How Obama missed his chance to break a ritual around mass killings

People in the United States accept firearms and gunplay as essential, albeit occasionally regrettable, elements of what it means to be American.

President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Sunday night, Dec. 6, 2016.  In a rare Oval Office address, Obama vowed the United States would overcome a terror threat that has entered a "new phase" as he sought to reassure Americans shaken by recent attacks in Paris and California.   (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

President Barack Obama speaks from the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on Dec. 6, 2016.  (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

In ancient Athens, funerals were carefully choreographed rituals. The ceremony began with the prothesis, a procession of mourners chanting dirges to alert citizens. The epitaphios logos came next, a speech over the body, and according to Plato it followed a specific three-part structure: eulogizing the dead, giving kindly exhortation to the living, and offering consolation to the ancestors.

In modern America, mass killings are also carefully choreographed rituals. The “active shooter” situation is first broadcast live. In the oratory that follows, media eulogize the dead, then the pundits exhort the living to either ban guns or buy more. Politicians offer kindly tweets, beseeching God with “thoughts and prayers.” Finally, the president walks once again to the microphone to solemnly offer his consolation to survivors, promising that something will be done.

On Wednesday, in San Bernardino, Calif., a husband and wife went on a shooting spree armed with two .223-calibre semi-automatic rifles and two 9-mm semi-automatic pistols. They carried 1,600 rounds of ammunition; all of it purchased legally. When it was over, they had killed 14 people, and were themselves shot dead by police.

Transcript:  ‘The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it.’

And so, the ritual began. Everyone played their role—until the President’s turn. Barack Obama announced that instead of a press conference, he would address the nation from the Oval Office. In America, this is akin to a sermon from Mount Olympus, and the President has only done it twice before.

There was talk he would break tradition, and hope that because he did not have to fight another election, he might offer a bold plan for gun control.

There are 357 million firearms circulating in America, among only 317 million people. They are used in more than 11,000 murders every year, and 20,000 suicides. As a result, you are five times more likely to die from a gun in the United States than you are in Canada, and 40 times more likely than you are in the United Kingdom.

In his address to Americans, President Obama did break the ritual, but not in the way expected. Speaking from a lectern, looking a little grayer and a little older, the President chose instead to talk about terrorism. He promised Americans he would keep them safe from foreign attacks, by increasing intelligence gathering, sending more military forces to Syria, implementing more aggressive immigration screening, and reviewing the visa program.

Related reading: Obama vows to defeat ‘terror threat’ 

Gun control was only mentioned in passing, as he called on Congress to pass a law preventing those on the “no-fly” list from purchasing a firearm, an idea Republicans have already rejected.

These measures would not prevented the San Bernardino massacre, as the perpetrators were not on the no-fly list. Nor would they have done anything to stop the other 294 mass shootings that occurred this year.

Americans have a complicated relationship with guns. Last year, the United States recorded the lowest level of gun ownership in 40 years. Only 32 per cent of households had a firearm, compared to more than 50 per cent in 1982. But the number of guns circulating has never been higher. And while more than half of Americans support some form of gun control, that is down from the three-quarters who did 25 years ago. And the often-vilified National Rifle Association, which takes advantage of every massacre to encourage more people to arm themselves in self-protection, has actually grown more popular in recent years.

It may be hard to understand, sitting in Toronto or London, but Americans simply don’t want gun control. They accept firearms and gunplay as essential, albeit occasionally regrettable, elements of what it means to be American. Not unlike the ancient Athenians, whose identify was defined in part by the bloody, and often unnecessary, wars with Sparta.

So the mass killings continue. Several more Americans will be shot before this day is over, and another massacre will be broadcast live before the week is done. The rites will be observed. There will be eulogies and exhortations and consolations, and then the bodies will be lowered into the ground. And to close the ceremony, the President will walk once again to the microphones, he will look a little grayer and a little older, and he will promise that something will be done. But that something will not include gun control. The ritual will go on.


How Obama missed his chance to break a ritual around mass killings

  1. The Americans as well as (Canadians) would do well to remember what kills more of them and spend their scarce resources solving those problems. Heart disease- 610,000 (47,600); Cancer- 585,700 (76,600); Diabetes- 69,000 (7,100); Homicide- 15,600 (516); Terrorism- 19 (2). Governments and corporations alike need to misdirect the peoples focus on the real threats to their futures all the while spending copious amounts of money (in Canada-$12.9 BILLION) to save us from terrorists.

    • Agree that we need to be reminded about these other statistics as well.

      We also need to edit journalists for sappy sentimentality. The “older and grayer” bit was just a tad 10th grader. I can’t think of any President (or Prime Minister for that matter) who hasn’t looked a “little o & g” after 7 years in office.

      Please, may we have some harder edged analysis from Macleans for Christmas?

    • If money could change the way people act, we could cure many illnesses as well as terrorism and homicide. Unfortunately unless we start brainwashing people to behave in different ways, money will not find cures for behaviors that cause people to expire from heart disease, many types of cancer, type II diabetes, homicide or terrorist activities. The biggest advancement we have made in the last hundred years toward longevity has been attributed to knowledge related to the importance that hygiene plays in keeping us healthy. That is why the number one killer is diarrhea.

  2. The reality is this isn’t reality….we are all living in a cartoon. Lurking in the shadows Donald Duck and an army of confederates are convincing us we’re real and they’re cartoons when in fact the opposite is true.They work for the arch criminal Scrooge McDuck…….don’t kid yourself,every Saturday morning they turn on their TV’s and laugh at us…seriously look at that picture above and tell me that’s a real person beside a dead tree with lights all over it, a rag hanging from a pole that’s supposed to mean something, and this is reality……..

  3. If you take Baltimore, Detroit, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Chicago out of the gun death statistics, the USA is no different than any other G20 country for gun deaths. Interestingly, those five cities have a very telling fact in common: They have all been run by Democrats for the last 50 years.
    Then you have to look at the other factor in American gun violence. Black on black violence is epidemic. More blacks have been killed by other blacks in the last 15 years than all the American lives lost in foreign wars in the same time period. As many blacks have been killed by other blacks in Chicago since the turn of the century as were lynched between the end of the Civil War and 1980.
    You’re not having a serious discussion about guns in America unless you’re willing to discuss the outsized participation by young black males in violent criminal gun play.
    Think about this- of the 11,000 murders in the USA in a year, a shade under 8,000 will be blacks killed by other blacks. A population representing 13% of America will commit 73% of all the murders.
    Yet, some black leaders want it to be believed that blacks being killed by police is a national problem.

  4. America has a gun culture, leftover from wild west fantasies, plus the racism problem left over from the civil war.

    As a result, America is both primitive and paranoid……And has long since lost its lead in the world.

    • It is not just cowboys carrying guns. It is everyone. That is why people are shooting their own children by accident when they come into the house dressed up in a Halloween costume. There is a fear that if one does not have a gun when all around one does have a gun, one becomes a victim when the truth is owning a gun makes one a victim because the gun can easily be taken away by someone stronger and turned on the owner.

  5. I love how Scott Gilmore totally leaves out the motivation behind the shootings. He never once mentions the the killers ideologies. Interesting, but not surprising.

    • Funny you should mention that…
      I find it strange that the same people who will decry American gun violence, have no qualms about opening our doors to immigrants from societies that are far more endemically violent than even the worst neighborhoods in Chicago or new Orleans. Culture is relevant, and you cannot get past the fact that Islamic culture and Western culture are at complete odds with each other.
      Just as it was expected that immigrants from Europe into Canada were expected to become very British in many ways, there should be an expectation that Muslim immigrants be prepared to abandon any aspects of Islamic thought that are inconsistent with living in the West, and that expectation should be expressed at the outset.
      Before that can happen, there needs to be a greater understanding among Canadians that the propensity towards “radicalization” is not a “bug”, it’s a feature. Just as Western religion underwent a reformation centuries ago that led to the separation of church and state, Islam needs a reformation that de-emphasizes its’ aspects as a political manifesto, and focuses more on the religious aspects.
      In other words, Islam, and the West, desperately need a Muslim Martin Luther. Part of the problem is that if that person should appear, it will be Western liberals who shout him down as much as his own fellow Muslims.

        • Teacher Sally is paid $100,000 from taxes. She rebates $40,000 of that to the taxation authorities who are her employers. How much taxes did Sally pay?
          Or, Farmer John draws 100L of water per day from the community pool to water his cattle. His well, however, only produces 40L per day, all of which is going into the community pool. Is Farmer John a net contributor to that pool, or not?
          Just because a public employee “pays” taxes via payroll deductions, no matter how hard you squint your eyes, they are still, and always will be, net NON-taxpayers.
          Ergo, the wishes and concerns of those who actually pay taxes must always be placed ahead of those who draw down the public purse when matters of public finance are debated. When two competing self-interests are at odds, it is the party who is being tasked with the burden of sacrifice whose opinion must be placed at the fore. This is ethics and morality 101.

          • Heh.
            Sally paid $40,000.
            You missed the part where Sally trade a service for her salary.
            Math is hard.

      • All of this exists only in your mind Bill. Ideology doesn’t apply in the US….Just violence, like the theater full of movie goers and the classroom full of kindergartners.

        No immigrants to Canada were ever required to act British.

        This isn’t Britain you dufus.

  6. Citizens of other countries don’t see their government as an entity distinctly different, and probably hostile to them, like many Americans do. ‘Them’ is the most popular reoccurring theme on any American website, Obama is seen as the leader of Them, and everything he does is wrong. Many Americans have long ago given up on the idea of the government being on their side, and they feel they need to be armed to resist it. Many who grew up in the ’60s remember the draft board taking their young men away to die or be injured, it’s hard to shake an idea like that.

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