Monday, January 10, 2011

The Pattern Takes Hold

The pattern is sadly the same. A horrible incident occurs with people being killed by a single person. The media coverage saturates everything, spreading out like rising flood waters. In the initial minutes and hours no one really knows any answers so they grab the slightest bit of speculation and put it on the air to fill the space between the re-running of the initial reports and endless video loops of flashing lights at the scene to cautious — and often wrong — rumors, including false reports of deaths of the victims.

As the situation begins to solidify and the facts become known, the hastily-called press conferences begin with updates from the hospital and the police and new names are added to the American lexicon. The cable news networks have come up with a concise title for the incident and even put up somber music and graphics to go with it. Special broadcasts are scheduled for later that evening, giving the producers time to call in their analysts so the first round of speculation, navel-gazing, and finger-pointing can begin.

Meanwhile, the news media is trying hard to fill the time, so they are interviewing everybody, even themselves. If the suspect has been caught, the police are leaking information about the person, apparently in the hopes of shaking something loose, such as background or motive; the public can always be counted on to come forward and tell what they know if it gets them on TV. The friends and neighbors invariably report that the suspect was a kind of quiet person, always kept to themselves, never gave much of a hint of trouble, but they always knew there was something a little “off” about him. Thanks to the social networks, the suspect will have posted subtle warning signs about his plans; it is hard to resist the need to let the world know, however cryptically, that they were planning this for some time. And the sketchy and incoherent image of a tortured soul comes forward. But for now, he is as quiet as the dead; it won’t be until a trial that we hear anything from him again…assuming he did not turn the gun on himself.

The political framing is already taking shape. Each side has pronounced their horror and outrage — on that they are equally firm — but already the posturing is being framed for the inevitable contest of soundbites that blame one side or the other, or, most maddeningly of all, both sides equally. The political parties will instantly search their databases to determine if there was any connection between themselves and the suspect, and the one that comes closest will immediately gulp and then issue a defiant statement condemning the action and, at the same time, disavow any connection, knowing full well their opponents are focusing on them. (Meanwhile the conspiracy theorists are seeing a vast connection between both sides and the CIA.) Within 24 hours all the resources have been mustered to air a special round-table broadcast of all the best pundits, including the fringe types just to keep in interesting, and the inevitable spokesperson for the gun lobby will confidently report that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. With guns.

Everyone will scratch their chins, shake their jowls, nod their heads at the profound prepared off-the-cuff remarks, and then, after they have all decided what the incident portends for everyone involved — the president, the political parties, and anyone that happens to be there, including the heroic people who got their moments in the spotlight — the networks and the blogs, including this one, will return to the status quo, and the regularly scheduled programming already in progress will be rejoined.

Within a surprisingly short time, most of the details of the incident will be forgotten. By the time the seasons change, the names of the dead will have faded from our short-term memory; the only reminders will be the trial of the suspect, but that will be the fourth or fifth story on the news, just ahead of the update on a celebrity in rehab. And the only people who will remember this with the clarity and pain are the victims; the families of the dead and the survivors who, even if they recover from the physical trauma, will never be truly healed.

Worst of all, we will immediately seek to absolve ourselves of any culpability. One person did this; one “lone wolf,” with serious mental problems, we’re told, as if that is a way of comforting ourselves that we are not to blame. It wasn’t anything we did; maybe it was the other guys, and when the other guys are confronted, they turn back and say, well, you had something to do with it. And then everyone agrees that if we all had something to do with it, then nothing can be done about it.

As I said, the pattern is always the same; Dallas 1963, Memphis and Los Angeles 1968, and more recently, Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, and on and on. It devolves to a single name to cue the recollection; this past weekend will be known as “Tucson.” We follow the script because that’s the way we process the information, and we try to put it behind us and move on because to dwell on it would not make it any better; the healing — such as it is — could not happen. But it rarely changes us. No profound shift will come to our national psyche; no deep assessment and re-evaluation of our social make-up will occur; it didn’t after the murder of a president or the countless number of other rampages since then. It is both the blessing and the curse of our collective mind that we have the ability to move on; it is a sign of optimism, but it also means we give up much of a chance of learning anything. The pattern takes hold.