Orlando worst shooting ever? What about Wounded Knee?

Lakota accounts of the Massacre at Wounded Knee:

There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce, and the women and children of course were strewn all along the circular village until they were dispatched.

Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that especially was a very sad sight. The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through, and the women who were very heavy with child were also killed.

All the Indians fled in these three directions, and after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed wounded should come forth and they would be safe.

Little boys who were not wounded came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there. — American Horse

Like NPR, we’ve gotten some questions from listeners on the claim that the Orlando shooting is the largest mass murder in U.S. history. Good questions that boil down to this: What about Wounded Knee and other massacres of Native Americans, particularly women and children?

The U.S. Cavalry opened fire on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation on December 29, 1890, killing 150 Lakota in a single incident after more and more land was taken from the rightful owners.

There were dozens of other massacres in which more innocent people were killed than then the number killed in Orlando.

Does the phrase disrespect the memory of the victims of the 19th century massacres?

NPR’s Eyder Peralta writes on NPR’s Two Way blog today that the question has been pondered for several days in the NPR newsroom. They have decided it does not.

I called Grant Duwe, the director of research and evaluation at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, for a second opinion. Duwe wrote one of the most exhaustive histories of mass murder in the United States.

He said the phrase we use is serviceable.

He says he sees two distinctions between mass murders that occurred before and after the 20th century. Before 1900, most mass murders were perpetrated by the “haves” against the “have nots.” After 1900, mass murders began being perpetrated by the “have nots” against the “haves.” Another difference is that before the 20th century, few mass murders were perpetrated by a single person.

A gunman opening fire on a public space is what “mass shooting” has come to mean these days, Duwe said. We don’t tend to put massacres involving military or quasi-military actors and those perpetrated by a group in that category.

By that definition — a shooting that takes place in a public space and does not involve another crime like robbery — what happened in Orlando is the deadliest of the 178 public mass shootings Duwe has counted since the early 1900s.

Duwe does caution that we should always add a time element to our characterization. When he wrote his book, he thought he had uncovered all mass murders. After it was published, however, he was contacted by a man who kept his own list. He realized that some cases on that list fit his own definition and he had missed them.

“Therefore, in service of precision, history and what we may not know, what happened in Orlando on Sunday was the deadliest mass public shooting in modern U.S. history,” she concludes.

I’m a little more conflicted on the question, I admit.

I don’t know that the phrase puts the killings in Orlando in historical context at all, actually. To do so requires me to conflate a body count with history.

As my hero, Merv Block, used to preach in news writing classes: “Leave history to the historians.”

What does it mean to be the largest mass killing in history and how does that change, say, the historical context of Sandy Hook, where 20 children between 6 and 7 years old and six adult staff members perished?

Sometimes, we in the business work a little too hard to make the grotesque more dramatic. That’s why we have phrases like “brutal murders.” The drama makes us care a little more, I suspect the thinking goes. As if nearly 50 people being shot to death needs just a little boost to establish its place in our conscience, let alone history.

Which brings me back to this old picture which I kept in my wallet for many years to remind me that historical context can be a lie; that the “light casualties” of the first Gulf War were not light at all.

Unable to reconcile all of this on the question, I’m comfortable dropping the phrase in recognition that it can obscure a more important historical fact: We’ve been really good at killing innocent people in this country for a long, long time.