Witnessing: A Sad Cyclical Template for Grief and the Justification of Tragedy

(written the day after the Movie Theater shooting in Auroa, Co)


It didn’t take long, after signing onto Facebook, to see the message:

“Praying for those in Colorado.”

It was yesterday morning, I had just woken up, had not yet heard the news—but the message, couched among photos of friends travelling the world, links to YouTube videos and other stray Facebook paraphanalia, was clear enough. There had been a shooting. The only questions were where and how many?

In a way, it’s sad that I know what “Praying for those in Colorado” means. I’ve been on Facebook since 2006 and according to the BradyCampaign [link] since 2005, there have been 62 pages worth (at about 7 incidents per page) of mass shootings. It is sadly safe to say that as bystanders to these terrible events, we have seen these messages before.

April, 2007 comes to mind as the first time I realized this. In the immediate aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, the black ribbon with the VT logo became a near ubiquitous profile picture among my friends—many of whom are from Viriginia, some of whom were students at VT. Most everyone updated their status to: “Praying for those at Virginia Tech.” And it was genuine. As college students, it was all too easy to imagine the nightmare of a perfectly normal day disrupted by deranged violence—it was as senseless as surreal, but so intensely possible that one couldn’t help but share in the terror, at least in some small way, and feel sympathy for the victims, shocked at the incident and spared by the circumstance. When violence is random and is enacted upon innocent and helpless individuals who in many ways are just like us—we can’t help but imagine placing ourselves in such scenarios.

And this seems to be the case with the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. I’ve gone to late night movies, I can imagine myself having been there and since so many of us probably can imagine that—it’s hard to imagine not “praying for those in Colorado.” It feels like it could have been anyone and such perception is likely to magnify the shock.

But when the victims are unlike us, the Facebook quotes are rare. According to the Brady Campaign, approximately 270 people are shot daily in the U.S. Nearly 100,000 are shot yearly. Is it in part due to my own and my social circle’s lack of identification with the victims of so many of these crimes that our Facebook postings aren’t made up purely of “Praying for today’s 270 shoting victim” posts? Is our lack of concern over the majority of shootings in the U.S. make us, the passive public, somewhat complicit in the deaths of those we do identify with?

It is a sad reality that, despite the furor over yesterday’s shootings, such furor will not be the last—probably not even this year. In fact, as our ability to communicate with each other and stay abreast of the news grows at a rapid rate, our template for and ability to process these tragedies quickens to a emotionally and intellectually compromising pace.

First are the early reports, slowly decreasing in vaguery and misinformation. There is the inevitable suspicion of terrorism, the unidentified offender, the unidentified victims, the posts of prayers for those victims and the genuine feeling of unsettled terror and the theodical question of how such evil can be enacted on such innocence.

Then the details start creeping in. There’s the shaky cell phone video footage, the visibly shaken eyewitness accounts, the tales of close calls and “what ifs.” Part of our perception at this stage comes from the sacredness of witnessing horror—one of the reasons we can’t look away from car wrecks, one of the reason we’re move by violent films, one of the reasons we watch and re-watch that shaky cell phone footage, and moreover why it is taken in the first place. Georges Bataille discussed this in his challenging work on eroticism, “Death and Sensuality.” In our obsession with the details, with our attempt to vicariously experience, it appears that we attempt to either make sense of the universe—perhaps picking up on some justifying detail (“were those in the crowd immoral in anyway? Did they deserve this?”). Failing that, we experience the sacred growth from witnessing horror—“I will appreciate every moment in my life a little more now;” “My woes aren’t so bad after all.”

We hear responses from whom we expect to hear responses—symbolic leaders of the time: Obama expressed condolences to the victims and swore the shooter would be brought to justice, Biden did the same, Romney followed suit. And all suspended their campaigning. Interestingly, in each of these men’s initial public statements each stated that himself and his wife were very saddened by the news. Greif is a family matter—and symbolically for such leaders, it appears that the family must be invoked in some way. Additionally, for the national family, flags will now fly at half mast—a symbol of nation-wide mourning.

Simultaneously as the details come out, we see each other and news sources attempts to justify tragedy or find sacred within it. For example, one of the victims in the theatre in Aurora was a young female sportscaster who had previously just escaped by a matter of a few minutes, a shooting in a local mall’s food court. She wrote of this first-hand experience just prior to her own victimization at the hands of violence. As if noting some cosmic link of fate, or more commonly “eerie coincidence”—I saw this article reproduced in several places. Was it some sort of sign? Is it some sort of comfort—perhaps that victims clairvoyantly accept or acknowledge their fate? Perhaps in some sense this is comforting as it lessens our perception of shock upon hearing of the tragedy. Perhaps it creates a distance between the observer and the victim in that we feel that if we are not privy to such “victim’s wisdom” that maybe we are being spared for some purpose. The greater a chasm we can create between our own lives and the lives of those who have suffered the better we can process the tragedy for our own sake.

Others process in a less spiritual manner. I hate that I do it, but I’m always drawn toward the comments posted at the end of articles covering such events. Some of the most ignorant and insensitive things I’ve ever seen written are often posted in such sections and while many of these folks are trolling for controversy, others are trolling for justification. “Who would bring a three month old to a midnight movie?” one commenter wrote—as if placing blame on the decision of a parent for the death of their child. Such a comment may serve to draw further distinction between the commenter and the victims—the commenter would never have put himself in that situation—and thus would not have been a victim. If we can process the difference between ourselves as passive public witnesses and the victims as one of decisions that we would or would not have made, we can create distance between ourselves and tragedy—further decreasing it’s effect on our view of the universe and moral order.

With the access we have today to information, and the speed at which we have that access, details, opinions, analyses, and the big “what it all means” are easy to come by, and in some ways, while these factors create greater imagined proximity to events, they hastens the rate at which we create distance from such events. News becomes old news quickly, and other interests and concerns quickly pervade our sense of tragedy.

In our attempt to maintain our worldview, the tragedy quickly becomes a malleable symbol that can be used to defend our sense of order. Strong supporters of the second amendment see the incident as one that could have been obviated if audience members carried weapons. As I saw one person write—“they chose to be victims by not carrying. I would not have allowed myself or my family to become victims.” Strong advocates for gun control can twist the event the other way—this would not have happened if there were tighter controls over gun sales in the country. Those supporting greater mental health care can make a case for their cause, as can those supporting family values, as can those supporting tighter law enforcement vigilance, as can those supporting increased freedom from the state. In a matter of only a few short hours, what had initially been shock was already making a turn for justification. Then it was turning for cognitive dissonance and then for a maintained world view.

Within the week—the media furor will have moved on. The rumors and public interest will fade. The flags will again fly at full mast. In 2007, within weeks the Virginia Tech solidarity profile pictures began disappearing off of Facebook and the prayers faded.

It’s not so much that we recover from tragedy as the vast majority of us forget. And though we will be shocked again, should we really be surprised? If issues such as these quickly transcend their shocking, disturbing and tragic realities and so quickly become platforms for the maintenance of our own worldviews—nothing much will change. If Columbine did little to change gun access and a culture of violence in Colorado, and Virginia Tech did little to impact the same in Virginia, or the shooting of Giffords and supporters in Arizona, and the nearly 100,000 yearly shootings throughout the U.S. appear to have little impact on our awareness of this country’s permitting of such frequent violence—what changes can we expect due to this one? Sadly, if recent history is anything to go by, not much.


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