Friday, December 14, 2012

A Tragedy Deeper Than We Know

And so we have had another mass shooting, and a particularly horrific one this time, and I find more and more that my reaction to these events comes in two stages.  As I write this I am coming down from the first stage: a reeling back from the abyss, recoiling in horror as the concrete facts emerge from the haze of the chaos of conflicting reports that inevitably come about as information pours in faster than we can verify it.  27 dead, 20 of them children, the shooter’s mom was a teacher at the school, the principal is dead, the councilor is dead, 100 shots were fired...  Though I try to shut my mind’s eye, images come to me: children splayed out with bullet holes in their foreheads, blood splattered across the finger paintings that adorn classroom walls, other children, alive still, cowering beneath their desks in tears, suddenly aware at their age that they are already being forced to confront the imminent possibility of their own deaths.  And before my real eyes I swear I can almost see the beast looming before me, a vaporous embodiment of the callous, indifferent evil of the universe.

But then a second wave hits me: a slow boiling dread that comes about as I realize that I must now face weeks of politicians, talking heads and special interests groups shamelessly exploiting this tragedy to push political agendas; sound bytes, usually in the form of Facebook and Twitter posts, providing overly simplistic explanations of why these things happen (“it’s the second amendment’s fault, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” “it’s the deterioration of moral values in this country,” “videogames and heavy metal warped the shooter’s mind”); I must endure water cooler conversations where I will be assured that this is a sign that the world is coming to an end (or, at the very least, is on its way to hell in a handbasket) or that the solution to fixing this problem is one that just so happens to perfectly line up with the ideologies of whoever I’m speaking to.  And God forbid you should be subjected to the international coverage of this event, where the talking heads in their news outlets will be quick to assure their fellow countrymen that this happened because America is a country of sub-human, gun-crazed savages who lack the sophistication that they so nobly embody (and what kind of savage do you have to be when, in the face of a tragedy such as this, your initial reaction is to be a self-righteous prick about it?).  I remember reading such an op-ed piece on BBC after the Tucson shooting and responded in the echo chamber of the discussion board with a list of crimes against humanity committed by various European countries in the last few years.  Long story short: I have been banned from commenting on BBC discussion boards (lesson learned: be very careful about forcing people to confront their own pretentions, a lesson I am admittedly ignoring with this post).

And I can’t help but feel that there is a different sort of evil at work in this cycle, that this global response is almost as horrific as the tragedy it’s responding to.  I can understand that, when confronted with such a monstrous act as this, that you want an answer to why it happened.  I want an answer too, and I wish I could give you one, but I lack the expertise to be able to properly contextualize it.  I am, after all, a mere writer.  But what I do know is this: the question as to why it happened is not impossible to answer and that that answer, whatever it is, is a difficult and complex one, one that cannot be reduced to inane Facebook quotes or cable news bickering between wingnuts of various persuasions.  And I know also that I despair of finding anyone capable of giving an intelligent answer to why this happened because the vacuous sound bytes that you can post on your wall and get a bunch of your friends to like or the partisan bickering and shrieking rants from political pundits that are so much fun to watch is what people want to hear.  They don’t want the details.  Why get into a confusing discussion of the myriad forces at work that contribute to something like this happening (because let’s not forget that a complex, difficult to understand answer to the question also means a complex, difficult to implement solution that just may force you to reconsider some of your own values) when you can so much more easily use it to reinforce your own beliefs and score moral compass points on social media?

I will say again that I have no answer as to why 27 people are now dead, but I think I may be able to provide a partial explanation as to why it keeps happening: because every time it does we never seem to say anything that progresses us towards implementing any sort of meaningful solution that could keep the next mass killing from happening.  And there may be a perfectly innocent explanation for why that is: that the horror of these things are so overwhelming that we just don’t know how to respond.  I would like to think that that is the case because it is so much better than believing that there are gun control advocates who heard the news and thought: “Great!  Now maybe people will finally start listening to me!” or evangelists who heard it and thought “Thank God!  Now maybe people will finally realize we need to start getting back to some good old fashioned Christian values in this country!” or...well, just fill in the blanks yourselves.  But even if the innocent explanation is the right one, that we just don’t know how to respond, that still doesn’t change the fact that we waste no time in filling the void of our collective stunned silence with a cacophony of useless blithering until we get bored of talking about it.  And then the next mass killing occurs and the cycle starts all over again.

Whether you want to accept it or not, you are complicit in these killings when you participate in the conversation that we keep building around them, no matter how pure your intentions are.  The roots of this problem run deep, so deep that they cannot be extracted without considerable hardship and toil.  And all we have accomplished with this same conversation that we insist on repeating every time another one happens is to scrape a bit of bark off the trunk, and yet we think we are making progress when we do this.  And the tree grows ever taller.  What more evidence do you need than in the fact that, ever since Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower at UT Austin and killed 13 people we have made absolutely no progress whatsoever in stemming the tide of mass killings in this country?  If we are to accomplish anything we must first fundamentally change the conversation we are having but, though it has only been five hours since I learned of this most recent shooting as I’m writing this, I’m already seeing on Facebook and Twitter and cable news the same fount of bullshit that was spewed when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris went on their killing spree and when Seung-Hui Cho went on his and when Jared Lee Loughner went on his and when James Egan Holmes went on his (and I did not have to look any of those names up - such is the Herostratic fame that we crown these murderers with)...

There was a time when I would throw myself pell-mell into this blithering but now I have grown so weary and wary of it.  However, there is some (naive, perhaps) part of me who believes that just below the surface of the cacophony lies a few quiet voices, experts who have spent years studying tragedies such as this one and who can at the very least point us in the direction of a meaningful conversation that may lead towards some kind of meaningful solution, and that if we would all just shut the fuck up for five fucking minutes we could listen to them speak and maybe learn something.  I don’t know if that will ever happen, but I know what I’m going to do about it: I’m going to abstain from the conversation.  This posting is the only thing I am going to say about what happened in Connecticut.  Anyone who asks my opinion of it, I am going to direct them to this blog.  I will not be liking anything on Facebook relating to it nor will I be tweeting or retweeting anything or sharing any viral images, no matter how sincere and heartfelt they are.  I will walk away from water cooler conversations and change the subject when my friends ask me about it (and I will know my friends by those who respect my request to not discuss it with me).  I prefer the silence of my sorrow to the din of the explanations that don’t explain anything, the talking heads who have nothing to say, the shrieking ideologues who see in the wake of the dead only the opportunity to advance their political agendas.  And I hope in this silence that maybe I’ll parse out the whisper of sanity, of someone who actually has something intelligent to say on the subject, and that I can then rejoin the conversation. 

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