Death in America

by Michael Sean Winters

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The murders in Aurora, Colorado are so sad and so senseless, they invite silence before the mystery that is human iniquity. But, alas, in our cable news-driven world, silence is the one thing that is not afforded such tragedies.

The families and friends who lost loved ones are, of course, permitted to grieve in any way they wish. Those whose loved ones are still in the hospital are permitted to nurse any emotions they want – anger, even malice towards the perpetrator, relief that their loved one did not die, etc. - and share those emotions with anyone they wish. The community has the moral license to grieve as it wishes, with makeshift memorials, community services, whatever helps them to cope with their grief.

But, must the victims, the community of Aurora and the rest of America really be subjected to the ministrations of Don Lemon? I have nothing against Mr. Lemon personally and actually admire the ways he frequently challenges the culture of cable news and political coverage. But, in tragedies like this, Lemon and the other cable news anchors seem to me to traffic in an obscene exploitation of others’ tragedies. Someone who has just been through a traumatic event should not have a microphone shoved in their face and be asked to answer the question “How do you feel?”

There is a voyeurism at work here. It can be seen in other ways in our culture. Whence this desire to know every jot and tittle about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, people who will have precisely zero impact on our lives. Really – can someone explain to me why the Kardashians are famous? I remember being at the gym on a treadmill when Anna Nicole Smith was rushed to the hospital and shortly afterwards pronounced dead. I watched it all unfold on the TV screen in front of the bank of treadmills. But, I had no idea who Anna Nicole Smith was, or why CNN should treat her death as such an amazingly newsworthy event. I still don’t.

I worry that our nation has raised a generation of people whose first experience of profound human emotions, from joy to grief, were not actual experiences they felt but, instead, their first experience of such strong emotions consisted of watching other people on television experiencing these emotions. I contrast this with the way my parents introduced me to Sister Death. A teacher who taught at the school where my Dad was a principal had died when I was about four or five. I did not know her. My parents brought me to the wake and the funeral, believing, I think correctly, that it is better to expose a child to the fact of death in an instance where I did not know the person, where my five-year old questions were not clouded by an emotion rooted in personal affiliation.

Those five year old questions remain with me. Why is she not breathing? Why do we have to die? What happens to her now? They remain honest questions. They are not the kinds of questions with which CNN is comfortable asking. The President spoke well after visiting the families of the victims, and he rightly said that words are inadequate and turned to the Book of Revelations for words of comfort. Unhappy the people who have no scripture to which to turn, a text already familiar, at such a time! But, no president has the constitutional authority to pose, still less answer, the real questions death poses to us: Why do we have to die? What happens to her now?
A few years back, my hero Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete wrote an article about the profession of “grief counseling” in the New York Times. It remains one of the best things I have ever read in the Times. Amongst other things, monsignor wrote this:

The roots of grief arise from a wound deeper than the psychological or the cultural. It is at that level in ourselves where we decide what we can or cannot expect of life, what is just or unjust, what is the purpose and value of our existence. To the degree that grief counseling ever ignores those questions, it does not deal with grief; it leads us to suppress it.

Please, do yourself a favor and read the entire article, which you can access here. If you have the email of any cable news anchors, send it to them. The effort to comfort is a noble one, but the effort to avoid the depth of the questions death poses is not a comfort. It is a sham. A modern sham. It, too, plays its part in enabling our voyeuristic approach to death.

There are some non-existential lessons that should be obvious from Aurora: why in the world does anyone not engaged in combat operations need to own a gun capable of firing one hundred rounds within a minute? Why does the National Rifle Association’s political power and propaganda machine keep us from enacting responsible gun laws? Of course, no law can prevent all tragedies. Crazy, evil people will find ways to do crazy and evil things. Yesterday was also the one year anniversary of the massacre in Norway, and Norway has more responsible gun laws, as do all other Western countries, than we do in the U.S. Still, any effort to limit the frequency of these mass shootings, or their lethality, is a good thing. Alas, I am not holding my breath.

In this morning’s Washington Post, there is an article about the increase of HIV/AIDS rates throughout the U.S. South. Eight of the ten states with the highest rates of new HIV infection are in the south. The article lists several reasons for this: “widespread poverty, a shortage of health care, a lack of HIV testing and education, a shortage of accessible medical specialists for the many who live in small rural areas and a persistent prejudice by many in the Bible Belt against homosexuals, the group most affected by HIV/AIDS.” Here are causes with remedies too, partial remedies to be sure, but remedies that can limit the lethality of this vicious disease. Instead, we have several southern governors announcing that they will not take federal money to expand Medicaid in their states.

Instead of doing what we can to limit the intrusion of untimely death through gun laws and better funding and education for HIV, we wallow in our need to share our emotions. Our public culture and news is unable or unwilling to pose the real questions death poses and which Msgr. Albacete confronts. This weekend, unable to find any news about Syria, where people are dying too, or about anything except the killings in Aurora, you could not escape what amounted to an emote-a-thon. I recalled the movie “The Queen” with Helen Mirren, and the scene in which Prime Minister Tony Blair urges her to come to London to help the people deal with their grief. She snaps, “Their grief?” The poor woman did not understand that death is now no longer about actual grief, it is about public relations. We callously insist that victims explain their feelings. Unable to let ourselves rest with grief, we look for “new hopes” and for “good to come from evil” all of which have their place, but not in the first few days after a tragic loss. All of it on the television, all of it vicarious, all of it voyeuristic. It is strange to me, strange and somehow very inhumane.

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