Mass Murders Are Not “Tragedies”: Finding a New Language to Combat Gun Violence

Mass shootings are often described as “tragedies.” When former First Lady Michelle Obama discussed in her recent autobiography the 2012 murder of 20 children and six of their educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, she wrote, “Usually, work was work and home was home, but for us, as for many people, the tragedy in Newtown shattered every window and blew down every fence.”

Similarly, the Associated Press reported on how the Las Vegas community “marked the anniversary of the tragedy,” referring to the 2017 mass shooting at a country music festival at which 58 people were murdered and close to 500 wounded. The American Public Health Association responded to the murders of 11 people at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California by stating, “It is unacceptable that preventable gun violence tragedies have become so frequent.”

In perhaps the most heartbreaking official response to a mass gun murder in the U.S., President Barack Obama, tears streaming down his face, spoke to the community of Newtown, Connecticut following the murders of twenty small schoolchildren and six elementary school staff members. He said, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change…We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”

We can do better — we need to do better — and one way to start is to change the language we use to describe these atrocities. It can seem like a small point, a linguistic splitting of hairs, but language shapes meaning, and meaning informs action. And so far, the language we have used to discuss the murders of hundreds of people has encouraged passivity and apathy.

Not at all inevitable

While no one will dispute that the family and friends of the victims of mass shootings experience personal tragedy, when we describe specific mass murders as “tragedies” we create a narrative in which such violence seems inevitable — and that does not help those who have lost their precious loved ones, or prevent people from losing their lives in the next mass murder.

We need to reassess how we discuss mass murders. Historically, the word “tragedy” described a specific theatrical form in ancient Greece. It was defined by the philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics and is best known through the most famous example of theatrical tragedy, the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. In its original usage, a “tragedy” told the story of an individual whose “tragic flaw” fated them to fulfill a usually horrible destiny. The protagonist is ultimately an agent of their own inevitable victimization. Oedipus tried to avoid his fate but ended up falling victim to it due to his own tragic flaw: pride. In tragedy, there is no way to escape fate.

That storyline exists even today in countless Hollywood films in which romantic couples are doomed by their own mistakes and flaws. The word “tragedy” has always implied a causal relationship between an individual’s actions and their ultimate fate.

That’s why the word “tragedy” is completely inappropriate terminology with which to discuss mass shootings. What was the “fatal flaw” of the worshippers in Killeen, Texas, in Charleston, South Carolina, or at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Of the students, teachers and support staff at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech University, Sandy Hook Elementary, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Umpqua Community College, or Santa Fe High School? Just what, exactly, did the happy, dancing crowds at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the country music fans in Las Vegas do to deserve their own murders?

The obvious answer is, of course, “nothing.” These people, our coworkers, our friends, our family members, and our fellow citizens, did nothing to bring on their own murders. They were victims of crimes committed by specific individuals, not pawns in some cosmic game of destiny. But our use of the word “tragedy” to describe these violent crimes means that we promote the false assumption that these victims were, like Oedipus, somehow complicit in their own demise. Therefore, there was, and is, nothing we can do about it, because tragedies are the inevitable result of a fate that cannot be stopped.

This perhaps unconscious acceptance of our own powerlessness creates passivity. Using the word “tragedy” to describe the crime of mass violence leads us to understand all of life as a series of events we are helpless to stop, a world in which we are all as blind as Oedipus, left to weep and wail, rage on social media, and send thoughts and prayers — all passive responses that do nothing of substance to stop the massacres.

Evil and mundanity

Similarly troublesome is the use of the word “evil” to refer to the perpetrators of mass gun violence. “Evil” has become a shorthand term to describe something or someone who does something morally wrong, but the word itself comes with a long history of religious and moral subtext, particularly related to the supernatural. The word is commonly used within the realm of religion to describe otherworldly, sinister, uncontrollable forces. In the Christian Holy Bible, for example, evil is a constant threat that humans must overcome: in Ephesians 6:12, humans must “struggle not against flesh and blood, but…against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

But mass murderers do not possess supernatural powers and they certainly don’t traverse heavenly realms. They do not scratch at our windows at night like the vampires in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. No mass murderer has been driven to kill by an uncontrollable supernatural force. Yet when we describe them as “evil,” we unconsciously turn them into people we are powerless to stop.

Instead, we should describe these perpetrators as deliberate criminals bent on violating every civil and moral law for their own personal satisfaction. They are “ordinary men,” to borrow historian Christopher Browning’s description of Nazi mass murderers, and truly banal human beings, as Hannah Arendt described Nazi leader Adolph Eichmann. They are not demons or devils, not supernatural monsters like those in a horror film.

The language we currently use to discuss mass murders — tragedy, evil — has thus become complicit in our inability to prevent them. When we describe these murders as “tragedies,” we subconsciously say that they cannot be prevented; when we call the perpetrators “evil,” we suggest that we require a supernatural force to stop them. As individuals, this language reinforces our passivity: in the face of what we have described as an overwhelming force, we are powerless.

There are several ways we can change this. First, we can refer to “mass shootings” as “mass murders” — and murder is a crime. We can stop crime. Second, the perpetrators of this violence should be called criminals, not “shooters,” a term that places the murderer at the center of the action rather than the victims who deserve our attention. And we can stop criminals.

Finally, the use of the term “crime” rather than “tragedy” places these massacres into a different realm: instead of the language of inevitability and powerlessness that is a hallmark of “tragedy,” we can frame our discussion in the realm of the law, which is a social and civic problem, and we can find solutions to social and civic problems. We can start to think in proactive rather than reactive ways to solve the problem of mass gun violence in the United States.

Why is what seems a small language change important? If we do not reframe our dialogue on mass murder, if we continue to employ language that creates a framework of inevitability and passivity, we will then be the agents of our destruction. If mass murders continue, hundreds more will be murdered; thousands of people will lose their loved ones. If we continue to use passive language, we will like Oedipus be blind to the true meaning of mass murders, and to our own role in their perpetuation — and that would truly be a tragedy, because we would be the ones who failed to stop them.

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