The cops were explaining the latest mass-shooting murder in a school. Not a school massacre or mass murder, this time, because only one of the multiple students who were shot had died. The sheriff gave the press the official account of what had happened: “We know two individuals walked into the STEM school, got deep inside the school and engaged students in two separate locations.”
Two individuals went into the school and engaged students. If 21st century America leaves enough of a world after it for us to even have a linguistic and cultural legacy, cop-speak is going to be it: a dark and clunky tactical armor applied to language, in that same spirit of combined overkill and fragility. Cop-speak is there both to obscure and to justify the workings of violence, to package violence as an everyday procedural fact.
The individuals engaged the students, and then “officers went in and engaged the suspects.” Combatants met combatants in a combat zone. “Engaged” means that an 18-year-old senior, counting down his last three spring days until graduation, was killed in action as he lunged, unarmed, to try to stop someone with a gun. It means that the terrified elementary-school children streaming out of the building with their hands over their heads were parties to an armed conflict.
And they were. The jargon of war and the weapons of war and the logic of war all travel together, forcing out other visions of reality. In a country with no meaningful practical limits on who can acquire and use the tools of lethal force, the moral and conceptual limits fall away too. Schoolchildren in the most secure and prosperous nation of all time go through combat drills now. The inconceivable is routine. We speak the language of war because we aren’t allowed to imagine anything but war.