Over the weekend the internet and cable TV roiled like a flooded river as the events of Newtown, Conn., truly began to sink in across the nation. It was an awful two days of high emotion, sorrow, misinformation, anger and anguish.
First, the purely political began the job of assigning immediate blame. That’s what the purely political do. Then once blame is fairly or unfairly assigned, those on the opposing side immediately launch the inevitable counterpoint.
That part is all too predictable but easily avoidable to those who truly wish to do so.
Most hunkered down, hugged their kids, talked to friends and neighbors or ultimately reflected in prayer or some other form of comforting meditation. People searched for what little they could do to provide comfort for our brethren in the community of Newtown. The vast majority, though, simply felt helpless and damned mad about it.
This idea of societal blame for the actions of a mentally disturbed 20-year-old who took a load of weapons into an elementary school and murdered 26 people, 20 of them 6 and 7 year old children, is one that continues to yank at the collective mind of the nation. We have far too many of these random massacres. The names of the sites are even better known than the shooters: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Milwaukee . . .
The shout for stricter gun control follows every single one, particularly those where assault weapons are used. The pro-gun groups predictably and rightly point out that the actions of maniacs could be carried out by dozens of other means. Tim McVeigh is their poster boy. He developed a bomb by using common fertilizer. It was a well-planned act of political terrorism.
What the pro-gun groups swallow whole and bury deep, is the fact that assault weapons provide a quick and efficient way for those of limited capabilities to do the most damage. Few deranged people can build a bomb, but nearly all can pull the trigger of an automatic weapon and commit unspeakable harm.
So yeah, we need to make those things harder to get.
But it’s far more complicated than that.
Gun-control legislation won’t make such incidents go away. What it would do is make carrying out these acts more difficult. But end public massacres? Not a chance.
The violence in our culture is a complicated equation made up of several things neither the government nor the public want to address. The sad truth is, the violence in our culture is directly linked to failures by our most powerful institutions.
Guns are a part of that equation and a big part. But so is pervasive mental illness. Political leaders have made a hobby of cutting services in that area. The mentally disturbed and their family members aren’t a very powerful lobby. They don’t make huge campaign contributions. As a result, politicians make a habit of ignoring mental health in hopes the people impacted will all go away.
Our society pays a price for it again and again.
Easily accessible guns combined with the mentally disturbed already form a deadly sum. Toss in a culture of violence percolated through saturation coverage by media of all description — print included — and the mathematical breaking point seems obvious.
I thought a lot this weekend about media coverage of the school massacre in Connecticut. I watched on Friday as incorrect information was cavalierly distributed each minute by largely cable TV news, which was then magnified online and through social media. There is no filter anymore. Cable news simply spits things out with very little thought about what’s accurate, fair or ethical. Was it really necessary to interview children on the day of the shootings?
With endless hours of programming to fill, cable news decisions are based on quantity, not quality. Anyone who watched Nancy Grace can attest to it. Hour after hour the reporting continued, even when there was no news to report. All of this, of course, was backed by almost ceaselessly and often ignorant commentary based on the incorrect information being supplied by reporters in the field.
By concentrating on extreme acts of violence to the exclusion of all else, it does become glorified in the mind of someone with a potential to act in order to meet a deranged goal.
While I take some solace in the fact that print media conducts itself better, we’re still not without responsibility for lowering our nation’s culture to a near gutter level.
The news media’s job is to report about major incidents and to do so fairly and factually. But there is a greater responsibility not to sensationalize events or create more harm for those directly involved in such tragedies. And we certainly shouldn’t turn the killers themselves into celebrities.
And all of us in the public, well, at some point we have a responsibility to turn off the TV when the coverage becomes too much. After all, if people aren’t watching, then TV news would change the programming.
It’s how the business works.