In war, troops shoot at each other and get shot at; any given soldier can kill many of the enemy. Not a particularly shocking fact. At play, soccer fans occasionally erupt in a riot, and some of them get killed. Dumb, but not shocking. Fog smothers a highway, and a careless driver starts a chain-reaction accident that kills several people. Sad; not shocking. But some nut walks into an elementary classroom and slays dozens of kids! Kids! They’re innocents by any standard. This is beyond shocking: it just doesn’t compute.
An acquaintance and I chatted online about the recent classroom killings in Newtown, Connecticut. I wrote:
“Some guy knifed 20 kids in China, and children are getting bombed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and young women in the Middle East are being murdered in ‘honor killings’ because they offended their relatives, and the Syrian government is slaughtering its own citizens, and God knows what’s going on in the eastern Congo. My eyes glaze over. On the other hand, with seven billion people crowded together on Earth, it’s impressive there aren’t mass riots on a daily basis. We’re nothing if not resilient. Life goes on.”
This did not sit well with my friend, who became concerned that I was suffering from “anomie”. (I had to look it up: it’s about having no moral standards.) The problem was that I wasn’t grieving for the recent dead. Apparently I came across as callous.
Now, if I were to mourn all the murders that happen in the world, I’d be bathed in tears twenty-four hours a day. So that’s not a plan. Besides, people respond to tragedies in a variety of ways; it’s not required, for mental health, that we rend our garments at every calamity. “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” I get it. But that doesn’t mean I must become miserable at each appalling news item.
“I can only try to understand how parents of school children must feel — the chill, the sense of vulnerability, the feelings of helplessness. I imagine women are more affected by this than men, as, for some reason, women seem more conscious of, and adept at, interpersonal things. Their sensibilities could get badly torn by an event like this one.
“Since I’m a guy — and we do tend to think about how to ‘fix’ problems — I’ve tried to work out in my head how I’d respond to someone in full body armor firing on my people inside a building, and, even if I were armed, it would be a very difficult problem to solve. Maybe that’s how men deal with this stuff, by trying to assume some control over it.
“On the other hand, I’m suspicious of people in the news who declaim about how awful it is and how ‘something should be done’. That makes me check for my wallet.
“I knew right away that the shooting would turn into a political event, which — though some of it is appropriate, such as the president visiting the school — creates a garish circus atmosphere in the media. The very grieving of those parents and kids will be hijacked by various groups, both left and right, as propaganda for their agendas. It’s not exactly wrong for them to do that — it’s part of the democratic process — but I don’t have to like it. It leaves a bad taste.
“There’s a syndrome — I don’t know the name — where someone goes to public memorials for people whose deaths got them in the news, and there they weep and gnash their teeth and hold up candles, extracting a perverse, almost fraudulent satisfaction for themselves. It’s harmless, but something about it seems exploitive of other people’s misery, and I don’t admire it.
“So I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. To me, the only really legitimate, or appropriate, reaction is the one you mention, the sense of tragedy and grieving, especially that felt by parents.
“I can get teary-eyed watching ‘Lincoln’, when the 13th Amendment, freeing the slaves, passes in the House, and Lincoln first learns of the victory because bells and cannon begin to sound throughout the capital, and he steps to the window to listen, his arm around his young son. (Wiping of my face ensues.) But as for the people whose kids were shot dead, I can’t even begin to imagine what they’re going through. It just doesn’t compute. It’s like dividing by zero. Losing a kid that way? I just … I can’t imagine.”
My friend was reassured about my sanity. But now I wonder: if I’m so inured to these tragedies, does that mean the rest of the world, too, is largely immunized from such sorrow? Statistically, the relative number of these events may actually be declining, but our efficient media make the worldwide total appear garishly large. Despite the outward civility, is our humanity trampled by the sheer number of murderous horrors parading before us on the news? I don’t know.