Economic Dysfunction is the Root Tragedy

Note: I originally submitted this piece on the disproportionate coverage given to the Aurora rampage before the equally-tragic Oak Creek rampage. There, shooter Wade Page provided an illustration of the toxic extreme of white supremacist ideology, whose connection to the economic fears of white people should not be ignored. I am starting to load a moving truck for my long-awaited move back to  California so not able to edit this, but suffice to say that subsequent events (as noted in The New Yorker) strongly support my claims below. I’ll be driving west for the next week but will try to update it.

Last month’s massacre in Aurora, Colo. has been followed by a frenzy of attention that is still generating headlines: We read of presidential hospital visits and debate what policy changes might have prevented the tragedy. We see profiles of the lives changed and ended by the violence, alongside investigations of the perpetrator James Holmes’ online dating habits and family ties. We know that he had recently dropped out of a graduate program in neuroscience. We wonder who is to blame that Holmes fell through the cracks after his psychiatrist apparently tried to sound the alarm.

We focus on this one tragedy while largely ignoring others – as well as the general tragedy of social disintegration that fed the carnage.

We hear much less from Tuscaloosa, Ala., where 17 people were wounded, three critically, just two nights before Holmes’ rampage. There, Nathan Van Wilkins shot up the Copper Top nightclub. Wilkins, who is white, reportedly asked for an African American man with whom he had a dispute, uttered a racial epithet and then opened fire with an assault weapon.

The disparity in public discourse between Tuscaloosa and Aurora raises disturbing questions, including:

Are we less concerned when race is part of the criminal’s motive?

Are people who choose to spend an evening out at a bar less deserving of safety than those who choose to attend a movie?

Are we so jaded that a non-fatality shooting rampage doesn’t register?

And if body count is the metric of newsworthiness, why aren’t we talking about an even deadlier tragedy that occurred three days after the Aurora tragedy?

That Sunday evening near Goliad, Texas, a truck carrying 23 people crashed, killing 15. That is three people more than died in Aurora.

The driver – who also died – was Ricardo Mendoza-Pineda, a 22-year-old Mexican national who was perhaps as vulnerable as his passengers. If he had refused his dangerous assignment to transport this cargo, another driver surely would have been found.

Some may argue that unintentional deaths in the pursuit of profit are less tragic than murders. But dead is dead, and regardless of intent an event of comparable human impact to Aurora has been largely ignored.

Was it that the victims were illegal immigrants from Latin America, caught up in a human trafficking operation to supply cheap labor?

Is it because most of us believe we are much more likely to find ourselves in a movie theater than hurtling down the road in a strange country, in an overloaded pickup truck, stripped of our passports?

Is it because we sense our complicity in patronizing businesses that exploit people trapped in a broken immigration system?

If it were not for smuggling operations that supply desperate and powerless cheap labor, our food would be more expensive. The smugglers had a financial interest in packing as many people as possible into the truck, and the results were neither unpredictable nor unprecedented; in April a minivan driven by a 15-year-old crashed, killing nine of nearly 20 being smuggled to work.

We may be tempted to focus our anguish on the tragedy that seems most exceptional, but Aurora did not happen in a vacuum. Yes, we have more guns – and more dangerous ones – than most nations. Yes, we have a problem with people – mostly men – acting violently in ways that might have been prevented with a better mental health care system.

As more are thrown out of work without community ties to offer support and notice when professional help is needed, we should expect further tragedies. Holmes left his family in San Diego for school in Colorado, where he was unable to find friends who might have noticed his troubles (and his growing arsenal). Wilkins had lost his workplace – which he also targeted with arson on the night of his rampage – and sought community in a motorcycle gang.

Mendoza-Pineda’s circumstances are less clear, but it seems he had more in common with his passengers than whoever ordered them all into the vehicle he drove.

And we all have more in common with these men than we realize. Many of us have left our homes in search of work, competing against other people we neither know nor care about.

It is not just the loss of life that breaks our hearts. We also mourn the collapse of community that cheapens human life to the point that these atrocities can take place.

Whether deaths come at the hands of men crazed by professional failure or profiteers seeking to capitalize on the nation’s appetite for cheap produce and construction help, the growing alienation brought by a competitive and isolating economy makes it easier to harm our brothers and sisters, regardless of our intentions.

That’s the real tragedy.

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