Batman Shooter James Holmes Proves America is Not Exceptional

Virtually every commuter on my packed London Underground train last night had a copy of The Evening Standard, the reputable newspaper of choice for most Londoners to peruse on the evening journey home. The front page featured a massive photo, and a grim headline, of a chaotic scene outside the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado. Glancing around, I saw most of my fellow travelers were reading the accompanying cover story with the latest details of the incident.

It was a strange moment, being an American abroad watching largely non-Americans on a crowded train read about a frightening and savage event in a far-away state that for them might otherwise conjure innocuous images of cowboys, mountain ranges, or skiing.

For a moment, I was moved by it. Being on that train with so many people concentrated on the aftermath of a crime several time zones away with an ocean in between, I felt a strange, inadvertent solidarity. That Aurora, Colorado, is the top headline of nearly every newspaper in London this morning feels like a collective condolence letter.

But as with all, and what feels like increasingly frequent, national tragedies that provoke an immediate rash of opinions and emotions that peculiar sense of comfort quickly eroded into exasperation, and frankly embarrassment.

Exceptional countries don’t allow their citizens to buy an assault rife capable of firing 60 rounds in a minute. The president of an exceptional country shouldn’t have to publicly condemn the second mass shooting in less than two years. Exceptional countries do not have lobbies so menacingly and perversely attached to a perceived personal right that it is permissible for civilians to obtain military level firepower as long as they have an internet connection.

When asked at the pub later by a collection of English and Norwegian friends about the shooting, I kept largely quiet. There was no reasonable, or rational, American insight I could provide, because the nonsensical murder of 12 people at a movie theater is inherently un-American. The gun lobby may assume that what makes America exceptional is the civilian right to bear any variety of arms, but after another disaster like this, from the outside looking in, there is nothing exceptional about the U.S. at all.

Living and working in London over the past year I have defended robust U.S. foreign and defense policy so frequently to my English and European colleagues that I actually began to buy into the broader “American exceptionalism” argument myself. How quickly do the actions of a 24-year-old with a semi-automatic weapon, a 12-gauge shotgun, and two pistols, all purchased legally, prove that, in reality, we are a profoundly flawed country?  

When it comes to gun control, in an exceptional country there would be a critical mass, a catalyst that would finally convince the majority of its citizens on the need for tough and immediate action (that said, an exceptional country would already have strict gun control measures in place). But if it wasn’t Columbine, or Virginia Tech, or Gabrielle Giffords, and now, Aurora, Colorado, what will it possibly take?