As If Nothing Even Happened
2019 was the year when I noticed it.
It wasn’t really like the moon landing, or any of those other “remember where you where when?” moments. It’s hard to pin cultural significance to the absence of fuss or impact. And I’m sure I wasn’t exceptional.
I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to notice that we’d stopped noticing.
I’m pretty slow. It took something really big and violent and visible for me to register the change.
Do you remember May of 2019? The hottest, wettest summer on record up til that point, everyone finally getting burned out on Star Wars movies, and the Lego play-set of Obama in the Oval Office finally released, breaking records and confusing the internet?
Right in the middle of that month, New York senator Sam Sanders, Golden-boy hopeful candidate for the highest office in the USA, took to a stage lit frantically with red, white and blue moving flags, a giant screen behind him beaming everything he did and said to more than twenty thousand assembled, sweating civilians. He smiled, his tiny figure almost lost against the fifty-foot tall projection of his face behind him.
And before he even finished his good-natured and folksy greeting to the crowd and viewers at home, a small, white man – the record would later show one David Lee Pawtucket, and isn’t that a perfect name for an assassin? – pushed his way up onto stage, stood behind Sanders, and shot him in the back of the head with a tiny but perfectly formed pistol.
The projection, and the subsequent video shared across the world, didn’t pick up Pawtucket – the camera was tight on Sanders’ face at the fatal moment – so the effect was one of perfect calm, relaxed performance, and then sudden explosive destruction. If you slowed it down, it looked like his nose expanded and then bloomed, bursting outward until you couldn’t see a face any more, less and less human, before the head seemed to slump, collapse in on itself. At normal speed, the human eye could barely pick up the exact moment of impact.
David Lee Pawtucket had been able to evade Secret Service detection because he was already a member of the venue’s support crew of long-standing, and had no criminal record or any past political or ideological affiliation that would have come up during screening. The gun was one he owned legitimately, and usually kept in a locked box in his closet.
If you asked him – and not many people actually did, is part of my point – he’d tell you that he bore no real ill will to the senator. But he’d noticed that over the days leading to the rally, as security and Sanders’ staff flooded the venue, nobody really gave him a second look. They’d searched him once on the first day, gave him a short interview, and then left him to his job fetching and carrying lighting and rigging equipment, setting up monitors and microphones.
And he figured, hell, why not?
But that isn’t the thing. The thing is… Nobody cared.
Not really. The Secret Service wrestled him to the ground, too late to help the senator; the news media covered it for about five minutes, and of course there was a trial – Pawtucket won’t ever breathe free air again. And the video of the assassination did the rounds online, because even in 2019, that was not something you saw every day.
But it had the lifespan of a cute cat meme.
The NRA stood ready to give their standard “if everybody had guns this wouldn’t have happened” pat response, but nobody in the media bothered to pick up the phone to them – the only output from them after the shooting was one lone tweet, that nobody bothered sharing in agreement or outrage.
Outspoken liberals and progressives and conservatives alike reported that the murder had happened, dutifully shared the video and initial news stories with their social networks, and then moved on.
This was when I realised it, but it can’t have started there. Like I said, I’m slow. It took a bloody explosion on a giant screen for me to register that things had changed. But they had.
We still get worked up when a woman picks up a gun, because those stories are sexy. And brown men with guns scare us more than ever. But at some point, we all just… stopped registering it, when a white guy shot someone. Not that… we applauded it, or even were resigned to it. That would be dreadfully sad.
We just stopped noticing.
And honestly? We just seem so much happier now. Unencumbered.
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