Positing that guns are a hot topic in the U.S. is merely stating the obvious. Next to loud voices and capitalism and big food portions and Hollywood and you know, institutional racism, our love of the Second Amendment defines us as a culture.
As of Sunday, the American gun control debate came back to tongues and fingertips with the terrorist attack on the Las Vegas strip.
Observing tragedy from England
Even though I have been living in England while this discourse and investigation are taking place, the Las Vegas shooting weighs heavy on me.
I don’t have any ties to Las Vegas. Never been. I am not particularly fond of country music, either. I’ll go as far as Kings of Leon, if you could even count them in the genre.
But that doesn’t mean that I am completely lacking in empathy. In fact, when it comes to the Las Vegas shooting, it has all felt like too much. Hearing the accounts of helpless confusion and panic the concertgoers felt unnerved me.
It feels cosmically unfair to know this fantastic weekend of seeing musical faves, looking fierce and flexing for Instagram and some good ol’ country rabble-rousing with loved ones in a glitzy destination city ended in tragedy for so many people.
So, geographic distance has not affected my empathy. If anything, it may have even heightened it. But I can pick out where studying abroad in England has affected the way I am processing this story: who I am as a journalist.
Dissecting the tragedy from the classroom
As a part of my abroad program, I am taking a course on politics and media. A large part of those discussions aren’t just about the political events themselves, but how they are covered. We’re interested in how information is disseminated, agendas are met, objectivity and perspective are tinkered with, and how narratives are constructed.
Naturally, Las Vegas came up in class today. And as our heated discussions are wont to do, it evolved into a debate about what we should be focusing on as media producers (and as media consumers, as citizens) when it comes to terrorist attacks like this one.
Do we focus on the victims or the shooter? Do we look into the involvement of their significant other? Do we take a local angle? How has the president responded? What is or isn’t being done to crack down on gun violence? For better or for worse?
Examining how the media talks about the gunman alone is intriguing. Despite the sheer scope of lives Paddock has ruined, stories still surface about how he was just a quiet, peace-loving, fun-loving man.
I am so curious about the rationale behind humanizing perpetrators of such violence. I want to know whether journalists want to provoke empathy or stoke fear. If anything, the recurring narrative of quiet, “normal” white men suddenly succumbing to homicidal rage is a comment on the intersection of violence, race and masculinity.
There is also, then the conversation about whether to call Stephen Paddock a “terrorist.” No, Paddock, does not seem to be motivated by religious extremism. And no, he isn’t brown, so he does not look like your “typical” terrorist.
Since we don’t know if his intentions were political, some journalists are hesitating to call him a “terrorist.” But Paddock did intimidate and harm civilians, as terrorists do. What alternatives exist to describe someone who has brought about carnage on this scale? What word besides “terrorist” really gets the suffering across?
Consider, too: Nevada defines terrorism as acts of violence causing “bodily harm or death to the general population.”
This conversation about labels also intersects with discussions about mental health. Islam-aligned shooters automatically get the stamp of terrorist, yes, because there is a political motivation. But as highlighted in a study in the American Journal of Political Science, the religious motivations would be the sole story without their mental health coming into the picture.
Preparing for Londoner’s questions
America’s love affair with guns seems even more ridiculous than it did when I was in the states. And I used to live in South Carolina.
My professor explained to us how they have had to field questions every time another mass shooting takes its No. 1 spot as the worst in American history.
With my newfound cultural consciousness, I have been looking to gauge British opinions on Las Vegas. The Independent is politely curious about whether American law enforcement will acknowledge Paddock as a terrorist. The Guardian highlighted how Paddock was the analytical, auto-didactic and strategic type.
On the other hand, the Evening Standard is concerned with eye witnesses and miraculous near-death experiences. And, forever capitalizing on shock value, the Daily Mail is interested in guns and Paddock’s body. (Thankfully, Daily Mail has a trigger warning on its photos.)
There seems to be less outrage and sorrow than there is horror and wonder. But as it stands, I feel like there’s a range of ways a Londoner could react to my American-ness after this week.
When it comes time to answer up for my country, I’m not sure I’ll have any answers.