• Paul D. Wilke

Thoughts and Prayers

So we have yet another mass shooting and another drama for us all to vicariously participate in. Reality TV in reality. We’ll get the usual tropes: ‘thoughts and prayers’ for the victims; another tired debate on guns and violence in our society, same as last time, and the time before, and the time before that. And we’ll get a smattering of feel-good stories that remind us that, yes indeed, there is still so much good in the world amidst all the evil. Last, we’ll get a conspiracy theory…cue Alex Jones. Roll the credits. Blah blah blah.

Let me make a simple claim about what I feel to be an unspoken truth: Nobody really cares. Not really. Not deeply. Not enough to get up and do anything. Yes, of course we feel bad that so many innocent lives were lost in such a random and pointless attack. But we don’t feel that bad. It’s just reality television drama for the other 99.99% of us who were not directly impacted by this attack and others like it. Sure, we’ll utter some sympathetic comments, maybe even post something on social media to show solidarity, but other than those mostly superficial actions, we will go on with our lives as if nothing happened.

The only time we’ll think about it is when the media reminds us. But then, the media’s attention span is about as shallow as the public it caters to. In a week people will be chasing the next squirrel. In a month, the issue of mass shootings will be in full hibernation until the next nut with a gun thinks of an innovative way to kill a bunch of innocent people in a short amount of time. It’s not hard. We make it easy. Freedom isn’t free.

You don’t believe me? Think for a minute about the mass shooting at that nightclub in Orlando. Without looking up any details, what do you still remember about it? Can you name any of the victims? I bet you can’t. I know I can’t, though if you’re interested I can go into great depth on Jon Snow’s family lineage. The real tragedy was for those who died, or were injured, or who lost friends and family in the attack. Their grief is real and will go on long after we’ve moved on to the next media-amplified reality drama of the week. Those folks in Orlando remember because it permanently changed their lives. The rest of us are tourists.

Empathy is something that exists in concentric circles. In the center, we care the most for our immediate families, then move out to our friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and so on until we get to the frigid outer solar system of our empathy. And, let me tell you, it's cold out there. The further out we go, the less we care and the harder it is to pretend we do. A car bomb attack in Iraq will not even garner a shrug - if we even hear of it - while a mass shooting in the US will get our undivided attention and generate a wave of sympathy, at least for a few minutes. That's why I've seen lots of dead arab kids on the news over the years but never a dead American one.

The frustrating thing is that we act like it is otherwise, like we care more than we actually do. The ritual of the spectacle demands it. All empathy is not created equal and, as I have argued elsewhere, that is even more the case when the suffering is an abstraction that happens out of view. Imagine public opinion on gun control if we all had to watch in full gory detail HD recording of the deaths of those little first graders at Sandy Hook and the gruesome physical aftermath. How would the guns! guns! more guns! arguments look then? Pretty silly. Definitely macabre. Would a law or two have changed after that? Would the public's sense of urgency and commitment have lasted more than a few days after the event? I bet it would have. But that's not how it works, is it? Without confronting the cold, hard, realities of mass shootings, we are free to hide behind our ideologies and solemnly trot out our thoughts and prayers every time this happens. In any case, every few months we'll get a new mass shooting to titillate our collective sense of outrage for a few days. We'll go through the same drill of phony collective grief. People will cut and paste the same sentiments they did during the last mass shooting.

And then?

We'll forget about it.