[On February 22, 1819, the Treaty of Adams-Onis that brought Florida into the United States was initially negotiated; this year marks the 200th anniversary of its 1821 ratification as the Transcontinental Treaty. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the Treaty and other Florida histories!]
[NB. I initially wrote this post for my 2018 year in review series, but I believe it’s topics are only more relevant still here in early 2021.]
On what’s not new, kind of new, and entirely new about our worst contemporary tragedies.
Seven years ago to the day, I wrote a year in review piece on the January 2011 Gabrielle Giffords shooting, and on how pioneering scholar Richard Slotkin’s AmericanStudies analyses of violence and guns in American history and identity could help us understand such shocking and disturbing acts of political and social violence. The fact that I’m writing a year in review piece seven years later about another mass shooting—and, more exactly, the fact that I could have picked any one of the almost literally countless other 2018 mass shootings as a starting point for this post; although we must keep counting, and must keep thinking about each of them and their victims individually—proves Slotkin’s theses and then some. The final book of Slotkin’s trilogy called America a “gunfighter nation,” and hardly a day has gone by in 2018 that hasn’t featured literal, painfully exemplary acts of gun-fighting. Indeed, one of the most frustratingly common responses to such mass shootings—the idea that we just need more guns and shooters to intervene—represents yet another layer to that symbolic but all-too-real gunfighter nation mythos.
So we’ve always been a nation deeply linked to images and realities of violence and guns, and mass shootings like the February 14th, 2018 massacre at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have to be put in that longstanding and foundational American context. But at the same time, no AmericanStudier or American historian (or even slightly knowledgeable and engaged observer of American society) could possibly argue that mass shootings have not become more ubiquitous, more of a fact of American daily life, over the last few years; that whatever the longstanding impulses or inclinations to which they connect, these horrific acts of mass violence have not found more consistent outlets in the 21st century. Or, to put it more exactly and crucially, that white Americans have not been forced to deal with the threat of mass violence more fully—as African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans (among other groups) can attest, such threats have been part of the American experience of too many communities for centuries. But in 2018, the threat of mass violence has for the first time become a genuine possibility for every American community at every moment and in every space, from night clubs to synagogues, supermarkets to high schools.
That constant threat comprises a dark new reality, perhaps especially for American parents (my sons have to do monthly active shooter drills in their schools, something I can’t quite bear to dwell on). But in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, young students at the high school also modeled another and very different new reality: a generation willing and able to use their voices, their social media presence, and their activist acumen to challenge such dark histories and their causes. We’ve only just begun to see the potential effects of this group of young people and the broader generation they represent, although the November midterm elections certainly exemplified the kinds of victories this cohort can help produce. But while electoral and political results are certainly important, the fundamental truth is that the Parkland students have already and significantly changed the conversation, making clear that both gun victims and student communities will have a say in the ongoing debate around mass shootings and guns in the United States.
Last Florida history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Florida histories or stories you’d highlight?
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