The Media and the Massacre
True compassion requires turning off the news.
The voices followed me through the airport yesterday afternoon, their insistent tones blaring as loudly as the glaring screens that have colonized nearly every public place in American life. They chased after me offering insider knowledge: "The autopsy reports on Adam Lanza and his mother are providing some gruesome new details … "
I scurried out of sight and hearing of whatever gruesomeness was about to be unveiled. They quoted press releases from lobbying groups: "… prepared to make meaningful contributions to make sure this never happens again.…" I pondered how many PR professionals had polished that artfully vague phrase—"meaningful contributions"—and whether they truly believed that such a travesty would never happen again, no matter how meaningful their client's contributions.
No, it will happen again.
There is no contradiction between presence and silence in the embodied life for which we were all created.
I did not actually curse in the televisions' direction until I heard them serve up the most heinous possible version of disaster theology—this, offered in all strident sincerity to best explain the fates of the victims to one's own children: "God needed some wonderful new angels. He asked for them, and he got them."
Not a single person in that airport was assisted in any way by these ghastly disclosures, pat press releases, and offensive atheologies. But this is the ironclad logic of continuous broadcasting: Broadcasting must be continuous. Someone must always be saying something even when there is nothing new to say.
The most basic lesson for those who would comfort the victims of tragedy is that the first, best response to tragedy is presence, and often the best form of presence is silence. The grieving, the sick, and the dying sometimes need our words, sometimes need our touch, but almost always they need our presence. And there is no contradiction between presence and silence in the embodied life for which we were all created, to which we are all called, into which God himself entered. Bodies can be present without a word. That is the beauty of bodies.
Mediated communication, on the other hand—any form of communication that places something "in the middle," between persons—cannot abide silence. Radio hates dead air. Television hates sound without movement. As Garrison Keillor discovered when his perfect radio show became a mediocre television show, the camera cannot sit still. An audience of a thousand can sit utterly quiet as a single person plays an acoustic guitar, Keillor said ruefully, but the camera cannot—it must swoop and pan and zoom. Media cannot rest.
And while there was a time when you could count the number of broadcasters on one hand, we are all broadcasters now. A tragedy like the Newtown massacre becomes not just a media event, but also a social media event. As the journalist Alex Massie pointed out in his trenchant essay this week, silence is not an option in social media. Not to tweet or post or blog is not to be silently present—it is to be mutely absent. He suggested, fully aware of the futility of his suggestion, that perhaps we all could have simply posted one-word tweets on Friday, using the hashtag #silent, and left it at that. But we didn't, nor are we likely to during the next tragedy. #silent will never be a trending topic on Twitter.
All that any of us who do not live in Newtown, Connecticut, truly needed to know—possibly more than we needed to know—appeared in a 12-word news alert on my phone Friday afternoon. Almost everything else, I believe, was a distraction from the only thing that we who are not first responders, pastors, or parents in that community needed to do at that moment: to pray, which is to say, to put ourselves at the mercy of God and hold those who harmed and those who were harmed before the mercy of God.
Instead, we tweeted, we compulsively reloaded the live feed on The New York Times, we opened multiple browser windows, we turned on NPR. (At least that is what I did for a while that grim afternoon, in spite of myself.) All this accomplished, for the great majority of us, was to substitute information for contemplation, the illusion of engagement for prayer. I did not really need to know more about what happened behind those 12 awful words in order to pray. I needed to contemplate just those words, just those most brutal facts.
The quest for more talk, more images, more footage (none of which would ever satisfy our lust for understanding, no matter how graphic police and producers allowed them to become) is rarely about the quest to more deeply contemplate the brokenness of the world—it is the quest to not contemplate it. Because if we were simply to contemplate those 12 words, we would be brought all too soon to the terrifying precipice of our own inadequacy, our own vulnerability and dependence, and even (so the saints testify) our own culpability, our nearness in spirit to even the most deranged and destructive.
Mind you, silence is not the only kind of presence Christians have to offer a world gone wrong and gone mad. We also bear witness to the presence of the Word made flesh, the Word who entered into this story, who did not send a message but became a baby. And that Word does indeed prompt our words—words not of endless rehearsal of "details" or promises we cannot keep, but words of truth, hope, and life. This is the only way I know how to participate in our mediated, self-medicated world of too much information and too little contemplation: to keep silent until we have something true to say.
Terrible things happen every day. One day, one will probably happen to you, if it has not already happened. Surely it is our suppressed awareness that tragedy is coming our way, too, our unwillingness to be silent and contemplate our own need for mercy, that turns compassion into compulsion, turns our God-breathed impulse to stop for the wounded traveler into the gawking slowdown on the other side of the highway.
So for those of us who are spared their direct blows, this terrible thing, and the next terrible thing to come, are opportunities to learn what it will be almost too late to learn when death is at our own door. How to be silent, how to be truly present, and then how to speak. How to hear what the true mediators always say when they bring real news to a broken world: "Be not afraid."