The Math of Cruelty

Reflections on today's mass shooting at Walmart.

Posted Aug 03, 2019

I have spent my entire professional life writing, researching, teaching, counseling, and advocating to end violence. I was trained as a sociologist. Math is not my forte. Yet, I feel consumed by math at the moment. 

Jose Alonso/ Unsplash
Source: Jose Alonso/ Unsplash

Days like today are particularly distressing and depressing as I learn about another mass shooting in the United States, this time at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Four days ago, there was another double murder at a different Walmart in Southaven, Mississippi. Two days before that, or six days ago today, there was another mass shooting at a garlic festival in California. Those are just the events I kept track of this week. 

Three people were murdered and 12 were injured at the garlic festival. So far today, 20 are dead and at least an estimated 26 are injured from what happened at Walmart in Texas. And, two were killed in Mississippi. This means that 25 people lost their lives and 38 people were hurt while doing mundane weekend activities like attending a food festival and shopping. If you count the killer who also died in California, there have been 26 deaths. That’s 63 or 64 lives directly impacted, depending on how you factor that last one. 

The sadly unsurprising math is that three men committed these acts. That includes the one who died. 

So, that’s 66 people whose bodies and lives were directly implicated in this level of mass trauma

This is mass trauma of our own making, a collective hell that we’ve willingly descended to because of the choices and priorities we continue to show as a nation. 

We have a climate change crisis and a gun crisis, both of epic proportion. I would add that we also have a climate crisis on psychological and sociological levels---a social-psychological climate crisis if you will, greatly fueled by gun worship. 

How is it even possible that it is illegal for a 19- year old to buy a glass of wine at a restaurant on a date yet he can buy a gun and shoot up people, including a child, at a garlic festival? 

Let’s imagine that each of these people, on average, is connected to 50 people, then this impacts 3,300 people. But, that estimate is likely very low since most of us are connected to many more than 50 people when you add up family members, friends, acquaintances and colleagues. In a given semester, I generally teach well over 100 students and that is not even including all my friends, their partners and children, my colleagues, etc. So, in my case it is fair to say that each year, my life is marked and shaped by hundreds and hundreds of people. 

Social media helps us see how many mutual friends and contacts we share. I often feel like it’s not six degrees of separation but more like two or three. Over the years, I have experienced my own web of connections grow exponentially. My life is touched and impacted by so many people, and if I have lived my life well, I hope I have done the same for others. But, regardless of if there is even mutual love and appreciation, there is basic math going on here. We’re talking about hundreds and even thousands of people affecting each one of our lives all the time. 

People’s options, as well as their choices for how to behave, and how to respond, are shaped and constrained by social context. 

I’m headed back to teach in a few weeks where I will be met with college students, many of whom will talk openly and frankly with me about their anxiety, depression, fear, and history of panic attacks, while others may stay silent about it. Either way, I am all too aware of the mental health crisis on our nation’s campuses. I get it---there is an awful lot to be anxious and depressed about. It’s hard to teach toward wholeness in such a broken world. 

On the first day of school, I have my students complete a form to get to know them as learners and as people, and I ask them what social issues and problems they care most about, and I also ask them what they feel hopeful about and what worries them or makes them afraid. Violence and racism always rank among the highest, understandably so. Sometimes I think they are listing these as separate things. I can understand that. But, like with what happened today at Walmart, it’s also about the racism of violence and the violence of racism, the racist violence and the violent racism. And that doesn't just extinguish lives but also narrows and flattens all our lives.

And, so many of us are going back to classrooms soon, either as teachers or as students. It’s supposed to be a fresh start. I remember how much I loved going with one of my parents to pick out all my school supplies for the next school year. It’s as though all this promise and possibility and hope were hiding in those boxes of sharpened pencils and that stash of new spiral notebooks ready for me to find and access. To learn, to create, and ultimately to make myself free. 

And that brings me back to all this death and loss this week. I can imagine families at Walmart today stocking up not just on groceries and toiletries but also on school supplies, tossing in their carts not just crayons, glue, pens, paper, a new backpack or lunchbox, and a thermos, but also all that sweet anticipation for the new year ahead.  We look to the new school year as a spacious blank slate from which we’re given a chance at renewal, a fresh opportunity to make things, and more importantly to make and remake ourselves. We gather the skills with which to give back and to contribute to the world, yet what we crave most now is cultivating the qualities that might help to repair the world.