Spectacles of Sympathy in America's Culture of Violence

On Monday, January 10, 2011, at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time, I led a moment of silence for the victims of the tragic shootings in Arizona. As with other mass killings that have befallen the nation in the past decade, this event has been followed by sweeping gestures of public sympathy for the victims. However, as a participant in this collective act of national consolation, I paused to reflect on the selectivity of American sympathies.

In Shadowed Ground: America's Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy (2003), Kenneth Foote examines public response to mass killings. He explains that in the wake of such tragic events, citizens tend to scrutinize every detail from a killer's past for clues that have the capacity to implicate "the murderer exclusively and exculpate the community completely." In other words, individuals actively work to locate blame primarily with the perpetrator while minimizing any potential culpability that would implicate themselves, their communities, or society as whole in the tragic events.

Sarah Palin's video comments on January 12 reflect the process recounted by Foote. She describes the Arizona shooting this way: A "single evil man took the lives of peaceful citizens." Palin's simplistic framing of this event precludes a broader and much needed discussion about America's culture of violence. As Jon Stewart aptly pointed out, we cannot and should not draw a direct line of causality between Sarah Palin's crosshairs during the 2010 election cycle and this event. However, to pretend that the increasingly interconnected relationship between social networking sites and the media does not have the capacity to influence individual behavior is disingenuous and irresponsible.

Similarly, public response to violent acts committed against American citizens since 9/11 has been equally reductive. In the wake of 9/11, President Bush inveighed against "evil-doers." Following the shootings by Major Hassan, President Obama condemned "radicalized individuals" and "extremists." Now, after days of sifting through Jared Loughner's largely ideologically incoherent pronouncements, American's have designated him "mentally ill."

In all three cases, honest discussion of the complex web of causality, of which individual accountability is a part, never occurs. Critical examination of the array of systemic factors implicated in these and other tragic events is always displaced instead by a cry for public displays of sympathy. In fact, it is precisely the absence of this critical discussion which allows such performances of sympathy to proceed blindly, unfettered by shame or guilt.

But further, suggesting that discussions of causality and sympathy cannot coexist, as Sarah Palin has done, severs the necessary link that is real compassion and not simply a performance of sympathy. It is this type of disconnect that allows Americans to effusively mourn the deaths of six individuals while at the same time demonstrating little compassion for individuals killed at the hands of American anti-terrorism policies. Compassion is sympathy that recognizes systemic realities in which all Americans are implicated.

During the moment of silence I led for the victims of the Arizona shooting, my mind drifted to also mourn the roughly 1,400 victims of the Israeli assault on Gaza in early 2009, nearly two thirds of whom were women and children. I also reflected upon the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens, the deaths of inadvertent victims of American drone attacks in Pakistan, and the deaths of others slain by NATO air strikes in Afghanistan. This violence was sanctioned in the name of the American people with patriotic rhetoric of necessity and self-defense by both the Bush and the Obama administrations.

But you will not find President Obama, Sarah Palin, or most American citizens eulogizing these countless innocent victims of America's culture of violence. By perpetuating a public discourse that holds only individuals accountable for violent acts and not examining other contributing factors, American citizens and the politicians who represent them never have to admit that statements they have made or policies they have supported may have helped instigate violence directed towards the nation or violence perpetrated against other nations in their names.

A moment of silence every hour for the remainder of the century would be incapable of honoring the countless victims of state-sanctioned mass killings. Yet to date, no American President has made a call to memorialize these victims whose stories are no less compelling than those citizens murdered in Arizona. Likewise, the American public bustles through its media saturated work-life largely unmoved by the violent acts which they quietly endorse with votes, ignorance, or silence.

So, as we have done with other tragedies, we slowly resist the urge to make sense of the event and shift instead to rituals of commemoration. Flags are flown at half-staff. The nation pauses in a moment of silence. Victims are memorialized in press accounts. The president offers a eulogy. And then, inevitably, we move on.