The word “audience” comes from the Latin word “audientia,” meaning a hearing. People gather to listen, and an individual or group is given the opportunity to be heard. It is a basic exercise of democracy.
But more fundamentally, it is an instinct of our species. Homo sapiens is a social animal. Culture, the systematic transmission of experience, is how humanity has survived from prehistory to the age of the iPhone. Not even the most reclusive could last in a vacuum.
The people who gathered outside at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino for the Route 91 Harvest festival came to listen to country music. They were united by a shared sensibility, their differences bridged by guitars, 10-gallon hats and a little down-home swaggering.
What some might dismiss as mere recreation is actually what builds a common reality. Without myths, collective dreams and the inherited traditions of artistic expression, humanity would have stayed in clans. Blood ties rather than stories and songs would determine group membership, shrinking our horizons to the property line. Art — high, low and smack in the middle — extends our social identities.
Jason Aldean was performing when a rapid-fire weapon unleashed its percussive fire. A 64-year-old man, holed up in his room on the 32nd floor of the hotel with a stockpile of guns, rained ammunition down on helpless spectators. President Trump called the massacre “an act of pure evil,” and for once my Twitter feed wasn’t arguing with him.
Social media captured the terror in real time. The military pop-pop-pop made it seem as if CNN war images had been spliced into a concert video. Men and women of different ages, sizes and backgrounds were frozen in panic, not sure if they should stay down or run for it. Dazed attendees, who just moments ago were singing and laughing, shouted conflicting warnings as the wounded and the dead increased their numbers with harrowing ease.
As someone who spends several nights a week at the theater, I will admit that my antenna has been raised since the Moscow theater hostage crisis of 2002 realized a fear spawned in the paranoid aftermath of 9/11. The growing list of attacks at nightclubs, concert venues and movie theaters since then has only made me more aware that at any instant a madman — and invariably it is a man — could turn a glorious communal ritual into a bloodbath.
But nothing could prevent me from going to the theater. I refuse to let terrorists — my definition includes domestic, foreign and the lone-wolf variety — dictate the terms of my life. And not because I’m particularly courageous. I just can’t accept a society that makes cultural attendance too fearful a prospect.
Seeing a play, or listening to a concert or strolling through a gallery is as necessary to me as going to the market each week to buy groceries. We feed our minds and spirits as well our bodies. My way is theater. Yours might be movies, sports or church. It makes no difference. With gun regulation as irresponsibly lax as it is, we are all just a maniac away from being on the next casualty list.
The 1st Amendment guarantees “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” The right, in other words, to be Americans in a functioning democracy.
America, the land of mass shootings, has an overdeveloped capacity to assimilate this category of horror. Politicians will piously call for prayers. Talking heads will consider the background of the gunman. Terrorism, mental illness and gun control will once again be the topics of the week. Congress will find a way to do nothing. No new laws will be passed. And the cycle will repeat itself. More unprecedented horror.
What is wrong with us? The attack on that Las Vegas audience was an attack on civilization. If we can’t gather for a concert without fear for our lives, we are doomed. Musicians give form to an inner reality that joins perfect strangers. That harmonious experience was brutally shattered by the cacophony of weapons no civilian should be able to possess.
The 2nd Amendment fanatics will feebly argue that good guys with guns are the antidote to bad guys with guns. That the right to keep and bear arms is inscribed in the Constitution (leaving out, of course, the “well regulated Militia” part that no longer makes sense in modern day America). The NRA will do all it can to ensure that buying a Russian AK-47 assault rifle with bayonet is easier than obtaining a driver’s license.
But lawmakers must act. The 2nd Amendment can’t continue to supersede the 1st Amendment, which guarantees “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” The right, in other words, to be an American in a functioning democracy. To be an audience. To be free to listen to Aldean without the spray of bullets. To be one, safely, among many. To be, in short, a human being in a civilized society.