It is the question that haunts every mass shooting. It seems to be asked in the tacit belief that if we could just find a reasonable motive, just suss out a cause, it might provide a way to comprehend the incomprehensible — even suggest a road map to preventing the next one. In America, there is always a next one.
Sometimes, we do find motives — often racial or cultural hatred. Just as often, the shooter dies at the scene and takes his reasons with him.
But even when do we get a “why” it often feels superficial and does little to facilitate the question’s ultimate goal. Which is to say, it does little to help us understand the tragedy before us. Yet, like a gnawing itch, the question persists.
Why did this happen? Why is America like this?
We are conditioned to seek the answer after mass shootings, those moments of communal grief and rage when the nation’s attention turns, predictably as a wheel, to the fact that our public spaces have become shooting galleries. But it might be instructive to spend a little time contemplating a different category of firearms assaults. Call them “knucklehead shootings,” i.e., small-scale shootings where the motive is patently absurd. As with mass shootings, there is no shortage.
In Atlanta, in June, a woman who worked at Subway was killed for putting too much mayonnaise on a sandwich.
In Brooklyn, in August, a man who worked at McDonald’s was shot in the neck because the french fries were cold.
In Houston, in September, a woman who worked at Jack in the Box allegedly shot at a customer in an argument over curly fries.
In Detroit, in November, a man was shot to death after he apparently failed to hold the elevator door.
In Tulsa, in November, a man reportedly shot at his stepfather after they got into an argument over a game of Monopoly.
Absorb enough of these knucklehead shootings and the idea that a search for motive might yield any insight of value begins to feel silly, little more than intellectual busywork that gives the mind something to do, some illusion of control. And never mind that whatever the motive is, whether it was that the french fries were cold or the shooter hated black people, it will never come close to explaining, much less justifying the carnage.
It will never tell us why. So maybe it is time to stop asking, time to start interrogating the “who” and not the “why.”
Many will say the problem is that guns are too readily available in America, which is demonstrably true, but even that only gets us part of the way to any sensible answer. Other countries — Canada and New Zealand for instance — also allow citizens to buy guns, albeit with laws more restrictive than you’ll find here. Gun ownership in both countries is widespread. Yet, American-style violence is not.
Maybe it’s because America fetishizes not just guns, but also the idea that guns, more than a tool of hunting or even of self-defense, are a shortcut to capability, an instant equalizer allowing even the weak-minded and the lily-livered to stand their ground. Standing your ground is a foundation of the American myth, so it’s hard to overstate the allure that must carry for a certain type of person. For them, to own a gun is to own swagger, to know that nobody’s going to mess with you or move you off your spot. And that if you want hot french fries, then doggone it, you will have hot french fries.
Because this is America.
In the end, that’s all the “why” you’re ever going to get. And all you’ll ever need.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. email@example.com