“As Americans, we grieve…”
Mass shootings in contemporary American society have emerged as events of profound political and cultural symbolism; indeed, the news media has often attributed to them the label of “crisis.” They have a singular status in the modern American collective consciousness, one not occupied by other forms of violence. Mass shootings have attained this status, I argue, precisely because their violence transcends the immediate act itself; they are threefold acts of violence, enacted on the bodies of their victims, the minds of their witnesses (both first and secondhand), and society collectively. Through the elaborate national discourse that has been constructed around them, mass shootings have emerged as attacks on society as a whole – mass violence in the most literal of senses. Individuals become witnesses and are thus implicated in the trauma of the event; simultaneously, their personal grief is transformed into collective pain. There are four key drivers that enable this threefold victimization: first, the sense that mass shootings represent a narrative rupture; second, the personalization of a collective anxiety tracing back to 9/11; third, the modern idiom of trauma, which provides a new lens through which to understand and justify the grief reaction; and fourth, the development of new normative grief rituals, performed through social media, which serve to create a shared trauma narrative and to allow individuals to affirm their group membership and community identity in a time of flux and fragility.
Mass shootings are felt as powerfully disruptive of the everyday; they are an inappropriate disruption of not only the “contingent, unremarkable and ordinary” stream of everyday life, but also the normatively coherent, telic narrative of individual and collective life.
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