On Sunday morning, the president of the United States humiliated his secretary of state, derided diplomacy as “wasting time,” mocked North Korea’s national leader as “Little Rocket Man,” and renewed his macho threat to “do what needs to be done” to thwart North Korea’s nuclear program—at the UN last month he said he might “need” to “destroy” the country. As always, analysts struggled to make sense of Trump’s tweets—geopolitically, psychologically—but the conclusion seemed inescapable that he is itching for a military conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary.
On Sunday night, a 64-year-old retiree by the name of Stephen Paddock took at least 10 rifles, some of them semi-automatic or automatic weapons, to the 32nd floor of the gilded Mandalay Bay resort casino, and gunned down hundreds of people, killing at least 50, in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Paddock shot his prey from up high and watched them scatter, like ants, like animals. There is no connection between Trump’s threat and Paddock’s massacre, except a profound lack of empathy, a toxic male willingness to indulge grievances (we don’t yet know Paddock’s, but we soon will) with violence, and an obsession with the display of absolute power.
Maybe it’s because I went to bed fearing a war, even a nuclear conflict, with North Korea, and woke up to random bloody gun terror at a country-music concert in Las Vegas that I see the two tragedies as entwined. There is something deeply wrong with the American male identification of guns as a symbol of freedom. We need to translate that correctly: By this definition, it is the capacity for brutal violence that is also a symbol, maybe even a prerequisite, of freedom. Of almost strictly male freedom, we must emphasize. This set of values wasn’t invented by the madman in the White House; he is just a symptom of a country and an electorate that value guns over children’s lives. On social media today I saw a heartbreaking impotence among many pundits and political activists, repeatedly expressed this way: If we didn’t do something to regulate guns, especially automatic weapons, after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre—in which 20 first-graders and six school staffers were murdered—we’ll never do anything. I don’t share that point of view, but I understand it.
Once again, the National Rifle Association has blood on its hands. At one time a respectable organization of gun owners promoting proper gun use and gun safety, three decades ago the NRA began to turn itself into a trade association for big gun manufacturers, and a purveyor of canny right-wing paranoia designed to spur gun sales. In the 1990s, as right-wing anti-government zealots began a backlash against what they perceived as a Democratic administration intent on taking their guns and their freedom, the NRA channeled that paranoia. Even after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 by government-hating extremists, NRA head Wayne La Pierre was describing Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents as “jackbooted government thugs” in a fundraising letter. Guns went from being something used to hunt or—perhaps, in a rare event—to protect oneself and one’s family, to being a symbol of individual sovereignty and freedom from control of government. The Obama administration was a great gift to the NRA; gun and bullet purchases soared after the election of our first black president. Nonetheless, the NRA spent $30 million to elect Trump, who spoke at its national convention and praised LaPierre as a patriot.