On Monday, as millions of gutted Americans took to social media to contemplate the horror of the Las Vegas massacre — one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history — a tweet from one of the artists playing at the ill-fated music festival stood out.
Caleb Keeter, a guitarist for Josh Abbott Band, announced that he had changed his mind about gun control and would fight for firearm restrictions. Surviving the shooting and seeing the bloody damage inflicted upon the audience by hail after hail of bullets was enough for Keeter to renounce his reverence for the Second Amendment. “I cannot express how wrong I was,” Keeter wrote. “Enough is enough.”
A short time later, media outlets picked up the story and it went viral. It’s easy to understand why. In times like these, when everything seems to be going off the rails and there’s literally blood in the streets, you look for hope wherever you can find it. For the considerable majority of Americans who support firearm ownership restrictions, Keeter’s change of heart on gun rights was a big deal. If the country music crowd — not exactly a bastion of liberal ideology — is willing to re-evaluate America’s current gun laws, something has to change, right?
I’m not so sure.
While I commend Keeter for having the humility to admit that his former beliefs may have been misguided, I’m reluctant to read his statement as a profound turn in the road towards a less violent and bullet-riddled America.
What Keeter is doing here fits within an unfortunate history of Americans abandoning an ideology only after they’ve experienced its most brutal consequences. You don’t have to reach far to find public instances of this.
Remember that guy who showed up at Paul Ryan’s town hall earlier this year and told him not to repeal the Affordable Care Act? His name is Jeff Jeans, an entrepreneur who hated and opposed the ACA until the day he was diagnosed with cancer.
If you’ve been watching the news lately, you’ll know that Patriots owner Robert Kraft criticized Donald Trump for trying to suppress NFL players’ First Amendment rights. And yet, Trump’s well-documented tendency to suppress free speech wasn’t enough to stop Kraft from supporting Trump on the campaign trail and in the months that followed. The grim reality of Trump’s penchant only set in when Kraft’s own employees suddenly became the president’s latest target.
Proximal empathy — the sort that one develops after they or someone close to them experiences something bad — can be enough to prevent a one-off disaster, but it’s not nearly enough to sustain a just and peaceful society. Empathy, in its truest form, should never be proximal. It should be a foundation upon which an individual (or the state) makes decisions that will affect others. The question that should inform that individual’s actions is, “Will this cause pain and suffering for other people? Directly or indirectly?” The answer to that question shouldn’t necessarily determine what course of action the individual takes, but it should be a constant consideration.
As a nation, America appears to have lost this critical base layer of empathy. The concrete steps that could be taken towards mitigating some of our worst maladies -- medical debt and access to health care, poverty, racial oppression and gun violence -- are not taken because too many people in power (and those who support them) routinely choose the opposite approach: to let those maladies go untreated and ignore the consequential pain and suffering.
In this country, people are shot every week because too many Americans have decided that their right to own guns is worth the risk that this poses to all Americans. Many of the victims left disfigured and disabled by those shootings are faced with astronomical hospital bills and medical bankruptcy because too many Americans have decided that access to health care is not a human right, but a privilege for those who work the hardest and maintain a healthy checking account. (The logic here is convenient — if you can afford to oppose universal health care, that means you’re a virtuous worker.)
This past summer, I encountered a young mother and her daughter in the parking lot of a supermarket. Quietly and calmly, the mother explained to me that her daughter was suffering from brain cancer. She handed me an index card with a URL. It was the link to the girl's GoFundMe campaign — an online fundraiser to cover her medical bills. That night, I went online and made a small donation, but I felt nauseous knowing that for the girl's family and so many others, the whims of random strangers with money were the last safety net preventing them from plummeting into the abyss.
At this very moment, a GoFundMe campaign for the victims of the Las Vegas massacre has amassed several million dollars in donations. That alone should be the alarm bell that something has gone horribly wrong here — that even something as cataclysmic as a mass shooting isn’t enough to inspire empathy from the state and its core supporters — but this happens after almost every mass shooting. Upholding human life and dignity is reduced to an act of crowdfunded charity. Anything more civic and compassionate would offend the sensibilities of those who want America to be Spartan and unyielding — those who are winning the fight for America’s soul.
If we want to be the kind of country in which peace and prosperity for all are bedrock, we need to learn how to feel empathy for those whose pain we don’t personally experience. Some of us are there already. Many are just showing up. The Caleb Keeters, Jeff Jeanses and Bob Krafts of the world can still play a crucial role as advocates for societal empathy that is foundational, renewing and lasting. The test will be whether these folks can apply their circumstantial empathy to broader intersectional struggles that involve human suffering.
Until then, watch your back and save your money.