proof of insurance, require that the car pass an inspection to make sure it is not a danger to myself or others. I wonder how it is that we have spent billions of dollars on the prevention of terrorist attacks and yet ten thousand people this year alone are dead at the hands of our own countrymen. I wonder how it is that we can consider ourselves the land of the free when those freedoms seem to come at such a price. How in the home of the brave, we hail the teacher who charged at the shooter, while not really recognizing the horrific cost of bravery by necessity.
I look at the internet. I look at other posts from other, smarter people: who compare gun legislation to abortion laws. Who point out that it only took one failed attempt at a shoe bomb for us all to take our shoes off at the airport, but gun deaths seem to change nothing. Who point out that we shut down factories for listeria contamination, we push to ban travel to foreign countries after vague threats of Ebola, but this? We’re sorry, there’s nothing we can do. Our hands are tied.
It is so frustratingly, blindingly obvious that we’re sick of this shit, that it’s insane that more Americans die from gun deaths than auto accidents, that we are only 4.4% of the world’s population but own nearly half of the world’s civilian-owned guns. That a Congress who has yet to prosecute the bankers whose illegal activities caused a financial meltdown, a Congress whose bills currently still in committee include a resolution to designate the month of May as “National Lacrosse Month,” perhaps is simply uninterested in keeping weapons out of the hands of people who are interested in using said weapons to kill other people.
Getting guns out of the hands of criminals is something we can all agree on, yes?
Good. Let’s talk about the people holding the trigger.
When we teach children about how freedom of speech works, we describe it like this. Imagine that you’re standing outside of a movie theatre, talking to the people walking by. You’re allowed to say anything you want! The sky is orange. Aliens with butts for faces are coming to beam us all to planet Zorptron. Whatever. You’re allowed to say that! How great is that?
But imagine you were saying something else. Suppose you stood and yelled, “I’m going to punch you in the face” at a stranger, over and over and over again. That stranger could call the police, and the police would likely detain you for threatening another person. Your right to free speech does not trump the rights of that other person to walk down the street without fearing a punch in the face. America is great — you can say whatever you want! But what you say has consequences. Your speech isn’t protected, say, when planning a criminal act. It’s punishable as conspiracy.
I spent a good deal of today scrolling through 4chan, the website where the Oregon killer allegedly posted his intentions to commit murder, and where a series of copycat posts have emerged, celebrating victory of the “betas” over the “normies,” and glorifying Santa Barbara misogynist killer Elliott Rodger. 4chan, in addition to hosting some innocent forums about anime and video games, is also a place where people — overwhelmingly angry, white, and male — go to seek validation and companionship. A place where the lonely can find refuge among the lonely.
And before you go jumping towards conclusions, please allow me to assure you of the following things. I hold these truths to be self-evident: that I believe very deeply in freedom of speech, that I am wholeheartedly uninterested in an Internet that resembles China’s, and that all men who dwell in basements are not monsters or murderers.
Back to 4chan. Much of its content is vile, and I hate so much of what I find there, and yet, to paraphrase yet another American icon, I will defend to the death their right to troll.
But when rape and violence threats are posted, I can’t help but wonder why we don’t treat it in the same way that we treat that stranger shouting at another stranger on the street. Why when the cops are called, after revenge porn leaks or after women are doxxed, there’s just “nothing that can be done.” Why our constitutional right to safety is trumped by the rights of internet trolls to harass, to bully, to intimidate.
I’m just wondering why it is that we haven’t figured out how to legislate online speech in the way that we legislate other threats. Why it is that Anita Sarkeesian was threatened with rape and with death, why it is that Lindy West was trolled repeatedly by men claiming to be her recently deceased father, how it is that thousands of women have had their lives destroyed by revenge porn and doxxing … and yet while the occasional case of prosecution and sentencing does exist, women are much more routinely told that they need to wait until a crime has actually been committed. That they need to wait around to become the victims. How the Supreme Court decision many hoped would define when an online rant becomes a legitimate threat was carefully watched by thousands of people — and how the man who was convicted of making death threats to his estranged ex-wife was set free.
How it feels like my country’s lack of gun legislation is operating under similar, destructive logic. Sorry, but we have to wait until a crime has actually been committed before we can do anything. Let’s just wait until we all become the victims; perhaps then we can file a report?
And I’m wondering what we do about the fact that 4chan exists. That men who are angry, men who are lonely, men who feel isolated and rejected by society — that there is a place where that hatred and rage finds companionship and validation, where misery breeds contempt. How we’ve created a society that drives these men to find like-minded people. How our culture of shame has created a subculture of violence. Of misogyny. Of hatred of others.
And I am reminded that mankind has walked on the moon and mapped the human genome. We have built the great pyramids, and created centuries of culture and music and literature and art. I can, at this very moment, take out a small metal rectangle, swipe my thumb on a screen made of glass, and have instant access to most of the known knowledge of the universe.
So explain to me how the fuck, if we can do all that, we can’t figure out how to keep guns out of the hands of the people posting death and rape threats on the internet. Better yet, explain to me why they’re posting those threats in the first place. Explain to me why we have failed them. Explain to me what we can do to make it better.
Tell me why we are teaching our kindergardeners how to hide in a closet during a live shooter drill rather than teach them about empathy, trust, compassion, and kindness. Explain that to me. Explain how the right of gun owners to buy a handgun on the internet, no questions asked, can possibly justify the fact that we’re raising a nation of children who fear school shootings, who can comprehend mass murder, who have practiced hiding silently in closets in the event that they are killed, who have learned this in the way that they learn colors and shapes, letter and numbers, plants and animals, hiding places and quiet games, gunfire and locked doors.
Explain to me how this has somehow become the solution.
Explain to me how it can be anything but the problem.