Tuesday, April 24, 2007

America's tragedy response

I was traveling in Italy when I heard about the shooting at Virginia Tech, and owing somehow, I think, to the physical, or mental, or cultural separation between it and me at the time, the whole thing failed to register in any real way in my conscious mind. I remember watching the reports on CNN from my hotel room in Venice, and finding myself in the embarrassing position of failing to muster the appropriate sense of loss and regret. I think I was just in emotional exile, and any news item, short of every pigeon in St. Marks square spontaneously and simultaneously sublimating- that is, be that news item momentous or inane- anything failing to immediately impact the six inches in front of my nose was going to languish in mental purgatory (the subconscious) until I, or God, figured out what to do with it.

Thirty-six hours of travel in the last three days has afforded me some mental house-keeping, or at least a quick Spring once-over, and so I thought I’d give my first-blush impressions of this whole business. Like most things, I’m afraid, it (the impression) has more to do with me than anything else.

I took a little time in the last three days to review the media’s coverage of the Tech shooting. The rest of the time, as I said, was spent traveling, which was in turn split equally between sleeping, reflecting, and sipping bloody marys. To get right to the point, my impression of the Tech shooting and the subsequent national reaction to it is that we are getting way too good at crisis.

The lead, the live aerial footage, the news graphics. Oh, jeez, here we go again. What was it this time? Unconfirmed reports of a single shooter. A loner. Oh Christ, he’s not a foreigner, is he? A brief, likely psychological sketch from a terrorist expert. An announcement from local police officials. On going investigation. Can’t be certain at this time. Not ready to release that information. Twenty-four hour coverage. Then a message from the killer. We have our guy. Yep, definitely a loner. Weren’t there any signs? Ah, then the finger-pointing. His teachers missed it. His family missed it. Oh no, there was a prior incident! More psychological sketches. Alienated from his peers. Trouble adjusting. Oh come on, video games? Then the response. Gun control. Tighter security. This never would have happened if…Time to grieve. Message from the president. Our hearts go out. Help with the process. Classes to resume.

Another crisis on the books.

It happens again and again and again, and the most frightening thing about it (if there can be a most frightening thing about it) is how utterly routine the response is. Everyone knows exactly what tone to strike, what faces to make, and what language to use (there is a special crisis language that we have developed to distinguish these special events from, say, an athlete admitting to having bet money on his own performance, or a political election- phenomena that have their own special niche voocabulary as well). It’s terrifying that we have convention for crises, but that’s not the end of it. What I really want to say is that the conventionalization of crises blunts our natural human response to the carnage; scrubs our messy and disorderly emotions surgically-clean so that they can be excised by the ready scalpel of the forty-hour work week, the morning commute, and the Sopranos. It's all way too superficial, if I can use that word without sounding ridiculous. When what we really need, the only thing worth a damn in life, is to offer ourselves over to the brute facts of the world and give all of our honest response as living, feeling people. I truly believe it is more important than simple and orderly closure.


Anonymous said...

What you say is true and unfortunately only at the local levels where the victims were from did you see genuine, unrehearsed, unpackaged, however you wish to describe it, responses. Such responses come from those interviewed who knew the victim.

BrooklynDissentator said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm sure the emotions of those closest to the crisis were terribly intense. And I imagine people all over the country and the world reacted with genuine, heartfelt emotion. It's the depth of these genuine responses that seems unmatched and neglected by the superficial crisis-response convention and language that we see in action far too often.