Shortly after the shooting stopped, Romney and Obama both issued statements on the killings in Aurora that largely struck the right tone, even if the message was perfectly predictable in the wake of yet another massacre. Along with those expected words of condolence, we all fell immediately into a depressing pattern of exaggerated grief and feigned shock.
The Appeal to God
Statements from both candidates make an appeal to God, which in fact trivializes the event and our response to it. Romney said, for example, "We pray that the wounded will recover and that those who are grieving will know the nearness of God." And what about those who are not grieving; can they then not know the nearness of God? Does a son or daughter have to die to know the nearness of God? And concerning the wounded: If God wants them to recover, why have the victims wounded in the first place? To teach them a lesson? To get to know him better? If Romney wants to pray, how about praying that people going to see a movie do not get shot and killed? If prayer is effective, I suggest prayer to prevent tragedy rather than to comfort victims afterward. Or let's be realistic and concede that prayer cannot alter the course of events and stop appealing to prayer just because it makes us feel good about ourselves so we can move on and put the tragedy easily behind us. "Offering our prayers" is a coward's way out: We do not have to think any further, and we've done our bit, even though we've done nothing at all.
Dissing the Dead
When a survivor of a violent and deadly attack, like that in Aurora, says, "I am thankful God spared me," I wonder if he or she has an inkling of how extraordinarily offensive that is to the families of those who died. Did those who died not get spared by the same god for some reason of sin? Were they less worthy individuals, less pious, less deserving of life? Were the survivors chosen by God because they are special and the dead were not? By assigning the outcome of the tragedy to the workings of God rather than to the random nature of existence, those so thankful imply that they were spared for a reason, that the hand of God came down to protect them but very specifically did not protect others; so where does that leave the families of the dead? Did God abandon them? If you answer, "God works in mysterious ways," then you explain nothing; that statement is no different from saying, "I have no idea why some died and others lived other than bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time." So why invoke God at all, implying so rudely that the dead were somehow less deserving? We honor the dead by acknowledging that they were not chosen for their ill fate but died because life is dangerous; we diminish their lives if we claim God chose them for death, speculating on why God would do so and ending with the meaningless "we can't know the mind of God" or other such pabulum.
In a perfect counter to the scientific method, many politicians pick and choose facts to fit a theory or political agenda, rather than developing a theory or principle based on a set of facts. So we can expect that after every major attack politicians of every stripe will come out to draw lessons that always coincide with their preconceived ideas. A few mature representatives use the tragedy to call for unity, appealing to our common interests, but there are always the fire breathers like Louie Gohmert, a Republican representative from Texas. He claims the Aurora deaths can be attributed to "ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs." Here is Gohmert's well-thought-out, carefully crafted, perfectly logical justification for this bizarre conclusion: "People say ... where was God in all of this? We've threatened high school graduation participations, if they use God's name, they're going to be jailed ... I mean that kind of stuff. Where was God? What have we done with God? We don't want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present." (Yep our prisons are filled to the rafters with high-school kids who used God's name -- and that kind of stuff). Well, then, where was his protective hand? Did he ignore Aurora because we do not allow public schools to impose a Christian god on a diverse student body? Did he punish 12 innocent souls to make a point about separation of Church and State? Did he allow the death of 12 bystanders to promote gun control? The great thing about God and the Bible is that you can appeal to either to justify any point of view or to promote any political agenda. Gohmert goes for broke and uses the terrible death of 12 people callously to advance a narrow agenda. But hey, he is a Republican from Texas. We could expect little else.
Faithful Democrats are criticizing Obama because he has not used the latest massacre fueled by yet another arsenal of weapons as a vehicle to push for gun control. You have got to be kidding me. Even after more than three years of proving the success of running the long game (see DADT, gay marriage, Iraq), Democrats insist on being both impatient and impractical. Here is the realpolitik choice, whether you like it or not: Tackle the issue of gun control now and lose the election, or be smart. There is no middle road here. The polls are running even nationally; twice as many voters think Romney can handle the economy better than Obama (proving the amazing power of propaganda). If Democrats have any hope of winning reelection in November, idealism is going to have to be tempered by the reality of our divided nation. I have no idea if Obama will address gun control if he is reelected, but I know we have no hope of doing so if he takes on the issue now. If there is one characteristic that makes Obama unique, it is his ability to ignore calls for immediate action that feel good now while he keeps his eye on the ball to achieve lasting change. I have close gay friends who infuriated me when they soured on Obama because he did not deliver on DADT and gay marriage in a time frame they thought suitable. I kept telling them to take a deep breath and give the man some room. He has enough trouble fending off Republicans; he does not need to fight another front with his own. And sure enough, in a way that will stick, and be widely accepted, he eliminated DADT and, when the time was right, came out strongly for gay marriage. So Democrats, chill out. Obama will not deliver on every issue and will not fulfill your every fantasy. But he will do more for you than his opponent ever will. So back off a little and be realistic about what is possible, or experience the hardships of what is not when Romney takes office.
As a society we manage to turn real tragedy into parody. The deaths in Aurora are terrible and represent, to those who lost loved ones, a dark day from which they will never recover fully. The hole will always be present, and that is truly sad. The unexpected and senseless nature of the deaths in a place of innocence catches our attention, and rightfully so. But we go overboard. The news coverage is excessive, blanket, non-stop, 24-hour; we lose all perspective. In 2010 an estimated 32,788 Americans died in auto accidents. That means 90 people die on our highways each day, every day, seven days per week, every week of the year. That is, about four people die every hour of every day of every week. We suffer the tragedy of Aurora every three hours in a perpetual, never-ending loop of death. The families of those killed in cars feel no differently, have lost no less, than the families of the victims in Colorado. Do not misunderstand; what happened in Aurora is newsworthy and is important enough to suggest that society has some important questions to consider (although we probably will not). But what we are witnessing in covering the story is obsession, and it is unhealthy. We have lost our sense of proportion. News organizations are nearly giddy with opportunity even as they put on a grim face before the camera. Instead of taking this tragedy as an opportunity to have an adult conversation about gun control, or about broader issues of societal risk, we instead have converted a true tragedy into the triviality of a reality TV show. In doing so we degrade ourselves and soil the memories of those who did not survive.