The Anatomy of American Tragedy

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” – Plato

As I write this post on January 2, 2013, it has been exactly 19 days since the name “Sandy Hook” brought our lives to a grinding halt and our nation to its knees.  In those excruciatingly slow hours of shock and sadness, and in the days immediately following, we huddled close together in our homes and in our places of worship, made awfully and powerfully aware of the precious nature of what any of us could lose at any moment.  Our Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with passionate admonitions to “hug your children tonight” and to “pray for those affected by this tragedy.”  For a brief and fleeting period of time, all of us became a bit kinder and more empathetic – more willing to wear each other’s suffering as if it were our own.  This wasn’t new for us, of course.  We’d done it many times before.  We have become, by necessity, a nation that knows how to collectively grieve.

We are also, however, a nation entranced by news cycles.  Like our own internal circadian rhythms, they tell us when to wake up and when to sleep, when to pay attention to which details, and when to move on to the next thing.  They tell us that our shock should last about a day, followed by grief for 2 to 3 more, at least through the funeral footage.  Sprinkled throughout should be a healthy amount of morbid gawkerism around the specific nature of the act – the number of bullets, locations of wounds, where the blood was smeared, who had to walk through it on their way out of the school.  Add to that some jaw-droppingly inappropriate and breathtakingly insensitive interviews with six-year-olds about what the gunshots sounded like and how scared they were.  Temper the tabloid voyeurism with tales of heroes and children’s lives and selfless acts of bravery.  Paint the gunman as an unspeakable monster while, at the same time, run the obligatory “how could this have happened” investigative background story.  Then spend a few more days pouring over the top of the entire occurrence the shrill, eye-bulging commentaries of the left and the right about the appropriate political response and there you have it: The life and death of an American tragedy in the span of a single week.

To be fair, we haven’t totally forgotten about Sandy Hook just yet.  Several stories ran today about the children returning to school and being welcomed back by the familiar face of their formerly retired principal.  It isn’t that these stories aren’t still being written, it’s just that most of us have already stopped paying attention.  For evidential purposes, here is a brief, and by no means exhaustive, list of “top stories” that were either as widely or more widely read than the Sandy Hook story today:

“John Boehner Told Harry Reid ‘Go F— Yourself’ Outside Oval Office” (CNN)

“Wendy’s Moves Past ’99 Cents’ With New Value Menu” (Yahoo)

“Scientologists Alleged “Alien Space Cathedral’ Found” (Yahoo)

“A Look At Justin Bieber’s Non-Music News-Making” (AP)

“Newly Pregnant Kim Kardashian Does New Year’s Eve In A Sheer Dress.” (HuffPo)

“Christie Calls Boehner’s Sandy Decision ‘Disgusting’” (ABC)

“US Has More Internet-Connected Gadgets Than People” (NBC)

“Jennifer Lawrence Says Acting Is ‘Stupid’ (NBC)

Lest you think I’m making an argument for us all to dwell insipidly on Sandy Hook or any other horrific American tragedy, I assure you I am not.  What I am trying to expose is the insidious nature of false equivalencies in our mass-consumed media machine.  It isn’t that Sandy Hook needs to be the only news for weeks and months on end; it’s that we are losing our ability to differentiate its level of importance from any other “news” that gets heaped on top of it – and most of that other news is hardly news at all.

In another week or so, there will be no more Sandy Hook stories since there will be no circus-like courtroom hearing to sentence a dead gunman.  Just like the “fiscal cliff” and Hillary’s blood clot and Bieber’s thoughts on paparazzi-related legal reform, it will fade from our collective consciousness to be replaced by a million other stories produced by the never-ending news cycle.  The next time we hear the words “Sandy Hook” will be on December 14, 2013 when CNN and FOX and MSNBC wedge 30-second remembrances between spots about pregnant celebrities and the latest partisan stalemate.  Unless, of course, there’s another mass shooting between now and then which will, inevitably, be either “the worst mass shooting since Sandy Hook” or “even worse than Sandy Hook” or something along those lines, depending on the tally after the news networks race each other to count the bodies and get the first “confirmed dead” number on air.

I guess all I’m trying to say is that we’re better than this.  We know it, too.  In the face of national tragedy we become who we could be – kinder, more compassionate, more forgiving.  But we forget so soon.  We replace solidarity and empathy with judgment and division.  Instead of holding up love, we revel in dysfunction.  We trade who we could be for who we’ve become.

It shouldn’t take another Sandy Hook to bring us together.  We’ve got it in us to be those people everyday.  So, let the news cycles try to spin without us.  It’s our feet on the pedals after all.


One thought on “The Anatomy of American Tragedy

  1. Dirk Niles

    You write a powerful and compelling commentary,Jeff. Nicely stated. In 2013 I have committed to intentionally reducing and simplifying my media consumption just from a time management perspective, but I believe it well help from a prioritisation/overload standpoint, as well.


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