One of the more disturbing aspects of Friday’s massacre of 76 (*) men, women and children in Norway is how quickly it was no longer the latest instance of a self-righteous gunman going on a mass-murder spree. Hardly 24 hours after the news that a bomb had shattered the relative tranquility of Oslo’s government district and that children on an island camp were being picked off sniper style, Oslo’s carnage was joined by headlines that a lone shooter at a Texas roller rink had killed five people before turning his weapon on himself.
A lot has changed since August 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman took a rifle to the top of a 307-foot clock tower on the University of Texas’s Austin campus and methodically killed 14 students and visitors and wounded dozens of others.
The “reasons” for Whitman’s—at the time—unthinkable assault are no better understood today than they were 45 years ago, but dozens of subsequent shooting sprees have taught us to absorb the news of each fresh rampage as if it is an expected variation in the media feed.
This year is little more than half over. Already, lone gunmen have killed six and wounded 13 others (including Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords) outside a Tucson super market, killed 12 children in a Rio de Janeiro school, wounded seven at a Las Vegas, Nevada, funeral, fatally shot six in a Dutch shopping mall, killed seven in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and shot dead two city council workers and a passerby in the French winegrowing town of Rivesaltes, population 9,000.
A handful of newspapers initially attributed the Olso bombing to Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda. Follow-up reports brand the suspect, 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, as a “right wing zealot.” Senseless killing sprees may be easier to understand, and dismiss, if the killer can be assigned a specific terrorist ideology. But when a body count from 2011’s suicide bombings is added to the carnage of the year’s lone gunmen, the staggering and inexplicable total is all the more troubling.
We are hardly halfway to Christmas. How can we possibly be asked to be aware, to care, to respond with more than an initial gasp, a flattened affect and anesthetized empathy? But to be aware, to feel and to respond is precisely our duty.
Hope for righting any of the wrongs on this planet will only live if we do not lose our ability to be shocked and outraged by murder in all its forms. Our emotions and intellects must rail against the mad assumption that fears can be assuaged or differences bridged by picking up a gun. Individually, in our day-to-day exchanges, each of us can commit to civility, to respectful disagreement, and to the reality that the “other,” every other, is a precious and irreplaceable being who is entitled to all the rights of life that we reserve for ourselves.
* Editor's Note: Citing difficulties in gathering information on the island where the shooting deaths occurred, Norway police lowered the number of total deaths in the attack to 76.