As American As Apple Pie
By Nicole Anderson-Cobb, PhD
“…You have to return to yourselves and look deeply and find out why this violence happened. Why is there so much hatred? What lies under all this violence? Why do they hate so much that they would sacrifice their own lives and bring about so much suffering to other people? Why would these young people, full of vitality and strength, have chosen to lose their lives, to commit such violence? This is what we have to understand.”
---From “What I Would Say to Osama Bin Laden: An Interview with Thich Nhat Hanh” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Anne A. Simpkinson,
Published in A Lifetime of Peace: Essential Writings By and About Thich Nhat Hanh (2003)
In the days since the mass shooting in Aurora Colorado on July 19, I’ve been more angry and detached than usual, but unable to put my thoughts into words until very recently. “Detached” because the frequency and our acceptance of mass shootings by young Americans is becoming as “normal” an American pastime as March Madness, the cherry blossoms in DC, the finales of Dancing With The Stars or American Idol, fireworks on July 4th, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and the “Black” Friday shop-a-thon that follows….mass shootings are becoming as American as apple pie.
Perhaps, this is why---of all the images of victims, survivors, first responders and memorials--- the image of Marietta Perkins keeps pricking my consciousness because she best captures my sentiments these days.
I don’t know and have never met Marietta Perkins in my life, but HER POSTURE just seemed to be the right thing to do for such a time as this. We all should have fallen (and should continue to fall to the ground) and cast our very spirits skyward in the wake of such heartbreak. I have no idea what the exact words of her own prayer were, but HER ENTIRE BEING CRIES OUT IN OPEN LAMENT: “Oh God, MY GOD, we beseech thee and seek your forgiveness for all we have done and for all we have left undone…”
And yet, contrary to Marietta’s example, our media makers and “thought leaders” forced us to slog through our institutionalized American ritual for mass slayings: shock, local tragedy becomes “national” horror, mumbling pundits wax on half-heartedly about gun control and clumsily reciting lines of the teleprompter about the need for tougher gun laws. Then, resistance to gun control ushers forth from gun rights camps while the incident becomes an election-year platform for the candidates to give us a lil’ emotion on the issue.
Finally, as a closing flourish to our theater of carnage, journalists elicit heartbreaking testimonials from families about loved ones lost before it’s ALL set to music and slick editing for evening news specials for days to come.
Then---because we don’t have the national will to deal with hard truths revealed about ourselves--- we decide not to speak the culprit’s name, wait for the griever-in-chief to come and go, finally see the shooter in court---and exhale. It’s as if we shout a collective “Ok, well, enough of that, and we race back to our summer fun”. Like shaking popcorn and salt residue off our hands at the end of the movie, we are through watching, we are through thinking about all that unseemly shooting business. Let’s move on to more pleasant conversations shall we?
So, before the first funerals, we follow our media racing off to coverage of “Mitt”ing across the globe, Olympic fervor, the tedious food fight masquerading as election 2012, drought in the heartland, what’s in the hell is going on with the Jacksons (of both Jessie Jr. and Mama Katherine)??? And we can’t wait to see Rihanna on Oprah!
But I’m still stuck back on Colorado and the unfortunate way our media processes race, class and gun violence in American life. Coverage of this massacre in particular made me realize once and for all---despite the hundreds of channels streaming into my home daily---that NO ONE IN THE AMERICAN MEDIA REALLY SPEAKS TO ME ANYMORE. Despite the 24 hour news cycle, NO ONE DISCUSSES THINGS THAT MATTER TO ME IN WAYS THAT TRULY MATTER…OR MINISTER TO MY BROKEN HEART WHEN SUCH INCIDENTS OCCUR.
Our media is filled with folks who are “pretty, shiny things” adorned, bedazzled, camera-ready. Wind them up and they utter the requisite “party line” on any issue, but most possess nooooooooo soul. Facts, charts, graphs abound, but nothing emotional, probing, useful for me to carry forward for the lifting up of my head.
Ironically though, late on the Friday morning after the shooting, a Southern California public radio station seeking my comment on the Colorado shootings contacted me. Their producer emailed me:
“I’m reaching out to people in the Public Insight Network of news sources about the Batman shooting in Aurora, Colo. While I cannot see the full statement you made in a note to another newsroom, it looks like you’ve got an interesting background looking at the connection of entertainment and gun violence.
Could you share your thoughts on the Aurora shooting at the Batman and do you mind sharing and a bit more about your background? I see you’re a PhD.,-- in what field? Thanks very much, I’m hoping to find a place for your insights in our coverage.”
I guess I popped up in some database of citizen-journalists that cross-referenced “gun violence” and “entertainment”. Initially, I figured it had something to do with “TANGLED”---my play that examines gun violence that has been produced around the country since 2009. For the record, in that play, my main character---“Claudine Elliot”--- asks the fundamental question: "When did we decide it was OK for OUR children to kill US and kill EACH OTHER and we do NOTHING but go to funeral after funeral??? Applied to the Colorado incident (and various other shootings across the country this summer alone), this remains an open question in my own mind.
Despite the fog I was in regarding the Colorado shooting, I pulled my initial thoughts together for the producer.
Again, AGAIN, America? I GRIEVE DEEPLY the loss of lives and extend my sympathies to the families.
But I PRAYYYYYYYYYYY that our national and local leaders and media don't sleepwalk through this moment. This is INDEED a tragedy, but what makes this incident a NATIONAL tragedy when tens of folks get shot IN THE CITY OF CHICAGO (my hometown) ANY GIVEN WEEKEND---and we don't get speeches from national leaders, calls for national grief or unity and wall-to-wall cable coverage???
My issue is this: WHEN ARE WE GOING TO HAVE AN ONGOING NATIONAL CONVERSATION ABOUT WHY OUR YOUNG MEN---WHITE, BLACK, BROWN, ASIAN, MALE, URBAN, SUBURBAN, RURAL---ARE KILLING US AND EACH OTHER EVERYDAY IN AMERICA?
If we don't TEACH OUR CHILDREN HEALTHY CONFLICT RESOLUTION STRATEGIES BEYOND VIOLENCE and DISRUPT THE CONNECTIONS BETWEEN GUN VIOLENCE AND MASCULINITY IN THIS COUNTRY, these TRAGIC episodes will become TV events on our violence-saturated airwaves...and sadly nothing more.
No sooner than I sent my statement off the producer via email, one of her staff reached me by phone in a hurry to get a statement from me and to find out if I could talk about gun violence and entertainment on the air. They were pressed as they were trying to book guest for their afternoon show.
Oddly, the more I explained my perspective, the more agitated the producer became and hurriedly got off the phone with me as quickly as possible. I guess this wasn’t the “angle” they are looking for as my views never “found a place in their coverage”.
What is also maddening about these episodes is that people argue that environment impacts on individuals in nearly every other context---whether it involves second-hand smoke, environmental racism, global warming or food desserts on urban obesity. Yet, we continue to act as if consuming murders, rapes, assaults, all kinds of bloody supernatural combat and political infighting in our caustic mediascape has no impact on us.
I’d argue that this is the lie we tell ourselves so that we won’t have to change. This is the lie that we tell ourselves so that we don’t have to give up another of our great American addictions: violence as entertainment, violence as recreation, violence as leisure, violence as relief and violence as distraction in American life.
However, as long as we covet the right to kill one another in our laws, entertainment, games, music, our international forays via unending warfare, MASSACRES AURORA-STYLE WILL CONTINUE.
As long as we are permissive of shooting rampages as normal rights of passage for American youth on the streets, on our campuses and in malls and entertainment venues across America,
MASSACRES AURORA-STYLE WILL CONTINUE.
As long as we continue to fight in front of our children, as long as we send their parents to war, as long as we fight one another in Congress, on reality TV, on crime TV, in blockbuster films and cable gore, in school bullying and domestic chaos,
MASSACRES AURORA-STYLE WILL CONTINUE.
In my play “TANGLED”, Claudine reflects on her community realizing that “there is no life in us because there is no life around us”.
Thus, at this critical hour, I believe that one of the greatest acts of non-violence we can perform is TO TURN OFF OUR TELEVISION SETS AND REJECT FILMS, PROGRAMS, GAMES AND POLITICAL PARTIES THAT TOLERATE AND PROMOTE VIOLENCE---BE IT PHYSICAL, EMOTIONAL, COMMUNAL, VERBAL, SPIRITUAL, POLITICAL/ CAMPAIGN-ORIENTED VIOLENT SPEECH. Otherwise, MASSACRES AURORA-STYLE WILL CONTINUE.
After processing the coverage of the Aurora Colorado tragedy, I am more convinced than ever that rejecting our violent mediascape--- and working to de-escalate the violence in American life wherever one can--- are two of the most important acts of resistance in American life.
As Marietta Perkins’ embodied witness calls to us from 2 Chronicles 7:14:
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
So, let us begin! Join me, won’t you?
Nicole Anderson-Cobb, PhD, Educator, Playwright & Samaritan Road Founder
Nicole Anderson-Cobb, PhD, Educator, Playwright & Founder of Samaritan Road Productions is the author of the SRP blog "Writing On The Go"