Unfortunately, there are no simple answers.
This one is a hard one for me. I was born and raised in and near El Paso. When somebody messes with El Paso, they’re messing with me and mine. When somebody shoots up the Walmart that I used to shop at with my grandfather (and most recently went in about a month ago), they’re hitting a whole lot closer to home than I’d like. At the same time, I wanted to be fair, so I needed a few extra days to process the hurt before writing this, so I could have a clear head–at least as clear of a head as one can have in times like these.
I took most of the classes for a degree in emergency management and homeland security. Maybe one of these days I’ll finish that master’s degree, but that doesn’t stop me from sharing what I’ve learned about bad situations like these. I hope that between that training and local knowledge, I can shed some light on this situation and help us all be better for it.
Disasters Are Rarely Simple
If there’s one thing I’d like readers to take away from this, it’s this: disasters are complex.
I see people on both big political sides telling us about their simple answers to this. The Democrats mostly tell us that they could fix this with gun control laws. The Republicans blame mental health, and maybe video games. I know some will tell me that’s an oversimplification, but trust me, the most nuanced reality of what the talking heads are regurgitating is nowhere near as complex as the truth.
We’ll come back to the shooting in a second, but to illustrate my point, let’s look at a more neutral and seemingly apolitical example for a moment: floods. I’m pretty sure everybody but the worst misanthropes would agree that flood disasters are bad, and that people need disaster funds to rebuild after major flooding. Whether it’s caused by storms, unusual runoff events, or hurricanes, most people think floods are a simple matter of rebuilding. Those who think a little deeper might think about flood control projects.
The truth is that there’s really no such thing as a natural disaster, though. If the place affected by a natural flooding disaster didn’t have any people in it, we might not even notice, let alone call it a disaster. When we move into places that flood, it becomes a potential disaster. Humans need water to survive, so we don’t think too much about or natural inclination to park ourselves near rivers and oceans. When deciding how we build in these areas, we have great control over how we are affected by the things nature does, though.
When we build tons of parking lots and streets, constrain rivers to narrow channels, destroy native vegetation, cause soil erosion, build below seal level, and do other similar things, there are costs. A parking lot sheds away floodwater while native grasses might soak most of it up. When we do a bunch of different things don’t consider the unintended consequences and the ways in which those consequences can exacerbate each other, we invite these disasters.
Some of the Myriad Things That Contributed to Disaster in El Paso
I’m not happy with the complexity myself. I’d LOVE the comfort of knowing that there’s a simple cause to this tragedy in my hometown and that there’s a simple solution. I’d love to be able to tell you that if we just vote for the right politicians, all of this could go away. That would be a lie, though. These problems took decades or centuries to fester, and there are no quick solutions.
One of the oldest things driving this is climate change. No, I’m not saying climate change caused this all by itself. It’s just one small piece of this complex problem. That having been said, climate change is ruining lives in central America and driving people to migrate. First, they try to go to the cities in their own countries, but are finding that the misguided “War on Drugs” has turned those cities into dangerous places. When they look to government officials for help, they find more corruption fueled by drug money and even persecution that drives them to seek out other lands to survive in. Conditions in Mexico aren’t much better, and things get bad enough that they’re willing to take their chances crossing the border illegally, and sometimes die trying.
Faced with economic problems in the US, caused in part by automation, many people are feeling desperate on this side of the border, too. Politicians don’t like to tell us that problems like this are hard to solve, and find easy support when they come up with much simpler lies about why things are going the way they’re going. The most unscrupulous politicians employ scapegoating tactics, telling us that outsiders (who don’t vote) are to blame. This tactic finds fertile ground in a society already fertilized with the horse shit of racism and xenophobia.
With an “invasion” happening at the border, and bleak economic prospects after going to community college, the shooter and others like him were an easy mark to be manipulated by politicians. Sure, Trump’s voters didn’t vote for mass shootings, and Trump didn’t directly tell anybody to go shoot at anybody, but this isn’t the first violent extremism El Paso has seen.
We’ve already seen several different militia groups come in from out of town and get in skirmishes at the border. One landowner in Sunland Park, NM, just across the river from El Paso and against the border with Mexico, invited a bunch of them to camp next to his abandoned brick factory. People from around the country, led by close associates of Trump, raised millions of dollars to come and build a private border wall on that land, but did it during Memorial Day weekend to avoid angering the locals before it could be completed. When a local mayor challenged their lack of a building permit, he received death threats from all over the country.
Even these last few paragraphs are an oversimplification, though. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of factors. Worse, they aren’t going to be solved quickly. Climate change alone isn’t going to be solved in one election. No law will uproot all of the hate and xenophobia. Automation and the social disruption that accompanies it isn’t going to be solved all at once, either.
Learning to Appreciate the Complexity
This complexity isn’t bad news. In fact, it’s the first step to real answers. We need to first embrace the complexity, and then adapt to it.
The worst thing we can do at times like this is blindly follow the fraudulent voices telling us that they have all of the answers. People telling you that it will all be solved with gun control or mental health reforms are just trying to get you to vote for them or give them money. Next year, when the other unresolved issues boil up again and hurt us (perhaps in some other way), they’ll have something else to sell you.
Many of them have zero interest in solving these complex issues because they like having the opportunity to keep selling new “solutions.” Others aren’t opportunistic weasels, but are just too blind to see that these problems are complex and don’t have simple answers.
If we don’t want the deaths of people in my hometown to be completely in vain, we need to be realistic and find the complex and hard truths that solve these problems instead of believing in political fairy tales. Only then can we actually make America (and everyone else) greater.