The Ritual of Silence in an Age of Mass Shootings

The moment of silence invoked to commemorate the victims of each new rampage only ensures the political conditions that led to their deaths will endure.

On October 1, Stephen Paddock barricaded himself in his Las Vegas hotel room with two dozen guns and opened fire on a country music festival some 30 floors below, killing more than 50 people and wounding hundreds of others. The term of art for this type of rampage, a “mass shooting,” has no universal definition. As a result, formal tallies have concluded that these events occur anywhere from a few dozen times a year to once every single day.

Around the end of 2015, after 14 people were shot dead at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, news outlets began referring to an “age of mass shootings” in the United States. Every age has its rituals, and ours is no different. The “moment of silence” that public officials invoke to commemorate each new rampage may have its roots in religious practices that predate this era, but its function is entirely contemporary. It imbues a worldly, empirically demonstrable phenomenon with cosmic significance, absolving officials otherwise charged with confronting public problems. There is no way to prevent an act of God.

The moment of silence signifies not only what we do not understand about gun violence — in part because Congress bullied the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into defunding almost all targeted research on the issue two decades ago — but also what we understand but do not wish to acknowledge: that gun suicides claim more than 20,000 lives in the United States annually; that American women are 11 times more likely to be shot and killed than their counterparts in other high-income countries; that black men account for 6 percent of the U.S. population but half of its gun homicide victims.

Tackling these phenomena would require both a reckoning with entrenched gender and racial hierarchies as well as a disavowal of the enduring myth of the heroic gunslinger, which promotes the use of lethal implements — the U.S. has as many privately owned guns as it does people — in these already deadly scenarios. It would also require a disavowal of (and divestment from) the hugely profitable industry responsible for supplying these firearms to an eager polity.

The same officials invoking a moment of silence may insist that it’s too soon to politicize a tragedy. But the silence that commemorates these victims cannot prevent their deaths from being sullied by politics. Instead, it only ensures the political conditions that led to their deaths will endure to claim new victims.

Video by Moiz Syed. Text by John Thomason.

Join The Conversation