By arrangement with Dart Society.
I tried to follow the news about the Aurora, CO, shooting closely when it broke on Friday. By the afternoon, there seemed to me to be two stories: There was a locally-driven narrative organized around the usual questions, searching for clues about the tragedy and the man arrested as a suspect. And there was a national narrative, about how unwilling Americans are to talk about guns.
Perhaps Michael Bloomberg spurred this second story when he said, “Soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they’re gonna do about it.” To which the collective answer seemed to be, “Yeah, right.” Andrew Rosenthal, the New York Times’ editorial page editor, wrote, “I have a hunch, though, that that they will not tell us what they’re gonna do about it, and that there will be no national dialogue, just as there was no national dialogue after Columbine or Virginia Tech or after Jared Lee Loughner tried to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords. Politicians are far too cowardly to address gun violence[.]”
The editorial hand-wringing over how unable we are to talk about guns is starting to feel like a national platitude.
The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik concurred: “[N]o one—really no one—anywhere on the political spectrum has the courage to speak out about the madness of unleashed guns and what they do to American life.” Philip Gourevitch and Salman Rushdie had a quick Twitter exchange about their shared politician fatigue.
E.J. Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post, argued that gun-related tragedies are the only tragedies to which Americans can’t respond with “a searching conversation over what rational steps can be taken by individuals, communities and various levels of government” to help prevent the same thing repeating itself. He continued, “It’s only where a gun massacre is concerned that an absolute and total gag rule is imposed on any thinking beyond the immediate circumstances of the catastrophe.”
Even Roger Ebert weighed in, in a tone of defeated inevitability. Of course we’ll “talk” about it, he seemed to say. But don’t be fooled: We’ll be following a script, not having a conversation. “The endless gun control debate will begin again, and the lobbyists of the National Rifle Association will go to work, and the op-ed thinkers will have their usual thoughts, and the right wing will issue alarms, and nothing will change. And there will be another mass murder.” When a guy who gets to think about our collective celluloid fantasies for a living sounds that cynical, something seems wrong.
Then Salon, The Daily Beast and the Washington Post simply declared—without interviewing a single person—that gun control would never happen.
I’m not advocating gun control, and I’m not asking my fellow journalists to do so, either. Clearly, that’s not our job. But I am wondering when we all gave up on national conversation. When did this Great American Malaise set in?
Rather than the shoulder-shrugging we got, I’d love it if guys with their institutional and brand power picked up the phone and asked, sincerely, to talk to the politicians and the lobbyists who, the opiners argue, refuse to have this conversation.
There’s one article that ran on Friday that dropped this posture and made an earnest, needed argument about healing our communities. It was by Dylan Smith, the editor and publisher of the online Tuscon Sentinel—in an Arizona town, we all no doubt remember, where a young man opened fire in a public space, killing six people and injuring several more, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Smith wrote, “Today, let us offer our prayers to the people of Aurora, CO.—to the victims of Thursday night’s horrific shooting, to their families, friends, and the people of that city. Let us send them our love, our thoughts of healing, our helping hands if needed.
“But tomorrow, let us move beyond the platitudes from afar. They indeed may bring comfort to Aurora as they make us feel good and moral, but prayers over what has been done change the future no more than they change the past.”
The editorial hand-wringing over how unable we are to talk about guns is starting to feel like a national platitude. Our major media players dutifully came forward on Friday and said, “I can’t believe we can’t talk about this”—or, if I might for a moment match their cynicism, “I can’t believe I’m the only one willing to speak hard truths about this.”
These guys were sincere, even a little righteous at times. In a tweet to Rushdie, Gourevitch accused silent politicians of complicity in the Aurora shooting, and Gopnik characterized any anti-gun-control position as an argument that “the routine massacre of our children is the price we must pay for our freedom to have guns, or rather to have guns that make us feel free[.]”
There wasn’t much righteousness in Smith’s argument. He did not demand that we all agree to regulate guns—in fact, he offered other pressing social concerns as elements of senseless violence, including poor mental health systems and a set of social values that skews increasingly toward confrontation. He insisted, simply and only, on this: “We cannot accept mass murders as inevitable.”
Neither should we accept as inevitable the impossibility of real dialogue. In fact, it’s our job to believe in it. Powerful media figures opined yesterday, for leading mastheads, about how senseless our national conversation is. But they have powersome power, at least—to set that agenda. Rather than the shoulder-shrugging we got, I’d love it if guys with their institutional and brand power picked up the phone and asked, sincerely, to talk to the politicians and the lobbyists who, the opiners argue, refuse to have this conversation. Otherwise, it’s hard not to believe that our media leaders are engaged in the same cynicism they rushed to deadline to call out.
Smith and Cullen both covered shootings as local news stories… I don’t imagine it’s coincidence that, amidst the many voices opining just after Aurora, these two resist cynicism and fatigue.
Another writer who joined Smith’s plea for contextual understanding over pundit truths is Dave Cullen. Cullen was living in Denver in 1999 and covered the Columbine shooting as a breaking local news story and later wrote the book, “Columbine,” about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. On Sunday, two days after the shooting, Cullen wrote in the New York Times, “You’ve had 48 hours to reflect on the ghastly shooting in Colorado at a movie theater. You’ve been bombarded with ‘facts’ and opinions about James Holmes’s motives. You have probably expressed your opinion on why he did it. You are probably wrong.” Cullen went on to dismantle most myths we have about shooters, many of them based on the Columbine archtype. “I spent 10 years studying Columbine, and we all know what happened there, right? Two outcast loners exacted revenge against the jocks for relentlessly bullying them. Not one bit of that turned out to be true.”
Smith and Cullen both covered shootings as local news stories. Not only have they seen how wrong reporters (and their sources) can get things in the first few days, let alone the first few hours, they’ve watched communities try to understand this violence over a period far longer than a news cycle. I don’t imagine it’s coincidence that, amidst the many voices opining just after Aurora, these two resist cynicism and fatigue. To live through and after violence, or to better understand it, that’s not usually a posture you can afford.
By arrangement with Dart Society.