As you’ve no doubt heard, a gunman entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut yesterday morning, taking the lives of 20 children (all 6 and 7 years old) and 6 adults. It’s a heartbreaking story, and I don’t know that there’s anything that I can say that hasn’t already been said better by our obviously shaken President and others. I’m tempted to go off on a tirade about the deification of guns in America, the ongoing effort on the part of the NRA to increase access to increasingly deadly weapons, and the incessant corporate barrage of murdertainment that we’re subjected to on a daily basis, but, after some thought, I’ve come to accept that White House spokesman Jay Carney had it right when he said, “today is not the day” to discuss such things. When I first read his quote, I was of a much different opinion. Staring into my computer, looking a pictures of children running out of their school with their eyes closed, so as not to see their murdered classmates, I mumbled to myself, “Of course today is the day.” But, upon further reflection, and having thought a bit more about what the families of Newtown must be going though, I came to the conclusion that he was probably right, and that using this tragedy, right now, in order to further my own political ends, would not only be self-serving, but cold-hearted… Of course, that isn’t stopping others from pushing their own agendas this weekend. I just read a few minutes ago that former presidential candidate Mike Hucakabee, without knowing anything of the motivations that compelled the shooter in this particular case, has already determined that it must have happened as a result of the fact that we, the American people, have “systematically removed God from our schools.” Of course, if Hucakbee was right, and being raised in a strict religious environment really kept horrible, aberrant behavior from happening, his son wouldn’t have been caught torturing a stray dog to death, but we’ll leave that conversation for another day.
Huckabee isn’t the only one using this tragedy to his advantage. Some in Michigan are using the events in Connecticut to illustrate, if you can believe it, the need for more guns in schools. They’re using this event to pressure Governor Rick Snyder into signing Senate Bill 59 into law. The bill, which was coincidentally passed by the Senate early Friday morning, just hours before the shootings in Connecticut, would allow for gun owners to carry weapons into schools, stadiums, and other areas where, up until now, they’d been outlawed. “This kind of tragedy is hard to process, but if one person – a faculty member or a parent – could legally carry, at least it could have limited some of the mayhem,” said Rob Harris, media director for Michigan Open Carry Inc., yesterday. “This legislation has to be passed to at least have a fighting chance against the evil in this world.” (Snyder has said that, in light of yesterday’s tragedy, he’ll hold off on signing the bill for the time being. If you have thoughts on the matter, you can contact the Governor here.)
As shameful and self-serving as this behavior is, however, it pales in comparison with what we’re seeing from member of the media, who wasted no time sticking their cameras in the faces of horrified children and hounding the families of the deceased, in hopes of capturing on tape the gut-wrenching howls of pain that would keep morbidly-fascinated viewers from switching channels. While it’s always been the case in the media that “what bleeds leads,” it seems as though people are finally starting to come to some consensus around the belief that, in cases like this one, restraint should be shown, as it’s not only the respectful thing to do, but could actually help prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future. Here with more on that, is a clip from Roger Ebert’s 2003 review of Gus Van Sant’s film about the deadly school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, Elephant.
…Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy…
For what it’s worth, The Chicago Sun Times has apprently changed policies. Today, not only is mention of this mass killing on their front page, but it’s all that’s on their front page.
As for Ebert’s comment, I think he goes a bit too far when he absolves the entertainment industry of all blame. While I suspect that the prevalence of murdertainment in film, television and video games does play something of a role, though, I think that he’s right that the news media, in cases like this, is probably the bigger culprit. (Ebert argues that The Basketball Diaries couldn’t possibly have played a role, as very few people saw it. As much as I like and respect Ebert, if that’s the only argument that he has as to why entertainment doesn’t influence acts such as these, it doesn’t hold up very well when you start to consider that first-person shooter games, for instance, are now pervasive throughout society. I’m not suggesting that these games, which sell in the millions, are responsible for the events of yesterday, but only that Ebert’s “very few people actually saw it” defense, doesn’t really hold much water in 2012, when murder has become so much a part of our shared popular culture. Speaking of which, I was watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade with my daughter a few weeks ago, and, during it, there was an ad for a new television series which prominently featured the lifeless body of a young murder victim. That, I think it’s pretty safe to say, wouldn’t have happened during the parade even a few years ago.)
Here, with more on the role and responsibility of the news media, is a short video essay by British cultural critic Charile Booker, who argues that we should make such coverage as boring as possible, and not mention the killers by name.
And, while I don’t really want to argue gun control at the moment, here’s a link to some facts on gun ownership and gun violence that I thought that you might find of interest. (I’m particularly drawn to the stats concerning the number of deaths attributable to firearms in the United States as opposed to in other so-called “developed” nations. While it’s certainly true that there are a number of factors at play, such as country size, and age of population, one has to wonder how countries like Japan can have a few dozen gun deaths per year to our over 10,000.)
Hopefully, in the days and weeks to come, we can come together, and, as the President has said, “take meaningful action.” And I don’t just think that means taking away people’s guns, although I do think that restrictions on assault rifles are long overdue. For instance, I think that we need to have a serious conversation on the availability of comprehensive mental health care in this country. And, I think that we need to demand that our national media act in the best interests of the people. Having them, on the day of an event like this, broadcasting false information and accosting children, is absolutely unacceptable. I understand the nature of the business, and that they need ratings to survive, but we can demand more of them, and we can do a better job of fighting the urge to participate when they go to far.
And, lastly, here’s hoping that, in the wake of this, we all treat our kids and our teachers a little better.
update: Obama addressed the community of Newtown last night. Here’s a clip from the transcript, in which he promises to take action. (It should also be noted that Diane Feinstein has promised to bring an assault weapons ban to a vote in the Senate.)
…Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?
I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change. Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.
And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.
We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.
If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.
In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine…