by Wayne Self
“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” – Gandalf the Grey in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”
Despair spreads. Depression lashes out and replicates itself. Focus on the things you can change, right? Keep the darkness at bay.
Mostly, I stay busy and try to avoid the news. The bare facts of the horrific school shooting in Newtown are depressing enough without the obsessive examination and debate I find on Facebook or the visceral immediacy I see on TV news—but some things pierce the veil. Given my current work, they affect me deeply.
In February, we will go into into previews on a musical play I’ve written about another mass killing, a 1972 arson fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans that killed 32 people, mostly gay men. Media coverage after the fire was sparse and insensitive, and civic leaders ran away from the incident, not toward it. There was no suspect to condemn, and the victims were deemed too unsavory to discuss. Consequently, the work of memorializing the fire and its victims has required me to spend a lot of time thinking—and feeling—about how we respond to unspeakable horrors as individuals, as consumers of media, and as creators of it. Some thoughts, some feelings, coalesce around the news items I hear.
Last night, at a prayer vigil in Newtown, CT for the victims and survivors of the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Obama, for the second time since the incident, appeared to call for a renewed emphasis on gun control, when he said “these tragedies must end, and to end them, we must change.”
Finally, perhaps, a debate in our halls of power on the issue of gun safety and availability. Is this new act of violence unthinkable enough to move us from our same old arguments and same old justifications about guns? Perhaps. Even the NRA, after days of silence, has issued a statement indicating willingness to change.
Could we even get beyond the legal and political debates and actually do the work of making guns uncool? They did it to cigarettes. Could we “stamp out” our national fascination with semi-automatic weapons? Could SimCity ever outsell Grand Theft Auto? Do movies have to glorify handsome young men shooting at their problems even in peactime? Are we even allowed to talk about this?
On FOX News and elsewhere, religious political and entertainment entities Bryan Fischer and Mike Huckabee each laid this horror at the feet of secularism, declaring that God didn’t protect the innocent victims of this shooting because we’ve taken God out of schools and “God doesn’t go where he’s not wanted.”
I’ve always known Bryan Fischer was a ghoul, but I didn’t know he thought God needed an invitation, like a vampire waiting on Sookie’s stoop. Since when has God been so small? What is the Bible but the story of God and God’s messengers going precisely where they weren’t wanted?
In fact, the Bible’s grisly coda to the Christmas story has King Herod ordering the massacre of all the baby boys in Israel, in hopes that his murderous dragnet would destroy the newborn “king,” Jesus. Was this genocide conducted because “God doesn’t go where he’s not wanted”? Actually, the story says that God had just arrived.
The loathsome idea that human suffering must always be the fault of misbehaving humans was dispatched in the book of Job and again in the Gospels. Does the story of Christ not illustrate to these supposed Christians that God is working even in the midst of the most senseless tragedy?
The extra-biblical, fabricated Huckabee/Fischer theology, like Pharisee theology in Jesus’s time, is designed to comfort the comfortable, placing the blame for suffering on the sufferer and removing the responsibility for the comfortable to offer help. It’s a very handy religious stance for pundits cozying up to power, but not very helpful to people when suffering comes, as it inevitably does, to the just and the unjust alike. The message of Christ was a rebuke to both Pharisee and Huckabee. Christians worship Christ, history’s most famous innocent victim, not Pilate, who “washed his hands” of suffering.
On the local news, “new details” continue to emerge about the shooter. His neighbor speaks. His former babysitter is revealed. Shocking revelations. Testimonials from the teacher, the grocer, and on and on.
Put the shooter’s name and picture in your article and you’ll get eyeballs, viewers, listeners, readers. He’s trending third on Bing. Put his name in your tags and Google will find you. Better yet, put his name in your title along with an indication that you’re metaphorically related to him, and go viral.
As a playwright, my goal has been to give voice to the victims at the Upstairs Lounge, but the mystery of the arsonist and his motivation has been too interesting to ignore. I want to know. We all do. We want to know what would possess a man to set a lethal fire, to drive explosives into a building, to carry a rifle up to a tower, or into a restaurant, or into a school.
The increased availability of assault weapons hasn’t been the only change possibly driving the frequency and deadliness of these attacks. Today, would-be gunmen are deeply aware that they are operating in a voracious 24-hour social media environment. The self-consciousness of the Columbine shooters—their desire to “outdo” Waco and Oklahoma City—was well documented, and other shooters have been equally obsessed with their upcoming media debuts. We can’t know whether the promise of media exposure finally makes a person more likely to kill (maybe they’d do it anyway), but mental health experts say that many of the shooters are suffering from chronic depression and feel like their deep unhappiness is someone’s fault. The anger they’ve turned inward finally turns out. They lash out with words, they get ridiculed; they lash out with a stick, they go to jail; they lash out with a gun, they get an end to their suffering and overnight fame fed by the perfect storm of our fascination with guns and violence, and a 24-hour social media environment.
What if we could take their stardom away?
Do articles about the killer’s every interest, his every move, his daily life, really help us? Perhaps they’d help professionals in law enforcement or in the field human behavior, but do they help you and me?
In my work, I’ve tried to find a balance between dramatizing events and memorializing them, between giving life to the villain and giving voice to the victims, between fixating on the Jesus in this story and fixating on the Pilate. It’s not easy to eschew sensationalism or salaciousness and I can’t say I’ve fully succeeded. Can I try harder?
In his speech last night, Obama never said the name of the suspected gunman. He did, however, recite the names of the victims. His choice to focus on the victims, not the suspect, was perhaps driven by legal concerns or the fact that he was at a vigil. But can we, in our own ways, do the same? Can we side with the victims, not just in moments set aside for remembrance, but all the time?
Can we side with the victims not just in what we choose to do or believe about gun violence, but in what we click on, what we read, what we talk about, what we think about? Can we redirect our natural curiosity away from morbidity, toward deep compassion? Can we click away from the article about the shooter to the article about the victim? Can we click away from the obsessive details of the shooting to a website devoted to making guns less ubiquitous?
Can we learn by heart the names of the innocent dead and deny these shooters the infamy that many of them crave?
We recycle. We use the low-energy light bulbs. We give a dollar to charity at the checkout counter. We try to do a little bit here and there because we think maybe it helps, and because the idea that we can do nothing is simply unbearable.
“Small, everyday deeds of ordinary folk.”
Certainly, we can participate, with our words and our votes and our money, in the national debate about gun features, gun safety, and gun popularity. Certainly, we can discuss our mental health care system and refuse to let acts of violence seem acceptable, even to disturbed young men. Certainly, we can keep this issues at the forefront of our national consciousness until our leaders have finally led.
Focus on the things we can change. Start with ourselves. Maybe I won’t read the details of this killer’s life, or the next one’s life. Maybe I won’t play the next videogame that glorifies guns. Maybe I’ll support the political movement to reform our gun laws. It’s not much, but it’s something. And maybe it keeps the darkness at bay.