‘After All These Years, All We Are Sure of is the Insufficiency of Explanation’

That’s a line from The Virgin Suicides. I can’t remember if it’s from the book or the movie or both, but I always think of it whenever a tragedy like last week’s in Arizona strikes in the United States.

The media and politicians have spent the week since the shooting of a Congresswoman and 19 others in Tuscon doing what they do best: Engaging in unfounded speculation disguised as informed debate.

Little beyond rumor is known about the shooter. Trolling his various internet profiles and interviewing his acquaintances hasn’t yielded many concrete conclusions beyond ‘wow, what a disturbed young man’. And we already pretty much knew that from his actions.

Much of the speculation has centered on the role of ‘the political climate’ in his act. It’s no secret that political polarization and overheated rhetoric are at a perceived apogee in the US, and people like Sarah Palin and the Tea Party have been blamed for encouraging the kind of ‘give me my country back!’ rhetoric that could inspire someone to take up arms.

The problem is, there’s no evidence linking the shooter with any of this rhetoric. It doesn’t appear he listened to talk radio, attended Tea Party rallies or engaged at all with radical political rhetoric of either stripe.

It’s probably true that political figures need to tone down their rhetoric. But this particular shooting doesn’t appear to be evidence for that.

Incidents like this highlight what is maybe the greatest weaknesses of the American media: There’s just too much space to fill. A tragedy of this kind has a lot of unknowns, and little new information comes out on a daily basis. Nonetheless, the TV stations have to fill up 24 hours of airtime, and the newspapers have to fill a chunk of their front page every day until public interest wanes. The only way to do this is to present nonstop speculation and rumor, which, like all gossip, impersonates fact the more it is repeated.

The days and months after the Columbine school shootings, for example, were papered with ‘debates’ on violent video games, neo-Nazis, goth culture, Marilyn Manson, and the ‘trenchcoat mafia’, all of which were blamed for the rampage.

Months and years later, though, none of these things appear to have exerted anysignificant influence on the shooters. The closest thing to an explanation we have is that the shooters were a psychopath and a manic-depressive, respectively.

Whenever a sudden tragedy strikes, I wish the media could simply release a statement saying ‘Understanding this week’s events requires a great deal of factual detail and analytical expertise. Until we can gather the information required to separate fact from fiction, we will not be publishing any information on the killer’s background, motives or influences. We will publish conclusions when they are warranted by the amount of available information.’

The media marketplace being what it is, however, I don’t see this happening anytime soon. The least we can do for now, though, is accept that information is likely to be incomplete for a long time to come. And explanation will always be insufficient.

 

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