On May 12, the United States marked a grim milestone: one million people have died of COVID-19 since 2020.
On May 15, 10 people were killed in a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York.
To observe the first, President Joe Biden ordered flags at the White House to fly at half-mast. Congress observed a moment of silence. Politicians expressed anger and sadness.
To observe the second, Biden went to Buffalo, where he was, as always, the nation’s mourner-in-chief. The president remembered the dead and comforted the bereaved. Politicians expressed anger and sadness.
Both had a ritual about them. Among Americans, they came with a sense of inevitability — a collective sigh and a shrug — as if viruses and guns are the natural order of things. Carnage was unfolding as it does in different ways in the United States, a fate regretted and accepted.
This has made the U.S., metaphorically, a nation of mourners, eulogists, crepe-hangers and undertakers. Americans are comfortable with death whether it comes from a pandemic or a regime of gun violence.
Eventually, COVID-19 will disappear, followed by another murderous malady from another corner of our borderless world. The U.S. may, or may not, treat it differently than it has this crisis.
Gun violence, though, will not disappear. In fact, it may well increase in a country today buying almost three times the number of guns it did in 2000. With more guns (400 million) than people (334 million), with economic anxiety rising, we can expect Americans to continue killing each other like nowhere else on Earth.
What is it about the American character that is in love with night? Why is the country willing to accept levels of death from disease and guns? In the world’s most affluent nation, comfortable with technology and innovation, why is this? These are questions for moralists and theologians. One historian of the Civil War, which claimed more lives (600,000) than all others in the nation’s history, called America “the republic of suffering.”
Of course, Americans don’t have to die in the numbers they have from COVID-19. Other countries had far fewer deaths because they managed the pandemic differently. They closed borders, stayed home, wore masks, welcomed vaccines.
These are some of the reasons Canada has about one-third the death rate of the United States. Canadians were more willing to embrace preventive measures, however slow, clumsy and imperfect; Americans were not.
This isn’t because we are morally superior. It means, as a society, we were ready to defer to institutional authority and embrace the common good. Whatever our skepticism and distemper, public health mattered more than individual freedom.
One analysis of the relative success of Australia in handling the pandemic — it’s had one-tenth the death rate of the U.S. — notes “a lifesaving trait that Australians displayed from the top of government to the hospital floor, and that Americans have shown they lack: trust, in science and institutions, but especially in one another.” Many Americans do not trust science, their institutions, or their leaders. Out of faith or philosophy, they refuse to act prudently. This explains why the number of official deaths is a million and probably far more.
The same goes for gun violence: other countries won’t tolerate what the U.S. does. The shooting in Buffalo was one of more than 200 so far this year in which four or more people were wounded or killed, following 693 such shootings last year. In Canada, which is contemplating more stringent gun control, gun violence is lower. The same goes for Japan, Europe and other industrialized countries.
In the U.S., the reasons are the constitutional right to own guns and the ease of access to them that courts and politicians embrace. Most of all, though, it is the impulse to violence, whether it is Will Smith slugging Chris Rock at the Academy Awards or misanthropes like the one in Buffalo who walk into supermarkets, churches or movie theatres and start shooting.
Once the seat of life and liberty, the United States is now the Republic of Death.
Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor at Carleton University and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.