Is the collective horror of the world’s tragedies diminishing the weight of each individual crisis?
In 1999, two teenagers killed 13 people and injured 24 others in what was the third most closely followed piece of news in the entire decade. At the time, it was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history and it utterly captured the nation’s attention. Flash forward to 2018 where there were three attacks unsettlingly similar to Columbine:
With every new tragedy, the media cycle repeats itself, but each time it seemingly gets shorter. First, a video will appear — a bystander or victim will almost certainly reach for their phone and start filming after hearing gunshots, and sometimes the shooter even livestreams the event as with the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. Then, the sensational imagery of terror will spread like a wildfire through social media, amplifying the fear that the perpetrator hopes to sow.
Struck by fear, but no longer surprised by such an event, a torrent of people will go through the motions by posting messages of thoughts, prayers, solidarity, and other platitudes to no one in particular on social media. Condemnations of violence and vilifications of whatever group(s) the shooter belongs to will follow, although there will be notably fewer of them if the terrorist is white; a fact that will also be pointed out on social media but will quickly devolve into troll fests and flame wars much to our detriment.
A week will pass. We will forget. Nothing will change.
A discussion about modern masculinity, its historic roots, and its relationship with violence will not be had. A conversation about thoughtfully regulating access to firearms and how to strike a balance between reducing harm and protecting rights will also not be had. “This is why we need to BAN ALL GUNS,” will be met with, “Naw, what we really need is more good guys with guns!” And another opportunity is flushed down the drain.
The next day, writers and pundits will remind us not to share the video we’ve already all seen because Twitter or Facebook autoplayed it in our feeds. The Onion will change a few names and republish a satirical article, originally written in 2014, titled, “‘No Way To Prevent This’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
A week will pass. We will forget. Nothing will change. We already know how all of this shakes out and have developed a bad national case of learned helplessness as a result. In 2014, the writers at The Onion had already identified our pitiful and feeble reaction to what used to be shocking violence. In the years since that diagnosis, we have proven that The Onion writers were right all along: there is no way to prevent these tragedies. Not because of some universal truth, but because of our own political stubbornness and stagnation. And honestly, how could we hope to make meaningful change when we can’t even have a meaningful conversation?
Our debate surrounding mass gun violence is filled with false dichotomies between wannabe panaceas and hollow inaction — our only two choices. Our national conversation is as trite and meaningless as the reductive memes we deploy to make our arguments. Get on the digital soapbox — but be sure to make your case in 280, or fewer, characters. Let them know how you really feel — but only if it’s funny, 20 words or fewer, and fits within one of 100 or so predefined meme templates.
“I’m not shocked…”
Waleed Aly, an Australian news anchor for The Project, said of the shooting in Christchurch, “The most dishonest thing I could say is that I’m shocked… if we’re honest, we’ll know this has been coming.” And indeed, in a few short weeks, or maybe if we’re lucky a couple months, the tragedy at Christchurch will be replaced in the public consciousness by yet another mass shooting, bombing, or another vile act of humankind.
The truth is that we are constantly bombarded with the sensationalist coverage of horrific violence that has become the status quo. We have no right to be shocked because we have repeatedly chosen to do nothing in the wake of tragedy after tragedy.
Aly is right that extremist violence, such as the targeting of Muslims at a mosque, is on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center — a group dedicated to tracking hate groups and the violence they enact — reports that in the U.S. membership in hate groups has been rising steadily since 2014 and the number of hate groups has recently reached a record high.
The relentless pace of horrific news has an overwhelming effect. The violence never seems to stop, and so we feel powerless to stop it.
On the other hand, New Zealand had not been host to a mass shooting in the 20 years prior to the shooting Christchurch. Maybe this event did shock the Kiwi community, and maybe that shock is why political action was on the table. In the wake of the shooting, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern said unequivocally: “Our gun laws will change.” Ardern even suggested a ban on some or all semiautomatic weapons as part of those changes. Five days later, more details about the proposal were announced, including a ban on some semiautomatic military-style rifles. And then, it actually happened. In under a week, New Zealand banned a subset of semiautomatic rifles, high capacity magazines, and some accessories designed to make weapons more deadly like the bump stock.
The current ban is temporary, but legislation to make it permanent will be introduced in the first week of April, and has broad support from both the current coalition government as well as the main opposition party. It’s anecdotal, but in an interview with NPR some Kiwi gun enthusiasts seemed quite comfortable with updating gun laws saying, “Owning a gun in New Zealand is a privilege not a right” and “Well, to be honest, I think the more military-style semiautomatics should be banned. There’s no need for them — probably the same with pistols, to be honest.”
But there’s another twist to all this, understandably overlooked in the anxiety and fear that hovers like a cloud after each massacre. Mass shootings, school shootings, violent crime in general, and homicide specifically, have all been falling in the U.S. — especially over the long term. While the number of mass shootings is declining, the total death toll from them is rising — shootings are becoming more deadly, not more common. Gun violence is rising as well, but that is because a greater share of crime is committed using a gun, not because of an increasing crime rate. Both of these facts suggest that the available tools for enacting violence are highly effective; too effective given their prevalence, or too prevalent given their effectiveness.
Modern media has put every new tragedy on blast since before the invention of the 24-hour news cycle — but the hyperconnectivity of the internet age takes global amplification to a new level. Thirty years ago, a large majority of Americans would likely not have even heard of an event equivalent to the massacre at Christchurch, just as a generation ago most New Zealanders would not have heard about the Squirrel Hill shooting. News just didn’t get distributed as widely.
Instant global distribution combined with our news media’s penchant for sensational stories has made the world much more aware of international tragedy. Similarly, platforms like YouTube and Twitter have made every individual citizen a kind of journalist, but without any training, a code of ethics, or an editorial team. Our newfound global awareness, combined with population growth, means we are individually exposed to many more horrible events — even as homicide and poverty continue to decline on a global per-person basis.
The relentless pace of horrific news has an overwhelming effect. The violence never seems to stop, and so we feel powerless to stop it. The sheer volume desensitizes us and makes us feel numb even in the face of brutal, senseless, massacres.
Research shows that civic engagement is strongly tied to local news consumption. The people who show up and make change tend to be the ones who are focused on their sphere of influence and what they can do in their own communities. But, local news doesn’t go viral. Local news is definitionally interesting to a small, geographically confined audience. By getting our news primarily from global channels, we have missed our own tree for the forest. When we focus our attention solely on what happens nationally, or globally, we cede our ability to create change on the topics we follow most closely.
Obviously, international and national news are important. I don’t believe we should isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. But admitting that most of us, individually, have little power at a global scale is actually empowering. Doing so gives us permission to focus on how we can improve the lives of the people around us, in our own communities, in our own sphere of influence. And maybe if we turn down the volume on the relentless, sensational coverage of global violence, we’ll be able to see the growth and improvement in our own backyard more clearly.