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I was hosting a birthday party for my daughter on December 14 2012 — the day that 20 children and six adults were murdered by a lone gunman at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The news of that slaughter thus hit me with unusual force. My daughter happened to be turning six that day, which was the same age as most of the victims. Moreover, by eerie coincidence, there were precisely 20 kids in my home — that day’s child murder total in Connecticut. This made it horrifyingly easy for me to picture the carnage that had taken place 300 miles away. I wrote a piece about it in which I described the victims as “infants”. A flood of angry emails informed me that these were children (I hadn’t realised that the definition of infant stops at about three). How could I be peddling such mawkish disinformation? I should have interpreted this response for what it was: a defensive reflex of Second Amendment America. The disinformation that followed Sandy Hook was also a turning point in the US’s infodemic. Before Sandy Hook, conspiracy theories had offline limitations. After Sandy Hook they went viral.
I mention this, of course, because of the 19 children murdered in Uvalde, Texas, this week — the latest datapoint on America’s grimmest timeline. Two things happened after Sandy Hook that are vividly relevant to today. First Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, filibustered then-president Barack Obama’s attempts to have a straight vote on various gun control measures (banning semi-automatic weapon sales, imposing federal background checks — you know the list). In a measure of how acclimatised the US has become, Joe Biden hasn’t even asked for such votes. Were he to do so, the same Mitch McConnell would consign such efforts to the same hopeless fate. Second, Sandy Hook was the day that Alex Jones, the founder of InfoWars, a dark, conspiratorial, rightwing website that makes Fox News look like a cooking show, came into his own. Jones claimed the massacre was a fake. The US government had staged the killings to boost its case for gun reform — a macabre piece of deep state theatre with “crisis actors” playing the roles of grieving parents.
Legions of Jones’ followers believed him. They bombarded the parents with death threats, published their addresses and turned them into figures of hate. One parent, Lenny Pozner, whose six-year-old boy, Noah, was among the dead, became the face of this deep state conspiracy because he had been the first to speak on behalf of all the parents at a press conference the following day. He has had to change address a dozen times. His already tragic life was turned into hell. The story has an upside. Jones has lost a series of defamation lawsuits to Sandy Hook parents and faces bankruptcy. Yet he is also raising a lot of money online for his defence fund. The leopard does not change his spots. This week Jones told his audience that the Texas massacre was suspiciously timed. “I don’t want to say this was staged,” he said. “To me, it is just very opportunistic.”
Naturally, there are already conspiracy theories on Reddit, 4chan, Twitter and the usual platforms about Uvalde — that the killer was an illegal immigrant, or a transgender woman. Paul Gosar, the Arizona Republican congressman, combined both into one tweet on the night of the massacre, which he has since deleted. “It’s a transsexual leftist illegal alien named Salvatore Ramos,” he said. There has been greater media focus on the traditional Republican response, which, in the words of Ken Paxton, Texas’s attorney-general, is that we should “much rather have law-abiding citizens armed and trained so that they can respond when something like this happens, because it’s not going to be the last time”. Accept our fatalism, in other words. People kill people, not guns.
The line between Jones’ and Gosar’s malevolence and Paxton’s cynicism is a straight one — with the latter downstream. Politics is a child of culture and there is something rotten in today’s culture. The fact that so-called Christians are among the most militant defenders of untrammelled US gun rights tells us all we need to know. There is also a straight line from the “staging” of Sandy Hook to the fake Covid-19 “plandemic” and the “stop the steal” 2020 election. What happened in Sandy Hook and Uvalde, and in the countless massacres in between, is a symptom of something even more nightmarish than slaughtered children. It is a society that seems to have given up on the hope of collective action because mutual trust has gone. Rana, did the Uvalde shootings arise on any of the Davos panels? Perhaps that is an unfair question since it happened halfway through the forum. Is the state of US politics a concern among the chief executives and leaders who gather there? I note that amid a near-bear market in US stocks, the share price of Smith & Wesson and other gun companies has surged since Tuesday.
My column this week observed Donald Trump’s declining sway over the Republican party. Trump’s detractors should not draw too much comfort as the Kraken that he unleashed continues to thrive.
I found Gideon Rachman’s take on Davos quite bracing. Chief executives and financiers are no longer masters of the universe as nationalism and militarism take over. I also enjoyed this thoughtful piece by Sylvie Kauffmann on the west’s divisions over how to end the war in Ukraine.
Do also read Responsible Statecraft’s Anatol Lieven on the delusion of a global democratic rebirth through war. Many people see Vladimir Putin as the chief or even sole cause of the west’s democratic troubles and thus his defeat in Ukraine as our cure. Lieven quite rightly calls out such nonsense (though I think he underestimates Putin’s galvanising effect).
Rana Foroohar responds
Ed, it did indeed come up, in a one-on-one panel that I did with secretary of commerce Gina Raimondo.
I had of course heard about the massacre by this time, but decided not to lead with it since our panel was meant to be about the Biden administration’s economic policies. But Raimondo herself pivoted from my first question and took a moment to voice her own grief and outrage about the topic. I felt myself tear up because she was absolutely right to do so. Who the hell cares about inflation when children are being murdered, again and again and again, because we can’t pass a law that prevents even serial criminals from getting access to semi-automatic weapons?
As you know, my family had a personal brush with the topic recently, which I wrote about. These sorts of mass shootings, which happen in this way and with this frequency only in the US, absolutely remind people that the Biden administration itself isn’t necessarily the face of America — it may indeed be just a blip between another Trump regime (and I call it that for the obvious reason). That makes it difficult for people to hear any useful messages coming from the US, like the pivot from neoliberal economic policies to a focus on labour and income growth, or the administration’s attempts to reignite a US-led trade discussion in Asia (Raimondo had just come from being part of Biden’s trip to Asia).
I am afraid for our country. But I am also afraid for the world, having just been at Davos, which had its own share of guns, a topic I touch on in my Monday column.
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