13 January 2011

Whose Tragedy?

Maybe I’m following the wrong news feeds. Every article I read tells me how “the events in Tucson will have enduring effects on American politics” and not on, say, how we relate to our friends; how we teach our children; how we hug our parents, or write letters to our colleagues, or visit family in the hospital; how we think of disaster victims in other parts of the world, shoppers behind us in line, or people gathering at the rally downtown.

In his remarks at the memorial service, President Obama addressed the issue which the media had promoted to the number one concern of the times—the one for which you could watch CBS Early Show prompt commentators for sound bites and hear analysts telling us would be key for the President’s speech, the one Hotair.com promised the President would get wrong and on which many bloggers advised the President how to get it right, the one placed at the feet of extreme talk radio, the one that many blamed on crosshairs on maps and that Sarah Palin reacted to. The issue: political rhetoric rooted in violent hyperbole[1]. But before he addressed this must-issue, the President talked about victims, about family, and about heroes.

Whether or not they liked the speech or the speaker, a whole lot of news people let us know they found it to be the President’s best yet. How come, then, I can’t find its sentiment within many of those same news people’s interviews and writings? Are the sides so strictly plotted that what we’re supposed to take from a nationally mourned tragedy comes down to a choice between (1) being an angry person or (2) being angry at how angry all of those other people are?

I feel like we should think back—it won’t be incredibly far back, but it will be to a moment that passed quickly and might be saddening to recall. Before we heard a sheriff accuse his state of harboring bigotry, before we knew the size of the make of the gun, before we found out if the injured congresswoman was Republican or Democrat, what ideas went through our heads? Maybe—and only because I can’t disprove a negative—maybe for some of us, the first thing to mind was, “The shooter probably used an extended magazine.” “I bet he hated the health care law.” “Only a marijuana-smoking, political nut would do that.” But I am pretty sure not a lot of us began with those.

For me, and I suspect for almost everyone, questions sprang up—immediate, intimate, personal questions. These questions turned toward the human, not the political. We did not instinctively think, “I need Glenn Beck to explain how I feel about this.” “Ezra Klein can make it all better.” “I want the President to reunite me with humanity.” That presidents and other figures, at times of historical heartbreak, have stepped up to make contributions toward uniting us is wonderful and not my point. In the first, most bare and raw moments after we are presented with a tragic event, our thoughts turn not to governmental policy but to concerns like “Was anyone seriously hurt?”

How many people were hurt? How many people were there? Is everyone safe? Where is my daughter right now?

There was even a silenced moment, where we had no questions, where we didn’t demand to know a thing; our minds stopped churning so that we could take just an instant to funnel all of our thoughts and personal energy into hoping people who were hurt will get better, people who were killed are resting at peace… and wanting the best that was possible for fellow human beings we didn’t even know. And hopefully, sprinkled throughout our initial questions and that pause, another question came up, maybe many times: “Is this real?” Because as we process a horror like the arbitrary and mass ending of innocent lives, I hope it strikes us as exactly that: a horror; as something unreal that should not be part of what goes on in the world. Not because we are naïve or unaware of violence (though, our national identity in America might be sheltered from the type of atrocities that many, many other nations face so much more often than we do), but because violence, even to people we don’t know, hurts us. It hurts when other lives are ripped away.

The moment when a bad thing happens—or when we hear about what happened—feels horrible, and we are right to not want to go through it again.

Later—and not long later, maybe only seconds or milliseconds—we begin looking for the rounding-out information, for images and details that will give the story of what happened, something we can try to understand and discuss with friends and explain to our children. How many people were involved; was it planned; did the shooter have a psychological disorder? These questions are valuable: they lead us to understand, to grow, to feel safe, and to do what we can to keep danger from coming back.

I know we have been asking these questions in our homes, in our communities, at work, and even in Congress. We are looking to solve whatever we can. In the national analysis that plays on television and in print and online, though, all I can seem to find is how “the events in Tucson will have enduring effects on American politics.”

I guess it’s easier this way. It’s enervating to process a tragedy, especially one that ended lives. And let’s be honest: we know catastrophe will return. It always does and always has. We will have these conversations, a few people will be truly impacted, many will forget, the conversation will fade away, and everything will happen again. If we can believe that the biggest and seemingly only consequences (if an Internet search on the words “shooting Tucson effects” tells the tale[2]) are those on American politics, an issue for which most of us have already chosen positions, then we need not cry over disaster, we need not worry for our fellows, we need only stake our position and identify those who are with us and those against. Isn’t this much simpler than examining and changing how we relate to our friends; how we teach our children; how we hug our parents, or write letters to our colleagues, or visit family in the hospital; how we think of disaster victims in other parts of the world, shoppers behind us in line, or people gathering at the rally downtown?

Except, we cannot believe that the biggest consequences of the shooting in Tucson will be those on American politics. And when the horrifying happens again, we should not have to start over from the beginning.

With the amount of print and airtime that highlights this event’s “enduring effects on American politics,” there seems to be so little acknowledgement that when Jared Loughner shot twenty people in Tucson, Arizona, on January 8, 2010, we were affected in other ways. There seems so little acknowledgement that reminders may be taken and possibly other lessons learned which do not involve how one politician speaks about another politician on television. I feel like much of the mass and alternative media has, in this instance, removed the human connection from a tragedy.

[1] There. I fit all four words into one clause: rhetoric, violent, hyperbole, politics. The need to make new combinations with them is out of my system. Perhaps local and national news commentators could do the same.

[2] Early this morning, 13 January 2011.

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