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October 2, 2017

Making sense of the senseless, when you can't troll with prejudice

Robert Niles
By Robert Niles

Like many Americans, I woke this morning to the horrifying news of the latest gun-enabled act of terror in this country. But I did not plan on writing about what happened in Las Vegas last night. What would be the point? After all, as an oft-quoted tweet says, the gun debate in this country ended with Sandy Hook. Once we decided that killing children was acceptable, it was all over.

So instead of writing, I did what Lin-Manuel Miranda advised and took a walk. I walked from my parent's house in Florida, through the neighborhood and the adjoining woods to a coffee shop a couple miles away. Okay, I did write there, anyway, But I wrote about theme parks and the violin — the daily website coverage I write that helps me feel sane in an ever-insane world.

And then The Old Guy walked in.

The Old Guy probably isn't much older than me, at this point. But he's rocking the white hair and I am not (yet), so I will tempt the gods of fate and irony and assign him that nickname. The Old Guy is there almost every time I visit this coffee shop on my frequent trips to Orlando. It's hard not to notice him. Like many people I have encountered of his age, gender, and political disposition, he apparently likes to be heard.

I know his political disposition because he announces it — loudly — every few minutes as he nurses his coffee at a table near the wall of the shop. Sitting facing the coffee bar, he usually entices some acquaintance to sit down and talk. The Old Guy seems willing to talk about anything... so long as he can steer the conversation to allow him to make fun of [insert non-Old Guy political ideology here].

Yes, The Old Guy is a troll. He's keeping it old school, trolling in person, in a neighborhood coffee shop, so I will give him credit that I won't grant those who do their trolling behind a coward's veil of anonymity, online. And like many of the old, white, male trolls I overhear in coffee shops near theme parks around America, he does it for the lulz. On the few occasions when a sparring partner has landed a funny counter punch, The Old Guy will laugh louder than he does at his own cracks. Props for that, too.

But this morning, The Old Guy wasn't laughing. He wasn't even trying to crack a joke or troll a friend. He sat with a few other Old White Folk, all leaning in and talking in far more hushed voices than his usual abrasive tone. Of course, they were talking about what happened in Las Vegas.

Allow me to practice my (admitted) weak fiction-writing skills for a moment and imagine what The Old Guy would have said had the shooter been a Muslim. Or Black. Or Hispanic. Or anything other than an Old White Guy, like himself. Like most fiction writers, I'll won't bother imagining and just pull something from personal experience instead. Because I have seen The Old Guy take every opportunity to rail on people of different faiths, races, and beliefs each time one of them ends up on the wrong side of the news.

But he wasn't railing on Old White Guys this morning. The whole point of prejudice is to justify separating yourself from "the other." It doesn't work when you can't find a point of difference between someone else and yourself. When you are confronted with someone who looks like you and who does something horribly wrong, your knee-jerk prejudice won't help you to dismiss that act. You have to starting thinking, to look for the reason why that person did what he did.

And that's my point. Prejudices allow us to turn off our minds and not do any of that looking or thinking. We just blame whatever hell happens on the other being the other and move along. There's no point in trying to figure anything out. We already have the answer. The other is evil and must be ignored, or imprisoned, or broken, or destroyed. Get me a refill, will ya? Thanks.

This morning, without a prejudice to allow them an insult or a joke at someone's expense, The Old Guy and his friends had to think about what happened in Las Vegas. And they could not wrap their heads around it.

"It just doesn't make any sense," The Old Guy said.

No, it doesn't. But it didn't make any sense when it happened in Orlando. Or Sandy Hook. Or Virginia Tech. Or Fort Hood. Or Aurora. Or Columbine. Or any of the other American communities that now welcome Las Vegas onto The List. Pointing a gun into a crowd and shooting people who are no threat to you never makes sense, no matter the age, race, religion, gender, or cause of the people shooting. Or of the people shot. It just doesn't make any sense. And never will.

But these shootings will continue and The List will grow, because, eventually, we find some point of difference that allows us to this shooter one more member of "the other," reliving us of any obligation to set aside our prejudices and actually think about how we can stop this carnage.

And The Old Guy can get back to his jokes.

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© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.