If there is any notable commonality between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it is the tendency to portray as tragedy events of great violence. Perhaps it is a generalised strategy of the modern politician, but at least amongst these two otherwise utterly disparate men, it is observable in in Trump’s response to the Las Vegas shooting of October 2017, and in Obama’s speeches given in response to the numerous mass shootings across his two terms in presidency.
The gloomy, sombre tone, the grave, ashen face, the big, slow delivery of weighty words – these are the hallmarks of mass-shooting speeches. It is my view that, as a response to the acts with which these men grapple politically and ideologically, this approach fails. This is because these acts are ultimately not tragic.
This is not to say that these events are not sad. It need not be stated that the depth of the grief endured by the bereaved, the trauma suffered by the wounded, and the horror born by the survivors is without fathom. It also does not do to deny that these events demand a bearing witness, a mourning, and a frank and direct scrutiny of what these lives might have been lost for, what they might have meant, and what life might mean for those who continue in the wake of such violence. Yet it remains the case, and must be stated even moreso if justice is to be done for the lives lost, that these events are not tragedy.
The tragic, in the long history of Euro-centric culture, has been about Man in the grip of the supreme, about Humankind in the wash of vast tides; ‘the pride and refuse of the universe’ (I can’t remember where that quote comes from). In all cases of tragedy, in the broadest possible strokes, Man conspired against by forces against which (s)he cannot triumph. Whether this be the Gods of Olympus, the Lord in Heaven, Satan in Hell, or our own blessed soul, the great vices of men, their hubris, wrath, greed, sloth, lust, and fear, all of these forces appear as elements of fate in the tragic. This is present from the Ancient Greeks where oracles foretold great doom, and the tragic hero falls to his doom precisely because it is irrevocable, inexorable, it is his very nature, his tragic flaw to succumb to this fate. This has been retold endlessly throughout Euro-centric history, and is retold again now.
When Trump says that the mass shooting of October 2017 is ‘an act of pure evil’, he appeals to precisely this mode of representation: that the events here were of a divine nature, of forces inescapable and unpredictable, of power so sacred and indefiable that only a disembodied moralism could explain them. It is as if Evil himself, embodied perhaps in a demonic angel or a fiend from one of the more elaborate Buddhist circles of hell was the cause of these deaths.
It is important to note that this is quite different from the ‘evil’ mobilised by speakers such as George W. Bush, who, of course, used ‘evil’ to frame a friend-enemy distinction in order to mobilise the Afghanistan / Iraq wars in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001. Where Bush’s ‘evil’ was designed to morally justify an act of violence (war), Trump’s ‘pure evil’ is used to absolve all responsibility for an act of violence. For Trump, when over fifty dead and five hundred injured are the result of ‘pure evil’, it allows him to forget and deny by omission the fact that over fifty dead and five hundred injured are actually the result of one man being able to access and purchase, without any known impediment, tens of firearms which are designed for military use in the sole pursuit of transforming living tissue into perforated flesh. Tragedy here is used to cover over the need to address gun ownership and ease of access, something which sits rather well with the National Rifle Association, who, of course, unequivocally support the Republican party. Need it also be said that when events of an actually tragic scale (two of the worst hurricanes in recorded history to make landfall in the USA) took place, Trump was the first to forget all tragic rhetoric and insist upon immediate point-scoring?
The case is more nuanced with Obama, who, it will not do to forget, vigorously campaigned to regulate gun ownership in the USA during his presidency. For he used the tragic to try to gain support for gun control, to develop an empathetic community with victims of gun crime, and to attempt a call a stop to needless loss of life. One of the reasons that he rhetorically failed is again, his misuse of the tragic. Once again, the tragic belongs to forces of disembodied and irresistible power: God(s), or the fatal flaws of man. Tragedies are always divinely wrought, or self-wrought, or both. Just read some Shakespeare – Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, some of the greatest tragedy of literary history bears witness to the tragic notion that man is most miserably struck down when he would defy fate through vice (indecision, pride, ambition), and in his defiance is the one who brings his fate to fruition. Noone would claim that the victims of mass shootings are tragic in this sense. Did they defy any Gods to deserve their fate? Did they bring ruin upon themselves for some unholy misdemeanour against ancient rites and sacred pacts? No, no, and no! Obama’s use of the tragic fails because, in an almost tragic irony of his own, his very deep-felt belief that gun crime is avoidable and that this loss of life is tragic, ends up absolving American culture as a whole of responsibility and covering over the direct action needed to address the issue. The more he portrayed the violence as tragic, the more, by definition of the tragic, it seems possible to deny that anything could by done about it.
Let us not continue to muddy the issue. It is admirable, and perhaps even a necessity of the public figure to show solidarity with victims, to empathise, to console, to acknowledge suffering and grief and loss. These events are not tragic. They do not belong to tragedy, and they never have. They have a direct causal root which can be found in the constitutional American obsession with the ownership of firearms. This is not tragedy, this is violence – and autoimmune violence at that. A mechanism put in place to defend the citizenry of the United States of America turns virulent; a right held to be a fundamental liberty of a people releases septic discharge into the bloodstream of a nation. The doctor does not tell the patient their perfectly treatable polyps are grievously incurable cancer in order to acknowledge the subject’s suffering. If we wish to be witnesses to these events, to take responsibility for them, and to do justice to them, then dispense with the tragic; lest our commitment to the dead do nothing to prevent more – and incidentally occasion the cause for a real tragic irony.