Here are some words for the media to avoid in discussing unexpected death by violence, particularly mass murder: healing, closure and moving on. Whether these have been supplied by pop psychology, grief counselors or other types of do-gooders, they are insulting to the victims and their survivors and set up unrealistic, undesirable standards for the rest of us. Only one day after the Newtown massacre, newscasters, planted all over that devastated town, stood solemnly at attention with their ubiquitous microphones, talking about how the community was coming together to help each other move on. Within a few short days, the “c” word had surfaced and soon enough, the president of the United States flew in to personally console the grieving families - another media event. What happened in Newtown is profoundly tragic, made more so by the tender ages of these schoolchildren and by our lack of understanding of what caused it or how to prevent it from happening again. The appropriate response to such grief may be respectful silence at a time when no words can offer solace.
Those who have rushed to judge that the availability of guns in our society is the main culprit should be aware of how prevalent guns are in Newtown households and how very little crime exists in this community. Those who blame society for stigmatizing the mentally ill and not offering treatment for them should recognize that there was nothing in Adam Lanza’s behavior that even hinted at violence, that he was never a discipline problem at school, that Asperger’s Syndrome has zero correlation with violent behavior or mental illness. He was not a child who killed small animals or set fires at an early age. Unlike the shooters of Columbine, this young man kept to himself, did not appear to be bullied for it and gave no indication of dark thoughts involving murder and suicide. For those who feel that psychiatric intervention might have prevented this, there is the rejoinder that the murderers at Aurora and Virginia Tech were receiving such attention at the time of their rampages. And for those who blame our violence-riddled popular culture, we have no indication as yet that Adam Lanza partook of that. From the meager information that has been garnered so far, it would seem that far from being a member of a gang or a groupie for rappers, or addicted to video games, he was a representative of only his solitary self.
The media response to every tragedy of this sort is to storm the area with saturation reporting of some information that, hastily gathered, turns out to be false, and some interviews that are impertinent and intrusive. They stimulate the trivialization of tragedy into kitsch, encouraging the barrage of teddy bear shrines and the references to the victims as “angels in heaven.” On all the prime-time tv shows, newscasters wore black as if they were there as mourners instead of gawkers who made us partners in their rubbernecking. One writer (David Kopel, WSJ 12/18) suggests that the increase in these shootings may even be attributable to the instant celebrity that a mass killer can attain, thanks to the media and the internet. He references a book called “The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines” (Loren Coleman) but we need look only to the mass prevalence of tattoos among all classes of people to see how rapidly people are influenced by media hype. We need look only to the growing supply of homicide bombers for jihad to understand how powerful cultural indoctrination and media advertising can be.
There are no easy answers for understanding the phenomenon of civilian mass murder. In the last century, we saw how easy it was to influence ordinary Germans and other Europeans to turn on their neighbors, steal their possessions and send them to their torturous deaths. One million children were killed during the holocaust while life went on as usual for their former neighbors, teachers, doctors and friends. Perhaps a rubicon was crossed at that time making the morally impossible seem merely practical. In our day, with ever-lessening constraints on immorality, greater access to weaponry, the confused glorification of violence in entertainment, the growing isolation of the individual from group identification and the 24/7 availability of media emphasis on sensational crime - perhaps the real wonder is that tragedies like Newtown are still relatively rare occurrences.
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