The reaction online to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida yesterday has been pitiful, which is to say, it’s been typical. Politicians from both major political parties have offered empty words on Twitter. Media pundits all agree that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is wrong, wrong, wrong. The NRA posted an image of the word “love” on Instagram – with the letters spelled out in guns, bullets and crosshairs – for Valentine’s Day, and decided to leave it up after the shooting. And all the while the world can watch the attack, which left 17 dead and several injured, in horrifying, vivid detail, in footage shot by the very students who were under attack.
In the nearly 19 years since the Columbine shooting, the unimaginable has happened: Americans have adopted a routine, almost scripted response to tragedy. Now, school shootings run the risk of becoming a meme.
It’s been less than 24 hours since Nikolas Cruz brought an AR-15 rifle to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and people are clamoring to make sense of things as impulsively as possible. The knee-jerk response in Washington is to offer “thoughts and prayers” – or, in a twist from President Trump, “prayers and condolences” – to grieving families. It’s a pat reaction that irks anyone who can’t understand why mass shootings are so prevalent in the U.S. (even when the answer is obvious). And it in turn triggers a counter response of sarcasm and smarminess that range from Funny or Die releasing a sardonic fake infomercial asking people to send their thoughts and prayers “up your ass” to some poor, misguided soul creating a repugnant Thoughts & Prayers online video game. Then, if the social-media cycle following the Las Vegas, Orlando and San Bernardino shootings are any indication, people pack up these Pavlovian reactions until next time.
Both the perfunctory offerings of “thoughts and prayers” and the childish jokes that follow them trivialize mass murder. They’re distractions from any sensible political and social dialogue and they needlessly expend the energy of both the people who spread these memes and those who read them. Everyone loses.
The reaction to this shooting instance seems worse than usual somehow, because at this point all sensitivity seems to have gone out the window. The worst offenders in this instance are the NRA, whose unsurprisingly tone-deaf decision to leave up its gun-themed “love” meme in the wake of gun violence speaks volumes about how they feel they must put on a show of strength in spite of yesterday’s events.
While it would be reasonably safe to assume that even the most deranged pro-gun lobbyists don’t want people slaughtering children, the NRA is so shaken from eight years of the Obama administration supposedly threatening their Second-Amendment rights that they’ve lost all sense of common human decency. It’s been up long enough that has almost taken on a new meaning – perhaps becoming something of a coded message to the politicians they back financially, thus contributing to what they see as their side of the conversation. It also shows a stubbornness to hear anyone else’s side, even one marginally different from their own.
In contrast, many on the left have been posting a meme that dates back to the Las Vegas shooting last October with a clear message: the words “thoughts & prayers” are crossed out and “policy & change” are written in. And while the sentiment is constructive, it’s still a cultural speedbump. A call for a shift in discourse means nothing without a roadmap, and this fails to offer links to resources that could guide followers to their senators and representatives who have the power to legislate change. Like the NRA, these users, too, could have opened the floor to discussion of what needs to be different in order to make the U.S. a safer place rather than simply dispatching an image.
Interestingly, though, one glimmer of hope that has emerged via memes in the last 24 hours has been people referring back to past coverage of mass shootings, such as The New York Times‘ October report of just how much money politicians took from the gun lobby. For instance, Marco Rubio (who offered “thoughts and prayers”) has received more than $3.3 million from the NRA. This is useful information that could lead to a much more productive discourse.
But one thing won’t change for the foreseeable future: the way in which mass murder – and, really, all types of violence – are readily available to consume in real time on Snapchat, Facebook and Periscope. Seeing the student-shot footage of yesterday’s massacre is similar to the revulsion Americans felt watching footage from Vietnam in realistic, bloody color on the 6 o’clock news in the Seventies, for the first time in history. You can’t unsee it. Pandora’s box will remain open.
Witnessing terror like this unfold over every waking second is something that the world will adjust to with time, just as it always has. But what cannot happen is people becoming anesthetized to the soulless routines that accompany social media. It’s only human to feel scared and helpless in the wake of a mass shooting, an event that happens too frequently these days, but it’s the ability to sensibly discuss and make sense of these catastrophes that will lead to healing and maybe even legislative changes that would make the country safer. Death should not become a meme.