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.

  • Kassie

    Not only are we good at killing innocent people in this country, we are good at doing it in other countries too. Americans: good at killing innocent people.

    • Jerry

      Killing innocent people is something all of mankind is good at.

  • Postal Customer

    What sort of weaponry were the cavalry using? Were those weapons available to the general public whenever they pleased, and for any reason or no reason at all?

    The epidemic of massacres in this country is a direct result of the abject failures and crisis of leadership at all levels, but particularly in the US congress.

    Am I the only one who walks the streets and occasionally wonders if today is the day when somebody will start shooting at me or others? That is what I’m talking about. There is no leadership on this issue, nobody who can even attempt to defend innocent lives. That is a total failure of government. It is nauseating. We have a right to live without fear. Otherwise it’s not even the America I grew up in, and I’m not old.

    Paul Ryan could think to himself: “I will lead because it is my time to lead. For once in my life, I will put the people first, not the NRA.” He won’t, of course. We elect politicians, not leaders.

    • I was just sitting at light on 61 at Shepard Road and wondered if this is the day someone not paying attention comes barreling into me. The other day i was walking in a campground during a lightning storm and wondering if this is the day i get hit by lightning. I don’t think I’ve been to a movie theater since Aurora, but, sure, I wonder occasionally what my odds are of getting shot. I wouldn’t mind seeing my odds improve, mind you, but the odds are still on my side and I’m not overly fearful of them.

      • Postal Customer

        I get your point, but those aren’t really the same thing as a shooting. They’re either accidental or act-of-god.

        • I get it. I’m merely talking about assessing the personal risks of leaving my house from all the crap out there that could kill me.

          Curiously it never occurs to me for one second that someone with a gun will save me from someone else with a gun. Which is weird considering the way they jumping off the shelves.

    • Rob

      I live without fear. I spend zero time worrying about being shot, and if I get creamed by someone texting and driving, so be it.

    • Ryan Johnson

      The cavalry in 1890 would have been using single shot, breech loading carbines, possibly bayonets, revolvers, and cavalry sabres. Other than the sabres all would have been readily available, and repeating rifles with internal magazines were widely available to the public as well.

  • kevins

    What is also sad is that, over a hundred years later, reservations such as Standing Rock and Pine Ridge are difficult environments to grow up healthy in.

  • Al

    Other than saying both were really, really, ridiculously bigoted occurrences, it seems like an apples-and-oranges comparison.

    On a post that’s making the rounds among my friends, this says it best: “Admit that this sort of violence is not new, that it is not a product of Islam or radicalism but of us. It is in our blood, our history–the centuries of oppression and violence and exploitation that have gone unhealed.”

    Source: https://www.facebook.com/sierrademulder/posts/724220390201

    • Jerry

      The doom of humanity is that we are better at remembering when we have been wronged then when we have done wrong.

  • Jerry

    The closest analogue to Wounded Knee is probably My Lai.

  • jon

    (1) we just had the deadliest mass shooting in American history, (2) that is a statistic that is tracked well enough that the news media had it very quickly (even if they were wrong, they were close depending on our definition of “mass shooting”), and (3) if we are being honest with ourselves it was only the deadliest mass shooting so far…

  • rosswilliams

    There have been several mass killings in US history, most of them racially charged. You can find a whole list at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_massacres_in_the_United_States. Of course you can distinguish each from the others by choosing criteria to make them distinct.

    I think the question is whether this was an outstanding example of homophobic rage by a psychopath or a calculated political act of terror on behalf of ISIL. Or perhaps the real question is whether there is really any difference between those two. ISIL’s role in the world has always appeared to be to place a veneer of religious belief on acts of senseless personal rage. That appears to be the case here.

  • lindblomeagles

    I’m glad somebody is putting Mateen’s killing in better perspective today than we did Sunday and Monday. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find Americans killing innocent Native Americans with astonishing coldness. You must recall, Bob and audience, Jeffery Amherst intentionally infected Native Americans with the small pox virus (and he wasn’t alone) through blankets in 1763 at Fort Pitt during a cease fire in the Pontiac War. Amherst was given hero status and as a result has a town and college bearing his name. The college name was a subject of Newscut when millennial students and administrators considered changing the name after acknowledging Amherst’s mass murder. Don’t even get me started on the mass murders of African slaves and African Americans. Hailed as heroes, a white mob destroyed Florida’s Rosewood Town in December 1923 in retribution for an alleged (and unproven) charge of rape by a white woman living in the town. Again, historically speaking, the American response to anyone of color committing violent crimes against predominantly white citizens is rapid, aggressive, and over-indulged with at most half accurate factual accounts of what really happened. 50 people dead is WAY TOO MANY. But there have been a series of unexplained murders committed since 2007 by several Americans, many of them white, and a real reluctance for our nation to admit it has committed mass murders to its people of color, and didn’t convict anybody for those murders. Our leap to terrorism in this case undermines what has been happening over the past 9 years (see the letter from Sandy Hook). Worse, we don’t even know if Mateen hated gays, hated Latinos, hated America, hated his own personal struggle with marriage and career aspirations, or was just jilted by a gay lover he met online or at that club.

    • Jerry

      To be fair, the killing of innocents was a tactic of both sides during the “Indian Wars”.

      • Rob

        Give me a cite for any Indian massacres of white people that is anywhere near the scale of Wounded Knee

      • Ryan Johnson

        To be fair, people were invading the native americans’ land. Not exactly innocent.

        • Jerry

          Ah yes, the children were guilty of being born to settler parents. Until the 1960’s the American historical narrative glorified the settlers and demonized Native Americans. Now the narrative does the opposite. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. History is complicated and doesn’t fit into neat categories of good vs evil. Heroes vs villains.

  • Jonathan Larson

    Maybe a better way to put it would be worst recent shooting or worst shooting not perpetrated by the government.
    I believe the really sad things is that we have a history where we have to debate such things.

  • Sofie E

    Bravo, Mr. Collins. Let’s not forget Oklahoma, or the Bath school disaster of 1927. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it…over, and over, and over. Humanity needs a few slaps upside the head.