Yesterday, President Trump addressed the nation in the wake of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. And look, we’ve talked about what could be done to prevent tragedies like this. Not voting for politicians who are in the pocket of the NRA, for starters. Enacting, and not rolling back, gun control measures. Not just sitting back and praying after the damage is done.
But one thing that I think we also should be talking about is… well, how we’re talking about gun violence. Why language matters, and the way the very language being used is framing our national discourse right now. For starters, we can’t even agree on what the word “terrorism” means. Setting aside the issue of whether or not the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, did, in fact, have any ties to the white supremacy group Republic of Florida (a claim that seems to have originated and been subsequently walked back by ROF spokesperson Jordan Jereb), there is a general reluctance to labeling him a terrorist in the media.
Oops, typo:— dan clayton (@danclayt0n) February 16, 2018
A radicalized domestic terrorist who legally acquired assault weaponry despite a documented history of strange behavior was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder in Florida this morning. https://t.co/htQqesvEfB
So I looked up the definition of “terrorism” and it’s… not straightforward at all. Sure, dictionaries define it easily. Merriam-Webster says it’s “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” In everyday usage, it sometimes becomes a catch-all term for any attack or outbreak of violence. A few years ago PolitiFact attempted to unpack the ways the term is defined at a government and law enforcement level, and it’s convoluted, to say the least. The presence of noncombatant targets (or, you know, civilians) is a factor in some cases, as is the destruction of public property, while in other cases just the threat of violence is enough to be terrorism. The big question is the motivation. Does there need to be an ideological or political expression being made by the attack? But the most interesting aspect of their analysis to me was this bit:
Governments like having loose definitions of terrorism for a couple reasons. Having a broad definition (or multiple definitions) increases a government’s options for responding. And once the government does label something “terrorism,” it’s a surefire way to justify hard-edged responses to the public.
So the very act of refusing to utilize a given term could be providing our politicians with the wiggle room to avoid taking firm measures such as oh, I dunno, passing gun control legislation. But what happens if WE decide to call what happened in Parkland an act of terrorism? What happens if the media calls Cruz a terrorist? Instead of waiting for our government to dictate the terms of our discourse, what happens if we do it? I think, I hope, we might be on the verge of finding out.
It’s not just the words that our politicians aren’t using that I find fascinating, though — it’s the words they ARE using that might be even more important. At the very end of Trump’s address yesterday, he said a phrase that has stuck in my head ever since. Emphasis mine:
It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make that difference. In times of tragedy, the bonds that sustain us are those of family, faith, community and country. These bonds are stronger than the forces of hatred and evil. And these bonds grow even stronger in the hours of our greatest need, and so always, but especially today, let us hold our loved ones close. Let us pray for healing and for peace and let us come together as one nation to wipe away the tears and strive for a much better tomorrow.
Just a reminder, yesterday Trump also stated that Cruz was “mentally disturbed”:
So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2018
And look, we know Cruz was unbalanced and had a long, well-documented history of violence. But hiding behind the argument that no laws would truly prevent a mentally ill person from accessing a weapon and killing if they really wanted to is a tired standby at this point, which is why it’s important to note that even if Republicans DO think the solution here isn’t gun control but improved mental health care… well, Trump’s 2019 budget proposal significantly cuts spending to key programs that might help. Per NPR:
But the budget blueprint also slashes spending for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration by $665 million. Additionally, Bloomberg reported the National Institute of Mental Health would see a 30 percent reduction in funding — a half a billion dollar decrease — in 2019.
And as NPR’s Scott Horsely noted, nearly a year ago the president signed a bill making it easier for people with mental illness to buy guns.
And that’s in addition to a $24 million cut to school safety programs.
But the argument is further complicated by Trump’s own statement. Is the conclusion to be drawn here that people with mental health issues are the “forces of hatred and evil” themselves? Because, I mean, to me white supremacy is an actual “force of hatred” so sure, I can see that. But does that mean that hate is a mental illness? And what the fuck even is a “force of evil” anyway? Is he saying that an illness is “evil” somehow?
So again, I did some digging. “Evil” is defined as morally reprehensible, sinful, wicked, and causing harm. It’s bad, but to the cartoonish, absolute end of the “bad” spectrum. And as a noun, it is also defined as a cosmic force. We typically think of evil as the opposite of good, which… Ok, I suppose a mass shooting ALSO counts as the opposite of good. But how do you legislate to prevent “evil”? How do you protect against a person’s capability to be morally reprehensible, and act on it?
Perhaps I should be watching the Disney XD series Star Vs. The Forces Of Evil and then I’d know. But I guess I always picture evil as something supernatural or even Biblical, like a demon or a cackling villain. Or fucking Voldemort. And the kicker is: Nobody could stop Voldemort. Not the Ministry of Magic, not the adults, not goddamn Dumbledore. It took a boy wizard to defeat that form of evil — a boy who had to die in the process. Sure, he was resurrected because fucking MAGIC YA’LL, but it’s not like we can expect the same for our kids.
Now, that’s all fiction. In the real world, good vs. evil isn’t as straightforward as, you know, good vs. evil — and framing it that way, in almost Biblical terms, is a blatant attempt to justify the use of prayers as a legitimate action in response to violence and tragedy. Sure, we can pray for the families of the 17 people killed on Wednesday. But prayer isn’t proactive. It wouldn’t have saved anyone, and it won’t bring them back now. People have a right to their own morality, but nobody has the right to harm others. So instead of worrying about the forces of evil, worry about making sure they don’t have the tools to do harm. Worry about treating people suffering from any kind of illness, including mental, and giving them the care they need in time. And don’t confuse the two. Don’t conflate illness with evil. One is treatable; the other has been confounding theologians for ages.
And finally, remember what they say about evil:
So fucking DO SOMETHING.