WASHINGTON ― During the Obama presidency, conservative politicians came up with a standard response to any mass shooting. Within hours of a tragedy, whether in a school at Newtown or a church in South Carolina, Republicans would issue statements saying they were praying for victims. It became so commonplace that last year, Slate published “Thoughts & Prayers: The Game” that allowed readers to offer up thoughts and prayers ― and fake empathy ― after a mass shooting.
To talk about gun-control measures that may prevent mass shootings is to risk angering the National Rifle Association. To address the complex role that a mental health crisis plays in many mass shootings would require a meaningful examination of our underfunded and poorly resourced mental health system. To send thoughts and prayers is an easy way to express sympathy for victims and their families without actually having to do anything. By the end of President Barack Obama’s term, thoughts and prayers felt like a cop-out that fooled no one.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), soon to be confirmed as President Donald Trump’s attorney general, may have helped invent this grief response to mass shootings. Eight days after 12 students and one teacher were killed at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, Sessions joined a chorus of conservative cultural warriors who argued that the horrifying shooting didn’t require new gun laws, but a deeper examination of Hollywood. The senator didn’t stop there.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Sessions suggested that the real cause of the massacre was the faith ― or lack of faith ― of the teenage perpetrators. In a remarkable turn, he suggested maybe it was their parents’ fault, too:
“As chairman the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Youth Violence, I have given an awful lot of thought to it. But I am perplexed. A few things occur to me. There is what appears to me a pattern here that would suggest how we have gotten to this point. It strikes me that an extremely small number of young people today have gotten on a very destructive path. They have headed down the road of anger and violence. They have not been acculturated with the kind of gentlemanliness and gentlewomanliness, not inculcated with religious faith and discipline, maybe a lack of values or whatever ― somehow it did not take. Maybe their parents tried. Maybe they did not.”
Maybe. Maybe not. What drove Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to commit such violence would consume law enforcement and mental health experts for years. Both Harris and Klebold were deeply troubled, and the setting of their high school for the shooting was most likely incidental. Harris was the mastermind, and was no “wayward boy who could have been rescued,” experts came to believe.
Last year, Sue Klebold published a much-admired memoir about her son. She recalled that Dylan was outgoing and smart. He’d attended prom with his fellow students three days before massacring them. It was only after the shooting that Sue Klebold began to realize that her son had been severely depressed and expert in concealing it.
“This wasn’t a kid we worried and prayed over, hoping he would eventually find his way and lead a productive life,” Klebold wrote. “We called him ‘The Sunshine Boy’—not just because of his halo of blond hair, but because everything seemed to come easily to him.”
Klebold has become a suicide-prevention advocate. Sessions is about to become the nation’s top lawman. Most likely, he will face a mass shooting early in his tenure. If his response to Columbine is any indication, he will offer a pious remedy and launch a salvo from his side of the never-ending culture war.
Sessions, unable to wait until law enforcement authorities had completed their investigation into Columbine, found his culprits: the Internet, violent video games and movies, an androgynous singer. That day on the Senate floor, he offered that the two teen killers “are alienated and angry,” then turned to his bigger, easier targets:
“They are able to hook into the Internet and play video games that are extraordinarily violent, that cause the blood pressure to rise and the adrenaline level to go up, games that cause people to be killed and the players to die themselves. It is a very intense experience. They are able to get into Internet chat rooms and, if there are no nuts or people of the same mentality in their hometown, hook up with people around the country. They are able to rent from the video store ― not just go down and see “Natural Born Killers” or “The Basketball Diaries” ― but they are able to bring it home and watch it repeatedly. In this case, even maybe make their own violent film. Many have said this murder was very much akin to “The Basketball Diaries,” in which a student goes in and shoots others in the classroom. I have seen a video of that, and many others may have.
In music, there is Marilyn Manson, an individual who chooses the name of a mass murderer as part of his name. The lyrics of his music are consistent with his choice of name. They are violent and nihilistic, and there are groups all over the world who do this, some German groups and others. I guess what I am saying is, a person already troubled in this modern high-tech world can be in their car and hear the music, they can be in their room and see the video, they can go into the chat rooms and act out these video games and even take it to real life. Something there is very much of a problem.”