Gun Politics, Twitterized

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel (left) and syndicated talk-show host Dana Loesch at CNN’s town hall meeting, February 21, 2018. (Michael Laughlin/Pool/Reuters)
Our willingness to listen to each other is rapidly vanishing.

If you watched CNN’s emotionally charged town-hall presentation on gun violence Wednesday night — entitled “Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action” — I’m sorry.

No, really. I am genuinely sorry. Televised political “town halls” tend to be awkward, terrible, stilted, cringe-inducing, and wildly artificial showboating affairs. We can thank Jimmy Carter for pioneering this nightmarish trend in 1977, and Bill Clinton for cheerfully carrying it forward to torture us through the 1990s. But a televised political town hall dedicated to gun violence, held just days after a horrific high-school mass shooting — and populated by grieving parents and students — could only serve as a recipe for misery.

If you did watch it, however, you may have noticed something odd, creeping out from behind the obviously distressing subject matter. Our political dialogue, it seems, has become increasingly Twitterized.

Twitter, of course, is that infamous online chaos pool that many journalists regularly swear they’ll abandon for good, only to come crawling back like a beleaguered country-song barfly to that beautiful blue-jeaned girl with the big-city dreams and frequently cheating heart. In the world of Twitter, snap judgments rule. Tribalism reigns. It is a world of blaring headlines, void of context, and the blaring headlines often serve as a simple excuse to yell. It is a place where public shaming, “dragging,” and ganging up on people is a widely accepted hobby.

It is a place where nothing gets achieved, few to zero problems are fixed, and very little constructive dialogue ever takes place. Ever.

Twitter is a place where nothing gets achieved, few to zero problems are fixed, and very little constructive dialogue ever takes place. Ever.

Not everyone in America is on Twitter, thank goodness, but its signature style seems to be catching on. So it was that on Wednesday, a high-school junior took to the CNN town-hall stage and launched into Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) with the following line: “It’s hard to look at you and not look down the barrel of an AR-15 and not look at Nikolas Cruz.”

Wait. What? Weirdly, nobody on the stage even seemed to flinch. Nikolas Cruz, of course, is the mass murderer who killed 17 people at a Florida high school last week. Marco Rubio, on the other hand, is a deer-in-the-headlights senator who was surely berating himself for falling for the oldest trick in the book, which involves participating in a televised political town hall.

That same student went on to declare that when it comes to guns, we should split the world between people who “want to make a difference” and people who simply “prefer money.” Ah. OK. Judging by the applause at the town hall, making a difference would involve banning “every semi-automatic rifle that’s sold in America” — a decidedly unconstitutional idea that inspired enthusiastic cheers. Strangely, making a difference apparently does not involve spending a great deal of time questioning why multiple law-enforcement officials were warned repeatedly about the shooter — and his very specific threat to kill people at his school — to no avail. That, after all, is uncomfortable and complicated.

America, you’ve been Twitterized.

Or take NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, another guest at the CNN town hall, who earned an impressive crop of nonsensical boos. When Loesch suggested strengthening the background-check system, she was booed. When she noted that guns are important for women’s self-defense, she was booed. At one point, an audience member shouted that she was a “murderer.” Had Loesch promised everyone a new car, Oprah-style, she probably would have been booed as well. On the flip side, the NRA has apparently decided that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Here’s the organization’s bold new talking point, launched through a promotional video and at the Conservative Political Action Conference: “The mainstream media loves mass shootings.” Wait. What? Look, I support the Second Amendment, and I own guns, but somebody needs to pull the old NRA aside and gently tell them that this behavior is unbecoming and even a little insane. (It would look right at home, of course, on Twitter.)

Here’s the thing: In the wake of mass shootings — in the wake of that horrifying, sinking “not again” gut feeling shared by almost every single person across the nation — I understand why people want to ban certain guns. I disagree with the idea, but I understand it.

But here’s my worry: In our increasingly Twitterized nation, that relatively simple concept — “I disagree with the idea, but I understand it” — seems to be an increasingly endangered thought process. Political insults, of course, are nothing new. But just last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks earned widespread scorn and evisceration for a rather mild column suggesting that all Americans, including law-abiding gun owners, are worthy of respect. Yikes.

This is disappointing, because there are concrete steps we can take to try to tackle gun violence — and perhaps even some that could be accepted on both sides of the aisle. Here at National Review, for instance, David French has offered a substantial proposal for gun-violence restraining orders, which would stop people like Nikolas Cruz from getting weapons in the first place. Could we discuss it without yelling or booing or heckling or immediately dismissing it out of hand, in the grand style of Twitter dot com?

Let’s hope so. It’s really not that hard to do.

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