The Corner

Culture

The Feeling That the Country Is on a Precipice . . .

A police car parked outside of Ned Peppers Bar the day after the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, August 4, 2019. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

TV Tropes, a delightful encyclopedia of fiction ideas and clichés, came up with a term to describe those scenes where a character senses something in the air and warns that dark times are ahead, or that “something wicked this way comes,” but never gives any real specifics about the coming danger. They call the trope, “vagueness is coming.”

It’s hard to begrudge anybody for feeling that sense of ominous foreboding after this weekend’s twin shootings. Over at City Journal, the great Lance Morrow asks if darker — much darker — days are ahead for the country:

There seems an inkling in these dramas, and in other recent mass shootings—the one in the Pittsburgh synagogue, for example—of something ominously new in the way of American violence: a whiff or germ or intuition of a new infection, as if the deeds were not just crazy (though certainly they were that), but belonged to a category that might be more sinister; as if they contained the germ of the Rwandan or Bosnian something. In the twenty-first century, such germs go around on the Internet at the speed of light. “Manifestos” appear—electronic solidarities of the like-minded.

We’re not going to turn into Rwanda or Bosnia overnight. As discussed on today’s podcast, it’s just factually wrong to argue the white supremacists are winning, as Joe Biden contended in a recent interview. And yet, just two deeply disturbed individuals in Dayton and El Paso ended so many lives, and generated so much pain, so quickly and easily. Most serial killers never reach ten victims, like the Dayton shooter or 22 victims, like the El Paso shooter. And we know that there are almost certainly more like them out there — marinating in their rage and self-pity, thinking about when and where they’ll commit their own massacre.

This isn’t the first time America’s seen a slew of horrible news in a short period of time. In a fourteen-month span in 2015 and 2016, America witnessed riots in Baltimore in May, the Charleston church massacre in June, the Chattanooga recruiting center attack in July, the Paris attacks in November, the San Bernardino terrorist attack in December, violent protests that forced the cancellation of a Trump rally in Chicago in March, another round of mass violence outside a Trump rally in June, the Pulse nightclub shooting the same month, and the sniper attacks on cops in Dallas in July 2016.

I remember being a little nervous heading to the GOP convention in Cleveland, just a few days after the attacks on cops in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Cleveland was about to bring together lots of VIPs, big groups of protesters, cops from all over the region, and of course the usual cranks and nuts attracted to a big event like that. Put enough angry people in the same place in the summer heat, and the situation can get combustible, really fast. Thankfully, the week went calmly — thanks to very good police work and, I suspect, a widespread desire to see that as impassioned as everyone was, cooler heads prevailed. The next week, Philadelphia’s convention came and went without significantly violent incidents.

Random violence against innocents never seems to go away for long: Charlottesville. The Pittsburgh synagogue. The Poway synagogue. The Gilroy festival.

Even the ones we’ve had represent near-misses. Last year, BuzzFeed reminded its audience that the shooting attack on the GOP congressmen at the baseball field in 2017 were “nine minutes that could have changed America.” Without quick and brave police action, perhaps as many as 24 Republican congressman could have been killed.

Social media shows us how many Americans believe that the other side is not merely mistaken, or foolish, or merely wrong; the political opposition is malignant and trying to destroy the country.

Good politicians — both good as in good people and good as in skilled politically — usually keep a healthy distance from any rhetoric that could stir up paranoia or hostility towards other groups. Fear, anger, suspicion, mistrust — these are powerful emotions that can get out of control in human behavior quickly. One might even call them, ahem, dark psychic forces. Very rarely does anything good come from playing with this kind of cultural nitroglycerin.

Politicians may know they’re being hyperbolic when they throw around terms like “betrayal,” “great danger,” “totalitarian,” and “dictatorial”; but not everyone in their audiences understands. There is no shortage of Americans who completely believe in an organized “great replacement” plot to wipe out white America through mass immigration. There is no shortage of Americans who completely believe President Trump is establishing concentration camps and will never peacefully relinquish power. It wouldn’t take much for some angry, emotionally or mentally troubled, isolated extremist to cast themselves in their own heroic narrative, striking down the evil that so obviously threatens the country.

The shooters seem to have a peculiar and toxic combination of narcissism and self-loathing. Narcissism manifests in their self-absorption and absolute disregard for how their actions affect everyone around them. Self-loathing, because they know their rampage will end when they are shot or subdued and on their way to life in prison, and this strikes them as the best outcome for themselves. They convince themselves that the only way their lives will have meaning and value is by killing as many strangers as they can — a viewpoint that must find absolutely nothing else of value in their lives.

Maybe things will calm down, and the country as a whole will back away from the abyss. We have before. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that . . . well, as TV Tropes would put it, vagueness is coming.

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