Mass Shootings and Political Overreaction

Theatrical shootings aren’t the problem, hysterical reactions aren’t the solution. We’ve been here before. The worst massacre at an American school wasn’t at Columbine or Newtown, it wasn’t recent, and it didn’t involve an angry young misfit with a duffel bag full of guns. It happened in Bath, Mich., in 1927, when the local school-district treasurer, upset at having lost a township election and facing foreclosure on his house, murdered his wife and then bombed the school. Nearly 100 were injured, and 44 people died, including 38 children. The collective response of the nation was to do nothing: There was nothing to do.

As a quondam theater critic, I appreciate our weakness for the dramatic, though of course the quality of the show varies, from high tragedy to mere spectacle. (Consider that the two American cities in which visitors most commonly put “go to a show” on their agendas are New York and Las Vegas.) One theory of drama holds that by exaggerating events and compressing them into a defined period of time and space — two hours on a Broadway stage, say — we isolate an aspect of human experience for study the way a scientist might isolate an unusual cell under a microscope. But in spite of the best efforts of 22-year-olds everywhere, life isn’t drama. It isn’t even very much like it.

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