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Leonard Pitts: Stuff happens? The Bush war on English

And the Bush family’s War on English continues.

You are, by now, familiar with the astonishingly tone-deaf response by Jeb Bush, the nation’s would-be 45th president, to last week’s shooting at a community college in Oregon in which a gunman killed nine people. “Look,” said Bush, “stuff happens.”

Like a stink bomb in the flower bed, the dismissive-sounding words were buried in a longer comment about whether this latest massacre should spur new legislation. Said Bush: “…I don’t think more government is necessarily the answer to this … I had this challenge as governor, because we had … look, stuff happens. There’s always a crisis and the impulse is always to do something and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”

When a reporter asked about the wording afterward — perhaps trying to spare Bush some grief — the former Florida governor turned attitudinal. “No, it wasn’t a mistake,” he said. “I said exactly what I said. Explain to me what I said wrong.”

“You said, ‘stuff happens,’” said the reporter.

Whereupon, Bush hunkered deeper into his snit. “’Things’ happen all the time,” he said. “’Things.’ Is that better?”

Um … no.

And the pasting that followed was entirely predictable. Bush was slammed by Hillary Clinton and President Obama. In Mother Jones, the liberal magazine, his words were called “callous.” In Salon, they were dubbed “tactless, graceless and ham-handed.”

But let’s not miss what’s truly offensive here.

At one level, after all, this is just a new round of the gaffe gotcha game where you strip clumsy language of inconvenient context so as to imply the candidate said or meant something he never said or meant. So let’s be fair: Bush was not being callous toward the Oregon tragedy any more than Barack Obama was denying small businesspersons their due when he said, “you didn’t build that.” Rather, Bush simply offered an inarticulate statement of GOP orthodoxy: There are no legislative responses to mass gun violence.

And while that’s a point some of us would dispute, it is not what makes his words appalling. No, what makes them appalling is the surrender they imply.

“Stuff happens?”

That’s what you say about the hurricane or the earthquake, the hail storm or the flood, natural disasters beyond the power of humankind to prevent. It’s what you say about cancer or Alzheimer’s or dog droppings on the lawn, the major and minor challenges that are an inescapable part of being alive.

To say “stuff happens” about a mass shooting is to suggest that mass shootings are somehow inevitable and unavoidable. But that is simply not true. This “stuff” doesn’t happen everywhere — not with the numbing frequency it does here.

It doesn’t happen like this in Great Britain.

It doesn’t happen like this in Brazil.

It doesn’t happen like this in Israel.

It doesn’t happen like this in Japan, where gun ownership is strictly restricted, nor in Canada, where gun ownership laws are more liberal and there are, by one count, about 10 million firearms in private hands.

Ten million. Yet, you know how many gun homicides there were in Canada in 2013? A hundred and thirty-one.

Even as we mourn this latest mass murder, another is taking shape. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. That’s how predictable this “stuff” has become.

So it would behoove us to try and figure out what other countries know that we do not, what it is about our laws and/or our national character that returns us inevitably to this nexus of tragedy and recrimination week after week. You see, Bush is only half right.

It is not that “stuff happens.”

No, stuff happens here.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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