Looking back on the column I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2012, it appears my analysis was about half-right. But it was correct in the way that most mattered — that inertia would win out, and ultimately nothing would be done.
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Responding to columnist George Will’s statement on ABC’s “This Week” that the challenges associated with curbing such events were politically and practically insurmountable, I suggested another hurdle involved media: “Because after a few days, those anchors will pack up and return to New York and D.C. And Newtown will join Aurora and too many others on the tragic roster of names in our fast-fading memories.”
To its credit, the media’s sustained interest in the story surpassed expectations. Despite a famously short attention span made shorter by the current digital environment, news outlets stuck with their coverage and helped hold lawmakers’ feet to the fire.
Yet the elusive, complex nature of what causes societal violence — and the tendency for the usual suspects to deflect blame from their sacred cows — finally made it easier for legislators to do what they do best in this age of partisan gridlock, which is give speeches, express grief and move on.
Republicans cited mental illness, and the prevalence of violence in a mass entertainment media many despise for reasons that have as much to do with Hollywood’s liberal politics as its explicit content. The Brent Bozell-backed Culture and Media Institute, for example, issued research this week under the headline, “Networks Remember Newtown with 39 Gun Deaths Week Before Anniversary,” citing a cable-TV roster “awash in violence.”
Democrats — while no strangers to crusading against violent movies, videogames and music — gravitated toward gun restrictions, citing the combustible mix of other factors with weapons that can fire dozens of bullets in a matter of moments.
While the media generally performed better than anticipated under the circumstances, one can argue a hyperbolic fear of the Obama administration — partially fueled by conservative media figures — has contributed to a climate that makes efforts to curb guns or ammunition decidedly unlikely, at least while the current president remains in office. Small wonder the National Rifle Assn.’s Wayne LaPierre plucked at this nerve, accusing President Obama of “trying to take away” guns by pushing for relatively modest restrictions that, according to polling data, enjoy widespread support.
As a result, despite the impassioned rhetoric, attempts to enact legislation went nowhere. And like past outrages — some of which, like mass killing during a “The Dark Knight Rises” showing in Aurora, Colo., landed directly on the entertainment industry’s doorstep — calls for soul-searching about a violence-soaked media culture, or showering psychopaths with coveted attention, won’t shove those genies back into the bottle either.
In one respect, there’s perhaps some comfort to be derived from evidence that people haven’t become completely inured to these horrible events.
Still, there is also something wearying about the public ritual of seeking answers — and trying to craft some sort of response — when neither is apt to be forthcoming. There are simply too many variables to ever pin acts of violence directly on a single factor, and too many impediments to concerted action, at least for now, to prevent another Newtown, Aurora or Columbine.
Where does that leave us? Caught in a vicious cycle, as politicians and pundits keep repeating themselves. Only the names and locations change as the scenes are reenacted, with camera crews descending on another community of heartsick relatives.
In that regard, the media is complicit primarily in its short memory — acting like whatever just happened, and what’s being said, might somehow alter these dynamics. It’s hardly cynical to see that as naive, and perhaps self-serving.
Because honestly, if a school full of dead children won’t spur lawmakers, what ever will? And if the last one didn’t, why should we have faith the next one would?
(Pictured: Victims of gun violence since the Newtown tragedy were listed at a demonstration in the Connecticut city this summer.)