The essential precondition for mass violence is not guns or hate but a culture of terror, a common imaginary that includes the possibility of a mass shooting.
The accused shooter, though, is twenty-two, too young to remember Colorado’s antigay amendment. He was a young teen-ager when the state recognized same-sex marriage. He probably has no idea that gay bars used to be hidden from sight.
The idea that you can explain a mass shooting by where it happened is silly. The idea that politics, including the politics of hate, can explain a mass shooting, is only slightly less silly. People need little inspiration for finding someone to hate, to render less than human—if they are into that type of thing. Panicked, we rush to attach history and meaning to mass shootings, so that we can assimilate them into our minds. But the meaning of terror is senselessness.
The day of the Club Q shooting, I saw a movie that purports to explain what made the Russian war in Ukraine possible. Called “Manifesto” and released pseudonymously, because the director fears repercussions, it is a montage of cell-phone footage shot by Russian schoolchildren and posted on social media. It begins, charmingly and mundanely, with kids documenting their waking-and-walking-to-school routines, and segues into a series of ever more terrifying episodes. There are teachers yelling at kids, berating and humiliating them. There is a long sequence on sirens, including school fire drills, citywide bomb drills, active-shooter drills at schools, bomb threats at schools, actual fires at schools. Sometimes the kids in the footage look and sound indifferent; sometimes they are terrified, hiding under a desk or running down snow-covered streets in frantic search of a bomb shelter. Then there is footage of actual school shootings: again, kids hiding under desks, and also kids jumping out of school windows—some of them, probably, to their deaths.
Many Russian writers and filmmakers are attempting these sorts of projects now: reviewing—and re-viewing—experiences and assumptions that once appeared normal, and recasting them as a precursor to or even predictor of the war. Some of these artistic attempts are more successful than others. “Manifesto” struck me as unconvincing, at least in part because much of what it showed exists in the United States: the school shootings, the endless drills, the routinized expectation of terror.
I saw the movie at a festival in Amsterdam, with a local friend. On a ferry back from the screening, my friend, sheepishly at first, brought up the possibility that Russian and American cultures are similar in some important ways. She was shocked by the footage of school shootings, but also by the rote violence of so much of the film—the yelling by teachers, the herding and the raids. I told her that all of this was familiar to me from my Soviet childhood, but also from my American adolescence and the experience of my kids in American schools. I told her about the bizarre carceral disciplinary practices in U.S. schools, such as detention and taking away recess, and about the peculiar routine of drills, the training that kids receive to expect not only fire but also school shootings.
Maybe the movie explains more than I initially thought. It shows the face of terror—the faces of the people feeling terrorized and the faces of the people inflicting terror. It wastes no time on ideology, which is what we usually talk about when we talk about terror. But scholars of terrorism know that ideology is often a late addition to the script, sometimes almost an afterthought—as it seemed to be in the last mass shooting at a gay club in the U.S., the 2016 massacre at Pulse, in Orlando, where the gunman appeared to swear allegiance to the Islamic State after he’d entered the club. He killed forty-nine people and wounded dozens of others. It may be useful to think about terror—the desire to inflict it and the ability to do so—as the primary driver of this kind of violence.
In the United States, when we talk about mass violence and we are not talking about ideology, we usually talk about the easy availability of guns. Of course, access to guns matters. The easier it is, technically, to kill people, the more people will be killed. But terror can also be inflicted with a knife, an axe, and a homemade explosive. Of course, the politics of homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism matter—among other things, they help the violence to spread, as it apparently did when a man threw a brick at a window of a gay bar in New York last week. In Russia, after the Kremlin unleashed an anti-gay campaign, reports of anti-gay violence, including rape and murder, skyrocketed. Yet, although no one pursues the politics of hating or othering children and arguing that they should be dead, school shootings proliferate, because one can imagine no terror greater than the terror inflicted on children and on their families. The essential precondition for mass violence, it seems, is not guns or hate but a culture of terror, a common imaginary that includes the possibility of a mass shooting. It may be most useful to think of a politics of terror. People—and states—carry out terror for the sake of terror. The senselessness is the point, even as our brains desperately seek to make logical connections and find explanations.
In 2013, the extraordinary American journalist Jeff Sharlet travelled to Russia to write about the rising anti-gay violence there. He opened his piece in GQ with an account of a shooting at an L.G.B.T.Q. space in St. Petersburg. It included the following passage:
Dmitry went down, and Rose ran, and Dmitry crawled. The men followed, kicking. One of them had a bat, “a baseball bat, yes,” says Dmitry. They were screaming. “Faggot, faggot, faggot.” The bat came down. And then the faggots in the other room charged the men with the gun and the bat and the masks, and the men ran away. Dmitry and Anna, who’d been shot in the back, inspected their wounds.
When I heard that the patrons at Club Q resisted and subdued the shooter, I flashed back to the passage in Sharlet’s story. Maybe, I thought, the experience of standing up to a society, or a family, that tells you not to be queer makes one less ready to be terrorized. Here I was, reflexively attaching a sense-making narrative to something that, by definition, makes no sense. Then I learned that Richard Fierro, the man who charged and disarmed the gunman at Club Q was apparently straight, visiting the club with his wife and daughter. Fierro and his wife, Jess, own a brewery whose company motto is “Diversity, it’s on tap!”