I woke up this morning to an explosion of text messages, tweets and voicemails, each of them asking the same thing: Are you OK? The answer is yes and no.
Yes, I’m physically fine — thank whatever higher power there is, I was not among the 50 people shot at a nearby Colorado movie theater, mainly because while I was planning to go see the latest Batman picture this week (and perhaps at that theater), the babysitting challenges of having a 19-month-old son logistically prevent me from seeing a midnight movie premiere.
But no, I’m not emotionally fine. I don’t know the status of all of my friends or of my extended radio family, many of whom may have been there to see “Dark Knight” and instead experienced the darkest night of all. And just as important, whether I personally knew the victims or not, 50 of my fellow Coloradans shot down while watching a superhero flick is both an unspeakably awful tragedy and yet another jarring reminder that terrorism is everywhere.
For all the legitimate questions that will be asked in the coming days (Why are there so many mass shootings in America? Why is it so easy to buy weapons-grade tear gas canisters? How much is this related to the availability of guns?); for all the insulting media coverage that will try to ramrod the dead Fargo-style into the woodchipper of the presidential campaign (New York Times headline: “In Wake of Colorado Shooting, a Concern Over the Proriety of Campaigning”); and for all the demagogues who will use this tragedy for their own gain (pro-gun GOP Rep. Louie Gohmert is today blaming the shooting victims for not being armed) — there is only one harrowing conclusion we can come to for certain immediately after such a heinous act: Terrorism has no specific nationality, geography, race or creed.
Not surprisingly, police and reporters have been quick to tell us the opposite — that the suspected shooter was likely just a “lone wolf” and that “this act does not appear to be linked to radical terrorism or anything related to Islamic terrorism,” as ABC News put it. This newspeak is supposed to reassure us that this is anything but terrorism — that terrorism is something that happens only in faraway places or huge cosmopolitan cities, not in an Anytown, USA, in the American heartland; that terrorism never comes at the hands of a “24-year-old white American male” named “James Holmes”; it comes only at the hands of dark-skinned “evildoers” with hard-to-pronounce names; that terrorism comes only from calculating operatives who represent organized political interests, not from “crazy” individuals who calculatedly act on their own ideology or psychopathy. In this, we are expected to be sedated by such reassurances, to ignore the ever-growing list of such “lone wolves,” and to reject a much wider definition of terrorism, no matter how much the reality of shooting after shooting after shooting screams at us to accept it.
But with bodies strewn across an Aurora movie theater and a nation clearly terrorized, we must ask: what is terrorism, if it is not a man in a riot mask and bullet-proof vest, armed with tear gas canisters and weapons, meticulously executing a military-style assault on a crowded movie theater?
Confronting that question, of course, is mind-bending and painful — in the age of “War on Terror” agitprop that purposely defines terrorism in one specific, narrow and politically convenient way, it’s akin to the cognitive difficulty of pondering the size of the universe … or, perhaps, death itself. It takes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to consider the causes of all kinds of extremism and violence — not just the foreign Islamic kind that we so flippantly write off as alien. Indeed, at a time when so many bloodlusting Americans cheer on our government proudly assassinating the imams who allegedly inspire Muslim terrorism, a shooting like this (if, indeed, it had nothing to do with Islamic extremism) begs us to wonder why we don’t feel similarly bellicose or enraged at the inspirations fueling so many other forms of terrorism — whatever those inspirations may be.
These contradictions and omissions, of course, are why such a question will almost certainly be ignored in the now-practiced kabuki theater of horror porn — the kind where vote-seeking politicians issue meaningless platitudes, ratings-stalking reporters breathlessly recount the gory details and attention-starved pundits preen in front of cameras to prognosticate about the electoral implications of mass murder in a presidential swing state. Carefully avoiding the T-word, it is a conspiracy of distraction and reduction, playing to our reflexive desire for soothing diversions and simple answers. The conspirators expect that when the cameras eventually pan away from the cataclysm, we will slip back into hyper-sleep for another few weeks, until the next massacre hits, and then the cycle will begin anew.
Their expectations are, sadly, probably correct — but with a theater full of innocent victims in a square-state suburb, they don’t have to be, nor should they be.