At eleven o clock one Thursday morning last May, as I awaited a flight to Pisa, the booking halls at Gatwick Airport fell silent. It’s such a cliché, but you truly could’ve heard a pin drop in there, it was so quiet, and that place is mammoth. The loudspeaker had just asked everyone to honor the victims “and everyone affected” by the Manchester bombings. In other words, we were honoring ourselves.
That moment came back to me this morning as I read about what Facebook referred to on the feed as “The Violent Incident In Vegas.” Sadly, incidents like the one in Manchester have now increased to the point where, when I read in the morning paper that “at least two people are dead and dozens wounded” at a rock festival in Vegas, I thought almost nothing of it. It was only when I opened my computer and saw that ‘two’ meant ‘fifty’ and ‘dozens’ meant four hundred that I fell into total shock.
The Bataclan was bad — 8 gunmen, a two hour siege. Manchester was just awful. Vile. Despicable. Tragic. But this incident in Vegas feels even more like Beslan — the 2004 hostage incident in Russia wherein 334 people, including 186 children, were killed — or the Boston marathon. Language seems inadequate to describe it. The day after Manchester happened, the British P.M. Theresa May called the attack “cowardly,” while her US counterpart used the even less adequate phrase ‘evil loser,’ as if the perp was just some schoolyard bully. Indeed, words are so totally futile that in some ways one wishes the media would just ignore these events. That’s impossible and wrong of course, but the sheer volume of stuff written about it has to be part of the problem and not the solution.
And here I am adding to it. But ignoring it seems wrong too, like denying the holocaust. Silence equals consent. As I write this, nothing is known about the 64 year old shooter, except, of course, that he is a 64 year old white male with access to automatic weapons, but though one can speculate as to the toxic nature of those combined three facts (white, male, weapons, sigh), and of course terrorism, domestic and global, has a whole set of precursors and prerequisites, there is something else going on as well when a rock crowd is the target of violence.
Rock crowds like the one in Vegas — the Route 91 Harvest Festival — are my field of study.I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation — entitled “Rock Crowds and Power” — on them, and my starting point for that work was, were they, or were they not, utopian. Utopian! How far we’ve come, eh? In 1960, Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti, the author of the seminal work Crowds and Power, said that it is “only in a crowd that we lose our fear of being touched.” He meant it a bit differently, but I do believe that it is in crowds that we often experience our most profound and memorable moments. Sports crowds, religious crowds, and yes, pop concert crowds: crowds are where we become humanity, rather than merely human. Therefore the threatened destruction of a crowd isn’t a random gesture; it’s an assault on the most deep seated and powerful impulse we have, which is sociality.
As Emile Durkheim said, society precedes the individual. But today we should take that as warning, not an adage.
Really, the more I think about it, the more America’s insistence on individuality as a core human freedom seems destructive. It is why people think their opinions matter so much, however stupid they are, however against the grain. It seems like it’s ingrained in many Americans, and it is having an extremely deleterious effect on everything right now. I may be reading too much into the shooter’s actions, but I picture a person so destroyed by America’s insistence on individuality that the sight of 22,000 people reveling together snapped his very soul.
Are these kind of shooters attempting to disrupt the human tradition of listening to music together? Of festivity? Of community? If so, they may be doing a good job, because every incident like this makes the prospect of joining one less appealing. A few years ago, concert venues instituted a safety policy which required taking people’s personal belongings. Back in 2008, when I went to see Mao Tse Tung’s body in Tiananmen Square, I was shocked when my purse (with wallet and passport in it) were confiscated by a soldier with a gun and stuck in a big room, just like at a child’s birthday party. In 2008, that felt very totalitarian. Today, it’s commonplace to have your purse thrown on a pile in some random tent at a rock concert, only unlike in China, at a U2 concert you have to pay ten bucks for the privilege.
Given what happened in the foyer to the Manchester Arena — pre-security check — and now, from the high window of a hotel bordering a concert site, it is hard to imagine how they (and by “they” I mean concert promoters) think this is making us safer. In addition to the hacks those two shooters found to destroy our peace of mind, everything is weaponized now: trucks, belts, jackets, whathaveyou.
But one thing I know for sure. The removal of spaces where we can listen to music together is much too steep a price to pay for modernity. We need to make sure that it does not happen by gathering together in crowds anyway. This weekend I am going to Golden Gate Park to see Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a concert which draws upwards of 60,000 and which, because it is free, has no actual gates, security, or other safety measures. It is a free space. Some might worry that this is the perfect place for a mass shooting, but you know what? I am going to go to it anyway. Safety isn’t everything. Freedom is.
Originally published at foolsrushinredux.blogspot.com.