Getting caught in the tragic fracas
Other than the tedium of transcribing interviews, the worst part of journalism is staring at the television screens in the newsroom and seeing violence strike an unsuspecting place. Usually, it’s some person bent on revenge or another person with a vendetta against some group of people.
No matter what, they all have one thing in common: it didn’t have to happen.
The unfortunate victims this time were in a small town in Oregon. Umpqua Community College started off a day normally enough when a local man opened fire at 10:38 a.m. local time on Oct. 1.
Ten people died at the end of a bullet, while seven more sustained injuries. The man believed to be the shooter died in a police melee according to Douglas County (Ore.) Sheriff John Hanlin. But there was one other casualty in this mass shooting.
The other casualty was a community’s sense of normalcy.
If that line sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It appeared in another story from early September about the shooting of two news reporters from Virginia. Much like that shooting, the Umpqua tragedy was another unnecessary shooting amid the sea of causalities.
According to Mass Shooting Tracker, there have been 294 mass shootings in the United States this year. The site defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people died by way of gunfire.
As if this number wasn’t baffling enough, the more baffling number is 274 – the number of days passed this year as of Oct. 1.
The Washington Post featured an article about this unfortunate phenomenon the same day as the shooting, stating that there have been no more than eight consecutive days between shooting incidents this year. In September alone, there were six days of three or more shootings.
Are these numbers starting to get depressing yet? Because this number doesn’t count the number of shootings wherein casualties are fewer than four. There are shootings like those in Virginia. There are others that seem like an everyday occurrence in some communities.
But it doesn’t get any less depressing – especially when the reactions start happening.
In journalism, we learn the five W’s and the H: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Reports cover these exact things because those are the questions everyone asks – especially in times of turmoil.
The media comes on and talks all about the what, when and where, trickling in the whos, hows and whys as more information comes to light. Unfortunately, it teeters into unproblematic territory when those last three questions appear on screen and in the public mindset.
When media outlets figure out the identity of the person behind the gun, they broadcast what seems like everything about the person – picture, name, family history, personal history and a slew of other pieces of information that come in at an unfathomable pace.
Though it provides a sort of scapegoat for those in an ailing community, it does something else – it takes attention from the innocent lives affected in this tragedy. It gives the shooter a level of exposure usually reserved for political figures and celebrities.
A shooter in the same sentence and status level as leaders and stars – do you see the inherent problem in that mindset?
After the Oregon shooting, many news outlets did just that with the shooter, finding out why and how he carried out what had the makings of a massacre. He inquired victims about their religious preferences before shooting them either in the head or the legs depending on their answers.
The inclusion of this religious undertone always has the potential both to unite and to rift. It can bring those of a common religion together for catharsis in a time of tragedy, rallying around their tenets and their deities en route to eventual healing – as any good religion should in times like these.
But the rifts can be damaging if the public takes it in their hands.
One of two bad things can happen when a group comes under attack – whether physically or ideologically. First, the group can go out on the attack for revenge. These cases are extreme, but the Crusades and other retaliatory activities done in the name of faith show how possible they can be.
Second, and more likely, those in the religion close off from those who are in the outgroup. Psychological research demonstrates how divisive a group can be when trying to form within-group harmony or conformity. In the efforts to do so, they draw an even bigger divide between the “us” and the “them.”
It takes that healing concept and adds a sectionalist undertone wherein disagreement is attack. It doesn’t happen in religion only – the antebellum South provides ample proof to this claim.
Regardless of context, it’s another distractor from tragedy gets in the way of proper healing.
But one other that comes around in the wake of tragedies such as this one is the gun control debate. At this point, constituents of different sides of the debate come out in defense of their points of view. Advocates cite that better regulation would have prevented it before it started, while opponents say that someone with a gun could have stopped the shooter in his tracks.
All this debate does is cause another rift in the public that turns tragedy into town hall floor. It gives political candidates more fuel for rhetoric, and it gives media outlets and the public alike something with which to fill the time until it fades away.
The last thing people going through the tragedy need is another debate and more rhetoric. What they need is healing. What they need is support.
What they likely need is some hope that reality is still within reach.
These people have lost brothers, sisters, daughters, sons and friends. People in 294 separate incidents have had to spend some fraction of their 274 days this year to grieve.
That fraction may be small, but the days that make up that sliver of time will be the longest days of those people’s lives.
So what can we do to help them? If the answer were clearer, this article wouldn’t need to exist. Different families and individuals need different things. It doesn’t help that there is no right answer to recovery from tragedy.
But what we’re doing now sure isn’t it.
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