In the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting on 24 May in Texas, a British reporter confronted Texas senator Ted Cruz.
An 18-year-old had acquired AR-15 assault weapons and gunned down 19 children and two of their teachers at an elementary school after shooting his own grandmother in the face.
“Why does this only happen in your country?” the reporter asked. “I really think that’s what many people around the world just cannot fathom. Why only in America? Why is this American exceptionalism so awful?” There have been at least 213 instances of mass shooting in America in this year alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Cruz bristled at this attack on American exceptionalism. “Why is it that people come from all over the world to America?” retorted the senator. “Because it’s the freest, most prosperous, safest country on earth.”
But the question still hung in the air, unanswered.
The news of another mass shooting in the US evokes more déjà vu than shock these days. And Uvalde has already been followed by a shootout at a medical centre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. German Lopez, who has covered mass shootings for Vox, calls it a “horrible American ritual” and says each time another shooting happens, “everything we wrote in the past still applies; all we have to change is the date, location, and number of dead”.
The debate has calcified. Gun opponents, mostly Democrats, call for gun control. Gun advocates, mostly Republicans, blame sociopaths and demand even more guns so that teachers can be armed. Neither side really acknowledges the fact that just gun reform will not be enough any more. Lopez points out the US already has the highest number of privately owned guns in the world. A 2017 estimate puts it at 120.5 guns per 100 residents. The second-ranked country is civil war-torn Yemen. Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population but own 45% of the world’s privately held firearms. Even if reform happens, there are still too many guns floating around in the system.
But Cruz is right. The horrific stories of gun violence will not dampen the desire of millions trying to migrate to America. But he is wrong if he thinks it has no effect.
Shortly after the Texas tragedy, a friend shared a poem by Brian Bilston, sometimes called the unofficial poet laureate of Twitter. It began:
England is a cup of tea.
France, a wheel of ripened brie.
Greece, a short, squat olive tree.
America is a gun.
And it ended with:
Japan is a thermal spring.
Scotland is a highland fling.
Oh, better to be anything
Than America as a gun.
America’s self-image is embodied by the Statue of Liberty holding out a beacon of hope to the world. Its fight against communism was framed in that rhetoric, although many Vietnamese or Central Americans would disagree with that piety. At that time, the Soviet media routinely used American racism as rhetorical ammunition. “Yet in your country, they lynch Negroes” became a standard catchphrase for the Soviets to deflect any American criticism on human rights. American Protestant missionary and educator Sherwood Eddy wrote in 1934 that even in remote Soviet villages, Americans were asked “why they lynch Negroes”. In a joke from the 1960s, two car salesmen, an American and a Soviet, are arguing about cars. The American says, “How many decades does it take an average Soviet man to make enough money to buy a Soviet car?” The Soviet man replies, “And you are lynching Negroes.”
It’s a joke but it still stung because it was indeed hard for America to self-righteously point fingers at the rest of the world with that kind of overt, unabashed, institutionalised racism in its own backyard. Legal scholar Mary Dudziak, author of Cold War Civil Rights: Race And The Image Of American Democracy, said in an interview in 2001, “American presidents and diplomats feared that other nations would be slow to embrace democracy if they saw Americans denying basic rights to their own citizens.” Segregation, she said, “made us look bad”.
The gun shootings, like segregation, make America look bad even if the visa lines at embassies remain long. They make America the home of the free, the brave and the trigger-happy. Every country has its badlands, its rough neighbourhoods, its “Gangs Of Wasseypur”. But in America mass violence can, and does, strike anywhere—elementary schools, kindergartens, supermarkets, churches, movie theatres, flea markets, gay bars, subway cars. Pretty much everywhere, apart from a National Rifle Association convention. As David Frum writes in The Atlantic, “Every other democracy makes some considerable effort to keep guns away from dangerous people and dangerous people away from guns.” Except the US. And it’s getting worse. The pandemic years have seen a surge in gun sales. And gun violence.
India is no stranger to either violence or lynch mobs. But when I lived in America, friends in India would routinely ask, “What’s wrong with your country?” Most of the world just cannot fathom a country where a teenager who cannot drive, buy pornography or alcohol, or vote can legally purchase a gun.
When a white supremacist walked into a restaurant in Kansas in 2017 and shot two Indians, reportedly yelling “Get out of my country”, no one was really surprised either by the racism or the violence. At the time, a friend had said his cousin in India had called off her wedding to someone in America. She did not want to move to America any more. His American address, which would once have made him a catch, was now a handicap.
It’s one small example but these “one examples” slowly add up. America’s strongest asset is its projection of greatness. Each mass shooting (and the ineffectual “thoughts and prayers” reaction to it) makes a dent in that image. Once parents worried their US-bound children would fall prey to the allure of blonde lovers, hamburgers and fast cars. Now random gun violence is also becoming part of the American story.
When I lived in San Francisco, Clare, a single mother and a nurse, was my neighbour. Our houses shared a wall. We could jump over the backyard fence and get into each other’s gardens. Her young son, Camilo, would sometimes weed our gardens. He wasn’t the most discerning gardener. Once he pulled out all my flower seedlings, leaving the weeds intact. But the neighbour’s son earning pocket money by weeding the garden was part of my Tom Sawyer image of American life. Years later, I went back to visit San Francisco. Clare still lived in the house. I was about to ask her how Camilo was doing but she abruptly said, “Camilo’s dead.”
He had been studying to be a firefighter. He went out one night to celebrate the completion of his paramedic programme. He never came home. He was killed in a shootout at a bar in San Francisco’s Mission neighbourhood. Clare said the shooter was a 21-year-old with easy access to guns. “For a long time, I wanted to die,” Clare said in a 2016 interview. “I didn’t walk past a bus without thinking I could just throw myself in front of it.” She became a gun safety and gun control advocate but I will always remember the emptiness in her eyes as she stood on her deck and told me the story.
The tragedy did not make me fear San Francisco, a city where I had come into my own. I still love the Mission neighbourhood, with its bustling taquerias and grocery stores. But every time I go past their little house I remember the boy who once weeded my flower beds and the senseless violence that killed him.
When I heard about the shooting in Uvalde, I thought of Camilo once again.
Every time an Uvalde happens, we sigh and say nothing will change in America. But something does change—America’s image in the eyes of the world. The gun violence should have been the exception. Instead, it becomes part of the story of American exceptionalism itself.
The scars remain.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.