Some suggest that the US has more mass shootings than other high gun-ownership societies because American culture is much looser, and American society much less closely knit. It’s harder to fall through the cracks as a misfit in other countries. But it’s also the case that it’s harder to rise to the heights than in America.

This is what Alex Massie is getting at in his nuanced and deeply insightful meditation on the meaning of Newtown, and why it is “a very American tragedy.” I think he’s onto something. Excerpt:

I suspect that, perhaps in ways that are almost too awful to contemplate, these kinds of spree shooting are the dark side of the limitless American capacity for reinvention. The same culture that has helped permit or foster the most dizzying, varied, awe-inducing society the west presently knows is the same culture that incubates these horrors. Self-realisation is part of the American essence. Sometimes that has a terrible side too. (I think you could make some comparable points about the American religious experience too: this too often seems antiquated to european types but it is real and equally diverse.)

If, as seems likely, these kinds of shooting spree have become more common in recent years this too may be a feature of a culture in which the divides between those who conspicuously have and those who palpably have not have rarely been quite as great or, worse, made so apparent to those who do not have. Modern media – and technology – are part of this though not, of course, all of it.

Because what strikes the foreigner most about the United States is its variety. Indeed variance may be its most significant quality. This owes something to it being a country of 300 million people but I fancy a country of 300 million Swedes (even if spread across a comparably sized landmass) would be a very different place indeed. This, coupled with the American predilection for individualism, has helped make the United States a country of magnificent wonders and jaw-dropping failures. Its highs are very high and its lows exceptionally low. This, if you like, is a feature, cause and consequence of American exceptionalism. Perhaps.

Massie talks in his column about how, like it or not, Americans subdued the frontier with their guns. They are an inextricable part of who we were, and thus who we are. A couple of years ago, when I was reading Empire of the Summer Moon, S.C. Gwynne’s stunning book about the last of the Comanches, I kept marveling at how dangerous life on the frontier was for settlers, even as late as the early 20th century. Indian raids were real, and incredibly bloody and violent — and that’s to say nothing of lawlessness among the settlers themselves. When this book came out, I was living in Philadelphia, and I sincerely regretted not taking the time when I lived in Texas to go see some of these places where the settler forces and the Comanches clashed.

Again, the most remarkable thing was how recent all this was. Quanah Parker, the great Comanche chief who finally surrendered to the whites, did so in 1875. He moved with his people to a reservation, and before he died in 1911, had been a hunting partner of Theodore Roosevelt’s. Guns made all the difference in the defeat of the Comanches, and whatever you might say about the wars between European settlers and Native Americans, had you lived on the frontier in the 19th century, having a gun may have made the difference between your family living and dying, or perhaps your little girl being carried off in an Indian raid, and raised as a Comanche (as was Quanah Parker’s mother). Indeed, Gwynne writes that Cynthia Parker’s grandfather was castrated and mutilated by raiding Comanches as her grandmother was forced to watch. These atrocities were common. As Gwynne writes, “The logic of Comanche raids was straightforward: All the men were killed, and any men who were captured alive were tortured; the captive women were gang raped. Some were killed, some were tortured.”

Guns were absolutely critical to the survival of European settler civilization. It is unreasonable to think that this almost primal bond with the gun would pass so quickly, so cleanly, and so hastily out of the American psyche. Massie is right: We are exceptional this way.