Opinion | The Texas Shooting and the End of Hope

At some point in the past decade or so, our response to mass shootings turned into a series of memes. As the body count rises, the same, recycled tweets, Instagram posts and fiery speeches from the last massacre make their dutiful rounds through online spaces.

We see the Onion headline, “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” We see the tweet, “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” We see statistics about N.R.A. campaign contributions; references to the effectiveness of Australia’s National Firearms Agreement, signed in the aftermath of a mass shooting there that killed 35 people; and polls about the popularity of gun control measures in the U.S.

At some point, someone — in this instance, Steve Kerr, the head coach of the Golden State Warriors — gives the speech that allows us to share in a needed moment of catharsis and rage. And then the photos of the deceased start to show up on television, online news sites and social media feeds.

We have created a museum of unbearable sorrow. With each tragedy, it gets a bit denser with new names, new unsatisfying explanations and new photos of the deceased. The term “meme” here should not suggest a lack of seriousness or insincerity. Quite the opposite: The endless recalling of these bits of information and their proliferation throughout every channel of communication embed them even deeper into our consciousness. When we’re grasping for something to say, they are the things we touch.

The memes are also inert, but not for our lack of trying to break through to actually do something about the slaughter. The Parkland kids organized nationwide marches. State legislatures proposed expanded background checks, some of which even passed. But as time has gone on and the shootings haven’t stopped, those actions also get placed into the museum as reminders of just how hopeless all this feels. The next time this happens, we will all watch Kerr’s speech again.

What does it mean to constantly relive tragedy in this way? The names of places just pile up: Columbine, Virginia Tech, El Paso, Buffalo, Parkland, Las Vegas, Orlando, Roseburg, Marysville, Newtown and now Uvalde. There is the expectation that Uvalde will not be the last name on that list.

Museums and monuments, of course, commemorate the past. What I don’t know is if the museum of mass shooting memes suggests that we, also, have moved on to the task of just honoring the dead of the past, present and inevitable future.

Our response to these unthinkable tragedies almost feels reflexive at this point, rather than rooted in any actual belief that things can change. We witness the horrors of the present in which these massacres seem to happen every week, and while we still feel the pressing, manic need to do something, we also now know that nothing will be done. The desire for action, then, drags behind us — it is still with us but has lost its utility.

Helplessness is the sense that we will keep reliving the brutality of history over and over again. Tuesday night, while talking to my family, friends and colleagues about the 19 dead children and two dead teachers, I heard a despair that isn’t new but has increased in volume over the past few years. Nobody thought we could do anything about any of this; nobody even bothered to offer up a theory on how things might change. It was as if we were collectively giving up.

The brief spark of hope we might have felt watching the Parkland kids march or hearing earlier iterations of the Kerr speech, whether it was delivered by President Barack Obama after Newtown or by Richard Martinez, the father of Christopher Michaels-Martinez, a college student shot dead at U.C. Santa Barbara, felt impossible to revive.

This is a dereliction of duty to the dead, which is why so much of the sadness of the past two days has been mixed with the guilt that we, who live in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, cannot protect our children. As I type this, more photos of the dead have shown up in newspapers and 17 names confirmed, according to The Times, with four more to inevitably come: Eva Mireles, Irma Garcia, Amerie Jo Garza, Annabelle Rodriguez, Eliahana Torres, Ellie Garcia, Jackie Cazares, Jose Flores, Nevaeh Bravo, Rojelio Torres, Uziyah Garcia, Xavier Lopez, Lexi Rubio, Jailah Silguero, Jayce Luevanos, Makenna Lee Elrod and Tess Mata. Reciting them here, of course, does nothing except move them closer to history.

Perhaps there is some solace in knowing their photos and their names will be recalled the next time there’s a Newtown or Parkland or Uvalde. But just like the calls for action, they will ultimately get crowded out by all the new faces and new names that keep coming. As is the case with the engravings in black granite at Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the specific names are meaningful to the people who loved them, but for the rest of us, they will eventually look like indistinguishable entries in an overwhelming litany of senseless, mass death.

It is crucial that we, as a society, don’t allow ourselves simply to accept these deaths, but for the life of me, I can’t come up with a single reason this time will be different.

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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”