How the Newtown shooting reveals acceptable death

There must be something missing from my brain. While the national hysteria veers from gory descriptions of Newtown’s mass shooting to gun control to mental health services to pushback against stigmatizing those who are of unsound mental health, my mind registers the tragedy as ordinary.

Like the loss of any innocent life, the loss of twenty-seven to a gunman for no outward reason is a sad event. The fact that twenty of them belonged to children is heartbreaking. And the emerging discussions over gun control and mental health services are laudable – in fact, it’s refreshing to see that the issue has finally overcome the barrier to entry for this recurring unnatural disaster to be understood in sociopolitical terms. There are clear regulatory solutions to America’s exceptional violence among affluent nations.

But where I depart from the consensus among the media class and the rituals of mourning that are flooding the public sphere is the assumption that this is an unrivaled tragedy, which, as The Onion puts it, gives us all license to spend all day “curled in fetal position.” It doesn’t strike me this way, because everyday children lose their lives needlessly. The public’s unanimity in expressing this event as unacceptable is not simply about protection of the most vulnerable members of our society; the national discourse has also valorized which kinds of deaths we should find acceptable, and which kinds of deaths we should not.

Inhuman I am not: I understand the visceral impact of the extraordinary event; the rapid, simultaneous demise of twenty innocent beings who had just begun their lives is staggering. It is precisely the unfathomability of the occasion that generates that rare moment of monomania in the media, in which all media outlets devote all their most valuable space to make sense of one event in extreme, often inappropriate, detail.

But it is imperative for the observer to not confuse a singular event with the notion of singular tragedy. The broad consensus that this event constitutes the height of tragedy implicitly casts light on the way so many other children die silently in United States daily. The simple fact of the matter is that there is no coverage of the thousands of children suffering and dying regularly from poor or nonexistent health care, malnutrition and food insecurity, child abuse, stray bullets from gang violence, and a host of other preventable reasons rooted in  failures of institutions and economy. If we extend the frame of inquiry to international media coverage, which itself has paid immense attention to this event, and has triggered vigils for Newtown as far away as Pakistan, then the contrast grows starker: how much coverage is devoted to the manner in which six million children die a year from starvation; 1.4 million die a year from disease preventable by vaccination; tens of thousands have died from American wars of choice and drones in the last decade.

The American press and BBC News cover the shooting with fury, interview everyone affected, and suggest how society should move forward, but they will nearly omit the child deaths of other causes.

If one extends the utilitarian logic of more death as more tragic – the main reason many say that the death of 20 children at a time garners exceptional coverage – then there would be more coverage of health care-related deaths. Lack of insurance may have figured into the deaths of almost 17,000 childhood deaths in America. No, the numbers don’t take us very far. But there are other reasons that one type of death is highlighted and the other ignored, which apply both to the incentives and composition of the media class and the core reading public.

First, the spectacle: mass shootings are real-life horror stories, a natural narrative with a mysterious monster, a gruesome story arc and clean ending.

Second: There is universality to the story, from the perspective of the demographics most likely to publish and consume it. The media class and reading public have all attended school and can relate to the specter of a violent adult who threatens a generally safe day-to-day life. The race and class tendencies of these groups predispose them to fear the infinitesimal odds that their children are the victim of such an act more than, say, the concern that their child will be eaten up by the dangers that inner city youth face daily.

Third: Unpredictability. While conspicuous mass shootings happen far more often in the U.S. more than in most countries of comparable wealth, they don’t occur according to any particular rhythm, and they manifest in different forms. Every story has a new twist and psychoanalytic angle.

Fourth, and maybe most critically: It is agentive, not systemic. The death of children by bullets in a mass shooting is traceable to a lone individual who can be condemned. Deaths by starvation, poor health care, and a collection of other phenomena associated either with domestic or global poverty, are seen as the product of the workings of a system. A mass shooter can be  condemned without changing anything about one’s own life; engaging with the global economy’s poor distribution of resources has serious implications – including complicity – for the individual exercising judgment.

I am happy that there is a serious, action-oriented conversation about solutions to the horrific American phenomenon of mass shootings. But I also think that it is tragic that we rarely, if ever, have serious, action-oriented conversation about the various ways that other children die in ways that are also preventable.

To suggest that this is an immutable function of human nature where people are always likely to invest more attention in the shocking or things that afflict in-groups is sloth disguised as realism. Both the media and readers are composed of human beings who make decisions about what is important and are capable of reconditioning themselves in countless ways. I have discovered no evidence that systemic issues can’t be broken down into compelling narratives; that no media outlet has the budget to humanize child starvation in central Africa; or that every single person who reads a newspaper will only read about children whose lives have been lost to mass shootings instead of bombs. Habits of mind can be broken, and it is our responsibility to do so with the bad ones.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alex.footman.90 Alex Footman

    Well put. I applaud you for writing sensibly and honestly about a topic that many people have had trouble responding to with anything other than misguided moralistic rage (cf. the thousands of reported death threats on a man’s Facebook page who shares a surname with the killer in Newtown).