Meaningless Things We Say in the Aftermath of a Gun Slaying

We are used to a number of rituals following a gun massacre—they don't help

Posted Aug 27, 2015

After the murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward in Roanoke, VA by disgruntled former reporter Vester Lee Flanagan, who had been fired by the TV station employing the dead reporter and cameraman, commentators—including even relatives and lovers—expressed a standard set of feelings.  We are used to these utterances; we accept them; we even expect them.  Perhaps they serve essential psychological functions.  But they often make no sense, and they are certainly not helpful.  They might even be considered offensive.

Since the killer's actions themselves made no sense—moreover, he expressed his own feelings in an inchoate, destructive, senseless way—behaving and speaking in a similar fashion aren't worth much. And the fact that nothing we have done in response to prior gun massacres—like the Newtown and Aurora CO theater killings—prevented this one suggests that we are whistling in the dark until the next killings. Meanwhile, we talk to comfort ourselves and to display our feelings.

1.  The shooter was a coward.  In order to heap scorn and contempt on the murderer, commentators often remark that Flanagan was a coward.  This charge is made because he sneaked up on unarmed people, or because he sought to justify himself with a long crazy memo he sent to the television station and crazy statements he made on social media, to which he posted a film he made of the murders!

Our rage and frustration are understandable, but what more needs to be said about the man who killed innocent people than that he was senseless murderer?  If we are inclined towards anger and hate, isn't that enough justification for our feelings?

Furthermore, the man is dead, having killed himself—which we might call justified punishment.  What more can be done to him—display his eviscerated skull on London Bridge?

But that we are expressing our own rage and frustration through meaningless invectives suggests we have no real responses to these terrifying events.  We are like children saying our prayers: "Please, God, don't let me or anyone else die in a hail of bullets from a crazed gunman."

2.  Let's prevent madmen from getting guns.  The dead woman's father, Andy Parker, whose pain cannot be comprehended, says he is on a mission to prevent people like the killer from purchasing guns.  This is a familiar, all-too-understandable response. We heard it most heartbreakingly from the parents of the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. (The murderer in that case, Adam Lanza, like Flanagan, killed himself.  He also killed his mother, with whom he lived and who purchased the guns he used, so that she was an unsatisfying object for rage as well.)

Following the Sandy Hook murders, gun control debates focused on requiring background checks and on banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which Adams used.  No such laws were passed.   A bill banning assault weapons was defeated in the U.S. Senate by a vote of 60 to 40.  A federal law expanding background checks likewise did not pass. Meanwhile, although five states passed stricter gun control laws (states with already strict regulations), twice as many loosened gun regulations!

It should be noted that neither of these types of laws would have prevented Flanagan from purchasing a gun, since he had not been labeled with any mental disorder, and he used a handgun, not an assault weapon. Yet, Hillary Clinton said, "We've got to do something about gun violence in America, and I will take it on." Republicans objected that we needed instead to enforce existing laws, or to "have more information about people's mental health backgrounds" (Chris Christie) or to do better at "providing services for people with mental illness" (Scott Walker).

Blah, blah, blah.  What do Clinton, Christie, and Walker propose to do, specifically?  What laws on gun control and mental health do you expect will be passed? Meanwhile, in a press conference Friday, Andy Parker urged politicians to "grow a pair," noted that neither of his state's U.S. senators had called him to offer condolences since he had begun calling for more gun controls, and said that he was now going to buy a gun himself although he never had owned one before.

3.  Survivors and loved ones talk about themselves.  Human beings being human beings, they generally talk about themselves when ostensibly commenting on the beloved victims.  It's understandable; but it's not very appetizing.

Although I hate to single one person out to illustrate this behavior, I have been especially struck by the performance of Chris Hurst, Alison Parker's boyfriend and a fellow TV station employee.  Hurst tweeted immediately after the murders to tell everyone that he had Parker had a wonderful love that they had been hiding.  In any number of TV interviews Hurst announced that the two had enjoyed a "magical" nine months together beginning at the station's Christmas party, where he was attracted to Parker by her gold dress.  Hurst carried with him (including to the police station) an album of his and Parker's most intimate photos to show everyone.

Hurst let everyone know that, for these nine months, "We had a love that burned white hot" and that he loved Parker "infinitely." Hurst described for the media how he stayed up late after working his shift the night before the murders to make Parker breakfast and to pack a lunch for her, which he wanted to make clear he had never done for anyone else, their love was that singular.  (Parker loved the smoothies he made, Hurst told interviewers.)  He pointed out in the photo album he carried around Parker's inscription about what a cute couple they were under one of the pictures.

Is Hurst really reflecting on his lover, or on his own feelings and romantic fantasies?  Dare I ask, a small-market TV producer, does he relish this national media exposure?

Perhaps Hurst should silently contemplate Alison Parker while mourning the death of the 24-year-old woman he tells everyone he loved.  Maybe this would help all of us to develop deeper, more genuine feelings rather than our immersing ourselves in the media world that preoccupied, among others, the Roanoke shooter.