Be despondent, America. Acknowledge your humanity. Surrender to the nagging instinct to feel hopeless about the level of anger and violence in the country, and the number of guns in our midst that allow one man to instantly cause the death of others – numerous others, or one at a time; a police officer shooting a civilian, a civilian shooting a police officer; a disturbed man shooting children and their teachers, or churchgoers, or sheriff deputies, or a wife or girlfriend; a woman killing her daughters; a teenager committing suicide.
On and on it goes, every day. The only thing that changes is the nature of the tragedy – public or private, massive or singular, urban or suburban, racially-charged or retaliatory, in the cause of public safety, in the name of the law, as an act of vengeance or terror.
What we face today is a horrible pile-up of issues: The shooting deaths of black men by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota, following numerous other such shootings – as well as the death from catastrophic injury in police custody of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray – over two years of heightened tensions between police and black citizens.
Now five police officers have been gunned down in Dallas following a protest in that city of the deaths of the men in Louisiana and Minnesota.
We are in the deep end, my fellow Americans, drowning in anger and frustration, guns and violence. I don’t know about you, but when I woke up this morning and read the news from Dallas, I felt like the country had tipped toward anarchy.
The U.S. is an exceptional country, all right. Exceptional for its political, social and racial polarization. Exceptional in its acceptance of gun ownership.
You can feel despondent. You can feel hopeless.
Dallas carries special meaning to Americans of a certain age. The shooting deaths of police officers in that city resonates with a generation that will always associate Dallas with assassination. It’s where Lee Harvey Oswald used an Italian-made, bolt-action rifle, purchased by mail order, to kill President John F. Kennedy in 1963, an event that horrified and shocked the nation and the world. Oswald also shot and killed a Dallas police officer that day; his name was J.D. Tippitt, 39 years old and the father of three children.
It was a national nightmare, but it was 53 years ago, and the Kennedy assassination, while seared into memory, has been surpassed by so many other acts of violence in the country since then – the assassinations five years later of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., mass killings, domestic killings, drive-by homicides, drug-related murders.
More recently added to the mix, and only because of the presence of cell phone cameras, are the killings of black men by police officers. Eyes are wide open to that dark phenomenon now – and the fear, anger and distrust it fomented – but what do we do about it?
Overcoming the subtle prejudices as well as the white-hot racism that still exists in this country looks daunting as ever, even harder given the harsh voice of bigotry and division that has emerged in the 2016 presidential campaign.
You can feel despondent. You can feel hopeless.
Certainly there is something deeply wrong when so many black men are fatally shot by police officers. But I keep coming back to the guns.
Guns have presented us with today’s national nightmare. Guns give hatred its full, bloody force. Guns make the unspeakable real.
We are striving toward reforms – police body cameras, ending racial profiling, de-escalating the war on drugs and mass incarceration – but ultimately, we still have a nation bristling with guns, large and small, purchased and possessed legally and illegally, carried on the streets and sidewalks, and in cars.
I said this after Michael Brown was shot to death in Ferguson, Missouri, and after Tamir Rice was shot to death in Cleveland: We can talk about these tragedies in terms of race and the use of deadly force by police and the increasingly militarized profile of police departments. Those are all hugely critical issues. But look at the role of guns. Look at the millions of guns that infest the culture at all levels (including toys, video games, TV, movies) and put so many Americans at risk in so many different ways.
The nation has just about as many guns as citizens. So no wonder the police have their fingers on triggers. The combination of the war on drugs and the rise in firepower on the street heightened tensions and increased the risk of injury or death to all involved.
The nation now has started a difficult, but much-needed conversation about racism, justice and police training. Still, guns are a huge part of this problem; there’s no way to talk around them anymore.
But, of course, we have had numerous opportunities to do that. And we have not done that, and it might be too late anyway, given the number of guns in the country by now.
So here we are, with the latest form of national horror, the assassination of police officers in Dallas. An American has every right to feel despondent today.
Dan Rodricks is a columnist for the Baltimore Sun. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.