I know it may sound trivial, but as I watched some of the early coverage of the Aurora shooting yesterday, I thought about an episode I'd just seen of HBO's cable-news drama "The Newsroom." It centered on fictional coverage of a real-life event, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. The journalists wanted to ask hard-hitting questions of BP and its contractor Halliburton about lax safety and environmental standards; both companies wanted to stick to scripted statements that their "thoughts and prayers" were with the families of the 11 workers missing and presumed dead. By the second time, anchorman Will McAvoy's voice catches -- an ironic half-chuckle, really -- in bemused frustration at corporate vapidity wearing the cloak of sincerity.
It wasn't fiction when the horrific news broke this morning that a black-attired, gas-mask-wearing "Joker" burst into the midnight showing of "Batman: Dark Knight Rises" in a Colorado exurb, hitting 71 people with gunfire -- a grim U.S. record -- and killing 12 of them. As I watched MSNBC to learn any fresh details, this reality-based cable channel was running a feed of Twitter posts from prominent politicians and celebrities across the bottom of the screen. The similarity of the comments was oddly chilling -- the words "thoughts and prayers" flickered, again and again and again.
I'm not trying to be as cynical as this probably sounds -- I'm sure that Newt Gingrich, Mike Tyson, Sean Hannity, Michael Dell, John McCain, Nick Jonas or whoever else you want to pull out of the endless "thoughts and prayers" queue were coping with the same heartfelt mixture of grief, anguish and anger that you and I first felt. But the repetitive use of the exact same phrase by so many people seemed telling. It meant that this American brand of insanity had happened so many times, with such numbing repetition, that even our leaders no longer know what to say. Or even worse, they've learned that "thoughts and prayers" has become the safe and secure way of responding -- focus-group tested to be gaffe-proof and offend not a single person on either the Right or the Left. Because in our 21st Century political culture, the name of the game is not offending anyone. Actually doing something? That's so far off the radar screen it's not even in the control tower.
The "thoughts and prayers" statement is just one step in a grim dance that's become so predictable that the satirical site The Onion nailed it in a piece so on target it may win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary next year. Of course we have rituals, because this happens so often. Sure, the facts are mind-boggling: 20 mass killings in the United States, on average, every year. But then, consider this: Mass shootings have become so common in this country that earlier in this very week, a man fired a gun into a crowded bar in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and wounded 17 people-- and it barely made the news. Consider this: Yesterday's mayhem wasn't even the only horrific shooting in the history of Aurora, Colo.; in 1993 a man walked into the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant there and gunned down four people. And consider this: One of the victims in yesterday's tragedy, the aspiring sportswriter Jessica Ghawi, had also been at the scene of a mass shooting in Toronto (yes, Canada...it happens sometimes). After witnessing the mayhem there, she wrote: "Every second of every day is a gift." She wrote that 46 days ago. She was only 24 when she died.
And yet the more astonishingly awful that gun violence becomes, the more insipid is the response from on high. It was also telling that the presidential campaigns suspended not just their campaigns but their political advertisingas news of the mass murder sunk in. It shows that against the backdrop of America's actual problems, the shallowness of what passes for political dialogue and debate would seem too jarring to ever live down. Instead, President Obama and Mitt Romney came out to share the undoubtedly heartfelt thoughts and prayers with the American people, in words that I cannot quote because I already have forgotten them. Maybe that's because it's hard to say who has less moral authority when it comes to gun violence -- the former gun-control advocate who boasts about killing varmints and now bows down in tribute to the NRA, or the former gun-control advocate who's it easier to shoot somebody in a national park or on a high-speed train because he cowers in fear of the NRA.
I guess it would be fair to note here that Obama and Romney were far from the only "leaders" who turned to jello when required to say something about the senseless killing of 12 citizens. Their ilk was summed up by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who struggled on national TV for something to say, blurting out that there's “an anger that can’t find focus.”
It's time to focus, people. Forgive me, but here, too, I am reminded of the same episode of "The Newsroom," and Will McAvoy's rant when asked why America is the greatest nation on earth. It's triggered by two signs from his ex-girlfriend and future executive producer. "It's not," read the first one, before: "But it can be."
There were brief moments in the gruesome aftermath when it almost was. One politician struck the real right tone, not the phony right tone. That was Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York. He said: "You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be President of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country," and he added this:
And instead of the two people – President Obama and Governor Romney – talking in broad things about they want to make the world a better place, okay, tell us how. And this is a real problem. No matter where you stand on the Second Amendment, no matter where you stand on guns, we have a right to hear from both of them concretely, not just in generalities – specifically what are they going to do about guns?
Billionaire Bloomberg has put his money behind this, funding major gun control efforts. He shouldn't be alone. That suspension of political advertising yesterday? America got along fine without it, didn't it? What if we continued that through November, and all the plutocrats tossing their millions down the money pit of electing the next president pledged to fund anti-violence campaigns? I'm not just talking about your George Soroses and Morgan Freemans on the left, but your Koch Brothers and your Sheldon Adelsons on the right. Hey, there must be big conservative ideas for reducing violence, right? Maybe this is the height of naivety, but to solve a big problem America will have to dream big.
A decade ago, the teen pregnancy rate in America went down -- in part because liberals and conservatives agreed it was a worthy goal, and there was a movement that tolerated ideas from both sides. Gun violence should be no different. We should acknowledge that there's a large silent majority of Americans that doesn't want to overturn the 2nd Amendment but also recognizes that -- just as our freedom of movement doesn't mean the government can't regulate autos and airplanes -- the right to bear arms is not a permisssion slip for rapid-fire mass-killing devices. In a nation of more than 300 million, there are too many ticking time bombs, too many would-be Jared Lee Loughners and James Holmes to give them an open ended license to kill.
Common sense would allow us to work together to ban high-capacity magazines -- mechanisms that aren't so useful to deer hunters but enable mass murderers, and that were illegal in a recent decade in which the Republic did not crumble. Indeed, common sense would allow our leaders to revisit the expired 1994 assault rifle ban -- which outlawed the AR-15 rifle that Holmes used to gun down a number of his victims. Common sense would also allow us to revisit one-gun-a-month laws, considering that Holmes was able to legally amass his deadly arsenal in a short period of time.
Let's also remember that this heinous crime took place on July 20 -- the 43rd anniversary of the day that two Americans walked on the surface of the moon. That was the America that wasn't intimidated by an impossible dream, that worked together to make it happen. America was great on that July 20. And it can be...again. That will depend on our leaders..but even more so on us. It makes no sense tbat so many politicians are so afraid of a single-issue extremist group called the National Rifle Association. They need to be afraid of us, the real moral majority.
There was nothing wrong with President Obama reminding us yesterday that it could have been his daughters in the theater -- that was something I knew too well. You see, my 17-year-old son was at a midnight showing of "Batman" in the Philadelphia suburbs Friday morning. He walked through the front door safe and sound at 2:40 a.m. Eastern, the exact instant that hell was breaking loose 2,000 miles away. I consider myself the luckiest person in the world, but the future of my son and President Obama's daughters depends on more than luck. And sometimes, "thoughts and prayers" just aren't nearly enough.
Sometimes, action is required.