There isn’t much that can be said about last night’s horrible, calculated ambush in downtown Dallas. The images, the videos, the ambient sounds of panic, dread, and fear speak for themselves. Dallas has found itself the latest stop in what increasingly feels like a never-ending carousel ride of ideologically tinged violence. As outsiders looking in, we have all lived through this dozens of times as it has unfolded elsewhere, and we know how the next hours and days will play out. The numbing shock will give way to bewilderment and emotional fatigue. Rituals of mourning will bewitch the national limelight. Then details will begin to emerge — as they already have — about the person or persons whose incomprehensible actions set off the shockwave.
We will soon learn more than we ever thought we could know about whoever it was that was responsible for the gunning down of five police officers in downtown Dallas last night, and the wounding of seven others. We will learn their names, see their photos in constant rotation on the news channels, hear from their shocked friends and relatives, discover a narrative that may — or may not — adequately explain the trajectory that took a human being from his or her mother’s arms and led him towards a concrete perch in a downtown parking garage with an assault rifle and a mind bent on murder. We will learn why he told police in the hours before he was killed by a bomb squad robot that he, “did this alone.”
We’ve been here before.
This is not a Dallas story, just the latest episode in the ongoing saga of the contemporary American mass shooter. From Columbine to Charleston, Sandy Hook to Orlando, each time it is a story that provides little satisfying depth or meaning when considered against the stark terms of its cost. This time the target was the police. Five officers down. More wounded. Families irrevocably ruptured, torn apart. A police department already crippled with morale problems struck to its very core. A city on high alert. Suspicions ignited, frustrations simmer under tightened lids. We know it is a time to mourn, but we do so with one eye open to what it may all mean to everyone and everything around us.
We also know that this wasn’t just a senseless shooting; it was a shooting that seemed intent on derailing an important public conversation — perhaps the most important conversation we can have at this particular moment in American history. The protesters, who, in some instances, posed for photos with supportive Dallas Police officers during the march, sought to do nothing more than bring voice to the voiceless victims of institutionalized racism, racially motivated police brutality, routine murders by police officers that new video technologies have exposed with frightening regularity. The protesters sought to shine a light on nothing less than the uncomfortable, often shirked-off legacy of slavery in America, whose chains still wind through the American experience like the rusty wire of a chain-link fence encased in the bark of an old tree that has grown up around it.
All American cities experience this legacy in their own particular histories, and in Dallas, it is no different. Dallas lives and breathes segregation. Dallas political organizations were once dominated by Ku Klux Klansmen. Dallas averted the shame of protest during the Civil Rights Movement because, still reeling from the bad publicity of the JFK Assassination, it doubled down on marketing its way out of the nasty business of social progress. Then Dallas stole homes of its black citizens through eminent domain and paved them over with parking lots. Dallas ensured that low-income housing funds were steered only to ghettos. This city systematically under-invested in services in African-American communities while corrupt leaders did their part to sell out their own communities. The result is a history that is a tale of two cities, a northern white boom-berg, and a southern black city whose character, demographics, and economic outlook stand in stark contrast. In Dallas, in 2016, being born into the wrong part of town, to the wrong race or skin color, means you may be mauled and killed by a pack of wild dogs that wander the streets in non-white parts of town.
That anger still needs accounting for in the aftermath of last night’s events, but not because it explains the shooter(s) or his or her motivations. Rather, the anger represented by last night’s march needs to be accounted for so that it is not equated with the violence of last night’s shootings, which, like all mass shootings, is nothing more than an attempt to hijack the historical narrative and warp it into a shape that echoes the shooter’s own narcissistic imagination — to steal history and twist it according to the will of the “lone gunman.”
In America — perhaps uniquely in America — a bullet offers a powerful ticket into the nation’s historical record. Perhaps the first in the modern era to buy entrance into history this way were a couple of lovestruck poor hillbillies from West Dallas named Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, whose bank-robbing shooting spree earned them cult status in the nation’s early tabloids. And there has been no bullet-inflicted twist of fate in America quite as total as the one taken after a deranged, wannabe Communist demonstrated in Dealey Plaza the almost magical capacity of a single bullet to shake history to its bones and bring a nation to its knees. In Lee Harvey Oswald and Bonnie and Clyde, Dallas offers America the two perverse prototypes in which violence gives the purposeless the romance of charge and the powerless the delusion of agency.
We don’t know yet the full story of the man who is being identified as last night’s shooter, but we do know the history of shooters. We know the hollow feeling that follows the mourning and the awful confrontation with the reality that the story of mass shooters is always banal and cliché and never measures up to the weight of the loss and the suffering they inflict. We know that shooters, like the white supremacist who shot up a South Carolina church, may believe they have a purpose, but that purpose is washed out by the impotence of violence to inflict anything but pain. Mass shootings are apolitical actions, symbolic acts without signifiers, senseless aggressions which, by their own nature, point nowhere beyond the shallow, narcissistic mind of the shooter.
That is why shooters need media like oxygen. Bonnie and Clyde’s newspaper clippings, Abraham Zapruder’s super 8-mm, and, today, ubiquitous cell phone footage: the mirror of media offers the only possible purpose in the act. Otherwise, it is only just exactly what it is – simply murder, merely carnage for its own sake.
What happened last night pressed a pressure point for many topical issues – Black Lives Matter, police brutality, gun control, domestic terrorism, veteran mental health, race and inequality – and the news stations will bat all this around endlessly in the coming weeks, or until the next atrocity strikes. But it seems too easy to join the merry-go-round of hot-button issues without tackling the most difficult question of all: How closely should we listen to the words of the dead murderer of five police officers?
Is the shooter a monster? Do we dissect our Frankenstein and examine each piece of flesh to diagnose its root cause or illness? Or do we dismiss him as an anomaly — an outlier, a freak, a wingnut, mentally ill? Where do we place his professed hatred of white people, of police officers, or the world, of his place in it? How do we register his hatred alongside the context of his act, the peaceful protest of not-too-dissimilar frustrations with the police and systematic, habitualized injustice?
These are complicated and dangerous questions because they get at the double violence inflicted last night by the shooter in downtown Dallas. The shooter took the lives of some of Dallas’ bravest, police men and women who charged into the line of fire to protect those who were peacefully expressing their anger and dissatisfaction with police. And in this moment, by showering the streets of downtown Dallas with bullets, the shooter also co-opted and warped the dialogue around racial justice in America. The sound of the shooter’s rifle stole that voice from the protesters.
Last night, after bullets began cascading down, protesters ran and took shelter near the bone-white box of Philip Johnson’s John F. Kennedy Memorial, a few blocks from the crime scene. For me, that image is almost too much, almost too cinematic. Its meaning extends beyond the fact that Downtown Dallas has not known chaos like it has experienced in the last 24 hours since that terrible day in 1963. Modern Dallas was shaped by how it reacted to the JFK assassination, and in a similar way, this city’s future will be shaped by the response to the events of the last 24 hours. It will not be enough to try to market ourselves out of it again, to put on our best face, to pretend this violence has no roots. Nor should we allow the shooter’s actions to cloud or warp the integrity of discontent that he had no right to claim as his own or execute as violence.
Rather, let’s consider that that plaza is where we still stand today, at the foot of our history. It is blank, but it is full of mourning: mute, but with a silence that shouts. It gathers us in, it shelters us, but still leaves us exposed to the elements. In a way, it is where we have always been, the huddled masses, shadowed by the looming monolith that is the violence of American history.
To move forward together, we must press our ears to the walls of that memorial and listen hard.