I remember Columbine: the fear and shock that gripped our country when two deluded teenagers opened fire on their classmates, teachers and eventually themselves for no reason other than perpetuating their own legacies. I was a high school sophomore at the time, naively convinced, like many, that what we had all witnessed was a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy that would galvanize our nation to confront the societal issues that made such a massacre possible. Instead, the term “mass shooting” soon became part of the American lexicon, and Columbine, itself, served as the macabre inspiration for generations of school shooters in cities like Blacksburg, Va., Newtown, Conn., and Parkland, Fla.
During the two decades since, we have become a nation comfortable (or perhaps “more comfortable”) with violence. The mass murders of concertgoers, college students and even kindergartners have not propelled meaningful change in the entertainment we consume, the weapons we allow, or the ways we care for the disenfranchised or unwell. We should not have been shocked, then, when on Jan. 6, the violence we succored all these years infiltrated one of our most sacred political spaces. And while it is tempting to write off the storming of the Capitol as an anomaly — the explosive result of touching a firebrand like Donald Trump to a powder keg of extremists primed by an incendiary cocktail of conspiracy theories and lies — this would be repeating the mistake of Columbine.
Violence, in all its various permutations, is becoming the lingua franca of political expression in our country. Cathartic as it is to demonize our opponents, this is a problem of left and right, both of whom shift blame by resorting to the same tired tactics and rationalizations, rooted in identity politics and untethered from the moorings of individual responsibility. When we bully, insult or shout down the opposition, we excuse ourselves, because “the other guy had it coming.” When our expression boils over into destruction, we disclaim the acts as those of imposters, because “our people are not violent.” When the evidence makes that deflection impossible to sustain, we justify our conduct with appeals to a higher moral law. And, whenever the other side crosses the line, we revel in the hopes of a swift and forceful crackdown. We all cry for blood when it is the blood of our enemies.
Exacerbating our growing tolerance for violence is our increasing inability to simply tell the truth. I am blind, so my perception of the events at the Capitol relied mainly on others’ accounts rather than my own observations. The hyperbole and self-congratulatory “I told you so” coming from some media, counterbalanced by equally forceful understatement and denials from others, made it a challenge to merely understand what transpired. Even my friends and I struggled against the desire to force facts into narratives that align with our ideologies. We cannot, it seems, be content with letting facts speak for themselves.
Undoubtedly, the erosion in our ability to tell the truth has diminished our capacity to recognize it, let alone demand it. It is no wonder that years of alarm bells concerning misinformation streaming from our highest ranking political officials failed to raise universal concern; no wonder that foreign powers have been able to harness social media as one of their most effective weapons for disrupting our republic. Too many of us have become easy marks, readily duped whenever the message mirrors our mindset.
There are many valid points to be made concerning the mayhem of Jan. 6: the danger of leaders who rely on gaslighting and fear mongering; race-based disparities in policing; the threat posed by ideological extremism. But while many of us are making ourselves comfortable in our position on the moral high ground, we should take a moment for self-examined reflection and recognize our individual and national complicity in perpetuating a society that accepts, fosters and too often glorifies blood and lies. Without this acknowledgment, any notion we have of bridging the widening chasms that divide our country is as fanciful as the misguided dream that compelled the storming of the Capitol and will end in an equally spectacular failure.
Jamie Dean is a local attorney.