We might feel helpless in face of mass violence, but we’re not

Posted Dec. 01, 2013, at 1:32 p.m.
Allyson Eslin
Allyson Eslin

Breaking news: You’re about to be assaulted by images of mass violence. They will be closely followed by an outraged nation so fundamentally indifferent to possible solutions that absolutely nothing will change. Viewer discretion is advised.

It’s a story that’s as horrifically familiar as our favorite childhood fairy tales. Disturbing visions of unprovoked violence, glossed over by attractive reporters who manufacture sadness while the families weep in the background. We’ve become a nation of bystanders, feeding off the pain of the victims. We shake our heads sadly and mutter “those poor people” as we promptly forget the bloody problem we’ve only just witnessed.

Nearly every subsequent news story is a more in-depth look into the perpetrator’s life. With each new update the sudden notoriety for someone previously invisible pushes more and more desperate citizens into thinking that public shootings are a viable option.

Many of the people who commit these crimes were looking for attention, attention that this sensationalism promises. While that certainly doesn’t excuse their wrongdoings, it does present a new set of questions that we must consider when we feed into the frenzy. Could we have stopped this? Can we still? Is it our fault that these people have slipped through the cracks?

Part of our problem is our wholly inefficient use of time. We’ve been wasting valuable resources that could be used to promote real solutions such as background checks and an improved mental health system learning insignificant personal details about the criminals responsible. The administrative side of the solution falls to the wayside in favor of drama. As a society we’re less apt to discuss the problem, and more apt to throw guilt money at it until it becomes less culturally relevant.

If we want to be responsible, we need to stymie the cause, not glorify the result and try to mitigate its effects with charity and apologies. But how can we fix these things when the very networks responsible for this glamorization of violence have no desire to change?

And why would they? Online and broadcast newscasters aren’t going to ignore the stories that bring in the bulk of their ratings. After all, the media is in the business of viewership, not the business of progress. And what sells is tragedy. We as viewers must make a statement by refusing to buy into the hype. The best support is actively working to make sure it never happens again, not absently gathering details that are irrelevant to the future.

We need to get rid of this misconception that violence is spiraling out of control and that we’re helpless to do anything but watch as the world falls apart. Once the fear tactics dissolve, so will the urge to compulsively view every little bit of news coverage we can find. We need to be proactive and improve the mental health care for our residents, giving damaged and sick individuals an opportunity to be productive and happy. Instead we criminalize and marginalize an entire subsection of the population. Combined with this cultural obsession with violence and tragedy, problems seem inevitable.

We want to feel outraged, we want to feel betrayed — because it’s easier to be angry than it is to place the blame on ourselves. And that’s understandable. But innocents are dying because we’re too proud to admit there’s a problem, and the sooner we can find solutions, whether they are legislative or personal, the sooner we can stop the senseless violence.

We are more capable and intuitive than the media would like us to believe. Legislation and real change are very possible, and the world will not break into pieces the moment we look away from the screen. It’s time to stop glamorizing tragedy, and start glamorizing progress.

Allyson Eslin is a first-year student at the University of Maine in Orono majoring in political science.

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