Death By Irony in Modern America

Our tragedies reflect our contradictions as a society.

Posted Feb 18, 2018

Public Domain
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, site of the February 14, 2018, shooting that left 17 dead.
Source: Public Domain

The autopsy reports will describe the cause of death as fatal bullet wounds, but don’t be misled. To comprehend the incomprehensible—seventeen lives suddenly lost in the nation's latest mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—one must consider the tragic ironies surrounding the incident. Amid the uniquely American pathology of mass gun violence is a proliferation of contradictions between the true culture and its claimed values.

To begin to see the irony underlying this school shooting and others like it, simply consider that children go to school each day to prepare for their future. The Parkland victims, of course, no longer have a future. As a society, we can talk all we want about valuing education, but our words become meaningless when we fail children so stunningly, and so consistently, by doing absolutely nothing to control the epidemic of gun violence. 

Within the walls of Douglas High School, ironically, there are civics classes wherein the Second Amendment is no doubt read and discussed. Considered literally and historically, the Second Amendment would seem intended to protect the ownership of muskets (the most deadly weapon widely available when it was enacted) and even then only in the context of ensuring a “well-regulated militia.” But as Parkland's civics students probably learned, thanks to the efforts of the NRA and the arms manufacturers that help finance it, the Second Amendment is utilized today to obstruct virtually any regulation of guns, even the semi-automatic rifles that are now routinely used for human slaughter.

Indeed, the NRA is an important party to this litany of ironies. Consider, for example, that the group bills itself as an organization that protects lives. There are at least 17 families that would question that noble claim. The NRA even subsidized the gun team on which the Parkland shooter once refined his marksmanship. Protection, indeed.

Supporting the NRA’s agenda of pro-gun absolutism, meanwhile, is a cadre of elected officials who would describe themselves—brace yourself for this irony—as “pro-life.” These politicians will stop at nothing to ensure that a fertilized egg within a woman’s womb is carried to birth, yet they won’t lift a finger to protect born children from military-grade weaponry.

And to take it further, among the lawmakers thriving from a symbiotic relationship with the NRA, you would be hard-pressed to find even one who does not identify proudly as a Christian. These elected officials claim history’s most famous pacifist as their savior, while simultaneously ensuring that armaments are widely and easily available throughout society.

Yes, the irony is thick, bitter, and lethal. In an era governed by a president obsessed with “Islamic terrorism” and foreigners, Parkland-area funeral homes unexpectedly sold 17 caskets this week because a young, white, male citizen unleashed his fury. Meanwhile, the politicians in charge are talking about immigrants and walls.

We should also bear in mind that every child killed at Parkland probably started his or her typical school day by pledging allegiance to the nation and its flag. They gave us their allegiance, but did we give them ours? We are so quick to demand symbolic gestures of patriotism (unlike just about any other developed country, we expect such daily pledges of loyalty from our students) but we ignore substantive matters of basic safety (also unlike any other nation, shootings have become commonplace in our schools).

Irony, importantly, can sometimes be constructive, particularly when it is used as a satirical tool. With tongue in cheek, we can enjoy biting commentary about our undemocratic democracy, our mythological meritocracy, our unfree land of liberty, and our many other contradictions. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert built their careers on it, and of course there are countless others who have been practicing the art for years. One hope underlying it all is that satire will encourage a productive conversation that might enable change. 

But when young and innocent children and their teachers lay in pools of blood, reflecting numerous staggering ironies that have gone unaddressed for far too long, the constructive potential has obviously gone unrealized. With another mass shooting, thoughts and prayers are all that are offered. "This is not the time to jump to some kind of conclusion," House Speaker Paul Ryan told us after the shooting, assuring us that there will be no meaningful gun legislation on his watch.

Thus, if irony is a tool, in modern America it seems to most closely resemble a reaper.