The Critical Mass

Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and Tom Petty: Damn the Torpedoes.

On this morning’s dog walk, I began to connect the dots between the big news of the last few days. Tom Petty died. More than 58 people murdered, hundreds more hospitalized, at a mass shooting in Las Vegas. Our government’s efforts to being relief to hurricane-crushed Puerto Rico – much of it without electricity, food and water – is a failure.

The link, it seemed to me, and the dog, is America’s belief in magical thinking. It’s reflected in our entertainment, where the blockbuster movies of each season often feature superheroes. Fantasies where we wait for Superman and Wonder Woman to come to our rescue.

That has been played out most dramatically, and obviously, in Las Vegas.

President Trump’s go-to cover – that Muslims or ISIS were behind this crime – is not an option. The terrorist was, as is most often the case, an angry white guy with a lot of guns. Our gun-manufacturing lobby, the National Rifle Association, is silent. But its sycophants have rushed out the usual self-righteous defense of “it’s too soon” and disrespectful of the dead and injured to discuss the politics of gun control. The president’s spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, made that point of course, as well as offering the delaying tactic of, “we need to know more facts.”

Quite frankly, the facts are irrelevant. Whether he was mentally disturbed, had sympathies for ISIS or just hated country music, the fact is that the killer had access to an arsenal that he turned on his fellow Americans. Only the results are relevant. If the Trump administration and Congress are slow thinkers, they’ve certainly had time to mull these facts: Orlando in 2016, 49 people killed and more than 58 wounded. Virginia Tech, 2007, 33 dead and 17 wounded. Sandy Hook Elementary School, 2012, 20 children ages 6 and 7, and six school employees, all dead, another two wounded.

And on and on and on it goes. Trump ordered flags around the country flown at half staff following the Las Vegas murders. Symbolism. The only action the government can offer.

The superhero fantasy conclusion to an insane person shooting into a crowd of music lovers is that a citizen marksman will whip out a pistol and put a well-placed bullet in the bad guy’s head. And what better setting is there for this outcome than at a country-music concert in Nevada, which has some of the loosest gun laws in the nation?

Caleb Keeter is a guitarist with the Josh Abbott Band, which played earlier in the day at Sunday’s country-music show, before headliner Jason Aldean. But Keeter saw the whole thing. His band, he conceded, is stocked with guys who hold Concealed Handgun Licenses, CHLs. This is what he wrote after the tragedy:

“I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was. We actually have members of our crew with CHL, and legal firearms on the bus. They were useless.”

If it’s a first-hand experience with wholesale human slaughter that changes minds, I guess we’ll have to take it. Because there’s plenty of it.

We’ve seen a similar disconnect of mythology vs. reality in Puerto Rico. In his comments the past two days, the president used the disaster to compliment his administration on how well it was responding. These area self-reverential lies, one that Trump often repeats in many forms. He alone can fix the economy he said during the election. He is a superhero flying in from the outside to clear D.C.’s swamp of alligators. He alone can fix the world, he told the United Nations a few weeks ago.

The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, did not stand for the Trump administration’s self-mythologizing. After Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said the post-hurricane response was “a good-news story,” Cruz corrected her: “This is a people-are-dying story.” Trump’s response was to call the people of Puerto Rico lazy, and angrily tweeted that they were expecting someone else to do the work.

Outrage rightly followed, of course. As the Broadway icon and socially-conscious Lin-Manuel Miranda correctly noted, Donald Trump is going to Hell for this. Puerto Rico is not a state, but its people are U.S. citizens, they serve in the U.S. military and they pay federal taxes. They are not expecting a superhero to clear the roads and repair the electrical grid. But Puerto Ricans have the right to expect empathy, and then tangible support, from the government.

More bad news. Tom Petty died.

He wasn’t one of my personal favorites, but his music spoke to many of my friends. I did like the early songs, straightforward rockers that sounded great coming out of the car’s dashboard radio. Damn the Torpedoes, that’s a pretty good album. I’ve always thought that there are few things more miraculous than a rock band operating at full speed, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were certainly that.

Heartbreakers: Petty died of a massive heart attack. He was only 66, and rich, you’d figure he had the best of health care, perhaps they should have seen it coming. Perhaps they did. Even the wealthy can’t outrun the inevitable. Petty was no superman; when he was addicted to cocaine, he tried to shake it on his own, cold turkey.

That’s not how it works, Petty needed the help of others to get it done.

Gun-rights advocates are normalizing an America under siege from its own fringe. Politicians are politicizing tragedies such as Puerto Rico. They’re both appealing to the myth of Superman fixing our problems.

Again, that’s not how it works.

Change comes when people work together. That’s why the authorities get nervous when they see large crowds gathering in public places. Change is the antithesis of the status quo. Musicians like Petty, or any of our artists, don’t actually lead the way. But they do write the anthems, give voice to our feelings, they know how to find the right words. Obfuscation belongs to the other side. The best of these songs are not complex ideas. Just simple stories that go straight to the heart. Striking a note to which people can relate. Because we know the truth when we hear it.

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