After the carnage, viva Las Vegas
One of the few rituals shared by all the world's cultures is to pause when a life ends. Las Vegas doesn't have that luxury. It can't stop, for anything. This week proved it
Up and down the Las Vegas Strip in the days after Sunday's mass killing, the only concession to reality was the electronic billboards.
All of them had put off advertising Cirque du Soleil shows and drink specials to broadcast one identical message printed in white on a black background: "Our Prayers for the Victims; Our Gratitude to the Brave First Responders."
Standing at one end of the street, you could look down its length and see this mantra overlapping endlessly. The effect was Orwellian. Las Vegas, the city whose purpose is separating visitors from their disposable income, had figured out a way to brand mourning.
One of the few rituals shared by all the world's cultures is to pause when a life ends. Even the nomadic hominid species that preceded us stopped to bury their dead.
Las Vegas doesn't have that luxury. This city was constructed to service a party that never ends. It can't stop, for anything. This week proved it.
The effective space of tragedy had been highly localized. Every foot north from the Route 91 concert ground was a conceptual mile from the event.
The only thing that remained closed on Tuesday was the stretch of road running between the sniper's nest and the site of the massacre.
A long block removed from a bacchanal, the silence was near total. Every once in a while, it was broken by the screams of people riding the roller coaster at New York New York.
What vigil remained was being held by TV crews spread out on the sidewalk for best angles of the two shattered windows at Mandalay Bay. Limited traffic was still being allowed to service that casino.
While reporters stood there between live hits, an open-topped Humvee shuttling customers to a gun range called Battlefield Las Vegas drove by.
A small memorial had been set up on a sandy median. It held perhaps two dozen bouquets and a few wilting cellophane balloons. Not even enough to accommodate each of the 58 dead. Two police officers stood guard over it, since there was nothing else to guard now.
You could still walk the route. Occasionally, a family would wander over, reach the police tape and stand there for a bit with hands clasped, looking forlorn. After they'd done that long enough for decorum to be satisfied, they'd take their selfies.
Two days later, Mandalay Bay was a ghost town. I have been in many of these casinos before, but this was the first time I could really hear the soundtrack being pumped in. The guy shambling through the slots area carrying a Bud Lite and wearing a "Zero Fucks Given" T-shirt appeared to be enjoying himself. Everyone else looked trapped and embarrassed.
One door over at Luxor, it was quiet, but not funereal. By the time you'd gone up the street one more address and crossed the intersection at East Tropicana, it was as if nothing had happened.
The sole shrine on the Strip proper was a small poster pinned to a tree across from the Bellagio hotel. It's a spot where the strolling crowd often stops to watch the water show that has come to visually define the city.
The memorial may have started organically, but by Tuesday, a pair of entrepreneurs had set up on either side of it, selling 10-cent tea candles for a buck.
That afternoon, Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo gave one of his regular and largely pointless updates.
"You all know who I am," Mr. Lombardo said as he stepped up to the mic. Each of America's mass shootings creates two new celebrities – the killer and the top cop.
Speaking in the monotone procedurese of police everywhere, Mr. Lombardo reduced horror to a logistics exercise.
He discussed "best practices" for "the removal of victims from the scene." In other words, how to bag up the bodies still laying where they had fallen.
He reassured that the closed stretch of road would reopen in a few hours "to assist in commerce."
He talked up millions of dollars in donations, which would be used in part "for future surgeries." GoFundMe has become the last redoubt of the American health-care system.
The only point at which Mr. Lombardo grew animated was when someone asked about the effectiveness of the Mandalay Bay's security team.
"I don't want anybody to assume they are unsafe by staying at one of our hotels," he scolded. As with all the best irony, it went entirely undetected by the person deploying it.
The few gatherings of memorial held here were small affairs. This is the most itinerant metropolis on the continent. Most of the victims were not locals. Those two factors conspired to create a vacuum where mass public exhibitions of grief could not flower.
No community came together in Las Vegas because, as in the rest of this country, community is a vanishing resource.
The most organized response in the immediate aftermath came from the local business community. By Monday, its talking heads had settled on a message – that their adult Disneyland would remain the happiest place on Earth.
"The time to build context isn't right now …" the advertising front man for Las Vegas's tourism arm told the Review-Journal. And then proceeded to do so.
You could sit here and repeat dozens of small interactions with people who live and work in Las Vegas, but it all boiled down to the same one.
"It's sad, but it was more a question of when than if," said Steven Morgan, the guy who drove me in from the airport. Mr. Morgan was a union plumber. He lost that job after the great cratering of '08. He drives a cab now. His wife is ill. He's leaving Las Vegas to move to Utah in a few months.
"I'd like to see a squirrel again," he said.
That's more the ballad of 21st-century America than anything Walt Whitman wrote.
Every art has its form, and because it happens so often, mass murder has become one of this country's cultural products. As such, the show plays out in familiar ways.
First, the slaughter, which is always "unexpected," in the same way one supposes that a rainstorm is a surprise after a dry spell.
Once the shooting stops and the wounded have been trucked off the killing field, the story goes in two routine directions.
The first is trying to determine the killer's motivations. Was he deviant? Mentally ill, fought with the neighbours, known to abuse his wife? That's useful. It separates him out as an Other. Though the price is dear, a dangerous contagion has been removed.
It's even handier if he was seemingly normal. In that case, there was "no way to know" and "what can you do to stop that sort of person?"
This process is presented as an end in itself, as if understanding what caused a problem is the same thing as solving it. All the acronyms of officialdom here – FBI, ATF, LVPD – are plumbers who come to your house, show you where the leak is occurring and then leave without fixing it.
The other narrative path is focusing attention on stories of heroism and sacrifice. Las Vegas offered a new sub-genre – strangers who'd only just met joined for life by the harrowing experience they'd shared. A particular focus was put on people who seemed superficially unlike each other. In the ne plus ultra of this tale, only one of them survived.
Beyond pathos, the function of these stories is reassuring people that they are not divided after all. When things get bad, they rally to one another, regardless of class, race, religion or party affiliation.
Perversely, mass shootings have become the last thing that makes Americans feel truly together. The effect has become a political narcotic, offering the country's rulers a rare chance to seem leaderly and the divided polity an opportunity to hold hands across the aisle, if only on Twitter.
Moreso than elections or legislation, gun massacres are now fundamental to maintaining America's crumbling sense of cohesiveness.
That solidarity evaporates quickly. Within two or three days, everyone is back to bickering about what the word "terrorism" means and what it applies to.
It's a reminder that those who cannot resolve an argument will eventually begin to argue about why they're arguing.
The tens of thousands of people who continued on their vacations and conventions after the worst mass murder in modern U.S. history happened just over the way, the ones who carried their yard-long margaritas to take a look at the killing site, the ones who hooted at the craps tables like all of this was something to be struggled through and as quickly as possible, gave that part a pass. They skipped over the semantics of atrocity.
As such, this may be the most honest reaction to an American mass killing in modern times. No one bothered to pretend anything is going to change. They soldiered forth, proving to the terrorists that they may be able to darken a performance of the Blue Man Group for one evening, but no more.
Four days after the massacre, they were still clearing the scene. I sat down to breakfast beside two spectacularly inebriated guys from Manchester. They were laughing too loudly and making a gentle nuisance of themselves, but there is no place more tolerant of drunken foolishness than Las Vegas. The city was built on the idea.
After eating, they found their fourth or fifth wind. One of them called the waitress over.
"In five minutes, can you bring us two Jagerbombs, please?" he said, while his companion wobbled in his chair.
"And in 15 minutes, can you call us an ambulance?"