Friday, April 10, 2009

Can we Challenge this Culture of Death and Violence?

There have been far too many terrible stories in the news about someone entering a public building with guns blazing, claiming many innocent lives before ultimately taking his own. The Columbine High School massacre in 1999 was not the first such incident, but it seems to have established a horrible template that has been followed many times since. A person with a grudge of some sort snaps and forms a plan to take revenge. Weapons and ammunition are attained all too easily, the disturbed person goes on a deadly rampage, and we have another tragic headline. No public setting has been spared – schools and universities, offices and factories, churches and nursing homes.

There are many things we can lament here, beginning with how pervasive violence has become in our society and our failure to come to terms with gun violence in particular. But I have become morbidly fascinated by how news coverage of these stories is affected by the identity of the victims. If they are young – high school or college students – it is front page news for many days. But a recent massacre in which 14 people died at an immigration center in Binghamton, NY, flickered briefly across the front page and quickly faded from view. Most of the victims were Hispanic immigrants: is that why this shooting was considered less newsworthy?

The week before, eight people died violent deaths when a gunman who was angry with his wife stormed into a North Carolina nursing home. This story never made the front page at all. Is it because there were “only” eight victims, or was it because they were elderly persons with dementia? One person living nearby said in an interview that it was horrible and that she felt bad for the victims, but that she took comfort in knowing that “they were going to die anyway.” Really? The students at Columbine were also “going to die anyway;” we all are.

Many things shape how we allow tragedies to impact us, including distance and time. Tragedies half a world away – earthquake victims in Italy, children starving in war-torn regions of Africa – are sad, but also a bit abstract to us. A year after floods ravage Iowa or a hurricane devastates New Orleans people are still suffering, but our attention has moved on. And I suspect we are hard-wired to view the violent deaths of children and young adults as more tragic than the deaths of older adults. But all persons are of infinite worth and no human life is more or less valuable than another. It seems to me that unless we can overcome our short attention spans and learn how to grieve, grieve deeply and truly, we will never summon the collective will needed to confront and change this culture of death and violence that we have tolerated for far too long.

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