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The Sickening Cynicism of Thoughts and Prayers
Another mass shooting in Texas and all Gregg Abbott and Ted Cruz have to offer are empty platitudes
The offering of “thoughts and prayers” after each murderous mass shooting has become a nauseating refrain. You know the drill: The speakers/tweeters utter this blood-stained phrase (or a close variant) like robots. As if they didn’t grasp how empty are their platitudes, how absurdly absent of insight. As if they were incapable of comprehending how pathetically phony or carelessly indifferent to the need for change their words reveal them to be.
“Our hearts are with the people of Allen, Texas tonight during this unspeakable tragedy,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement after the mass murder Saturday with an AR-15-style rifle of at least eight souls in a Texas outlet mall. Abbott, of course, is the one who has helped loosen gun laws in Texas so that gun owners can carry their loaded weapons without a permit.
“Heidi and I are praying for the families of the victims of the horrific mall shooting in Allen, Texas,” tweeted Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a leading recipient of money from gun rights groups. Cruz, of course, is among those who reject gun restrictions, advocate for more guns to increase security and pretend that the problem is fundamentally one of mental health.
After the Uvalde massacre at Texas’ Robb Elementary School last year, which left 19 children and two adults dead, Cruz said that “Heidi and I are lifting up in prayer the entire…community during this devastating time.” After the El Paso massacre at a Walmart in 2019 that left 23 dead, Cruz said, “Heidi & I are praying for everyone in El Paso.”
Catch the pattern? The empty banality of his and his wife’s supposed action? The blood-stained refusal to do anything despite his job as a lawmaker?
The response from President Joe Biden on Sunday to this latest mass shooting, which the Gun Violence Archive tallies as the 199th such event in little more than four months of 2023: “Republican Members of Congress cannot continue to meet this epidemic with a shrug. Tweeted thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
It was less than two months ago when I wrote about Biden speaking in Monterey Park, California, to mourn the murder of 11 human beings—to provide consolation (once again) and to urge Congress “to do something big” in response to the endless bloodshed. “Ban assault weapons,” he implored. “Ban them again. Do it now. Enough.”
Right words. But the bloodshed continues.
It was just a month ago, in the wake of the murder of three nine-year-old children and three adults in Nashville at a Christian private school, that I devoted an essay to the need to ban assault rifles. (Its title, employing no uncertain terms: “Ban Assault Rifles.”) This followed demonstrations in and outside the Tennessee state capitol and the GOP expulsion of two Black lawmakers who protested for an end to the epidemic of gun violence.
That piece particularly focused on former Chief Justice Warren Burger’s thoughtful discussion of the mis-reading of the Second Amendment to perpetrate “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have seen in my lifetime.” These words followed a previous assertion by Burger: “The Second Amendment does not guarantee every citizen the unfettered constitutional right to have a machine gun.”
I recount these pieces essentially as an expression of frustration. I could have mentioned my discussion prompt about the idea of releasing victim photos of the horror in the hopes of jarring peoples’ conscience and consciousness (“Can a Photograph Change Minds?”).
Or the one, almost exactly a year ago, about the white supremacist who killed ten people at the Tops Friendly Markets in a predominately Black neighborhood of Buffalo. That one began like this: “Here we are again. Another mass shooting. Another radicalized man motivated by white supremacy to commit murder.”
I could have shared the one from two years ago in March 2021 after the mass murder of 10 humans at the Kings Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. I’ll bet most of us barely remember it, what with the constant drumbeat of shootings. That one, titled “In Search of Sense and Sanity,” ended like this: “The savagery needs to be replaced by sanity.”
So much for that. Here’s what I also said then:
I’m not prepared to accept the latest round of thoughts and prayers and decent people insisting that this cannot continue—and yet on and on it goes. My wife reasonably worried that if the death of 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut, was not enough to spur an end to the madness, maybe nothing will be. But this problem is not a law of nature; it’s a human-made problem with human-made solutions available.
Of course, we are still stuck with the gun nuts and the extremists who will exploit fear and sacrifice human life to narcissistically grab attention. It’s easy to let the worst among us define our belief that the conflict really is intractable. I won’t say that we are better than this—this attraction to gun violence has been with us assuredly as long as we’ve had a nation—but I will say that this extremism fueling gun violence is a minority that can be beaten.
The statistics—large majorities support assault weapons bans and background checks on gun sales—are clear and have been available for years for all to see. That includes elected officials. But that hasn’t motivated all the Republicans who rely on blood money from the NRA and are more than willing to utter empty platitudes until the end of time if they can do so without consequence.
In January this year, I zoomed out to reflect on the traumatic big picture in “America, the Violent.” In an effort to not only address gun violence, but the larger reality of our violent culture, I summarized what we face like this:
The scale of the challenge to shift our culture is no small task, especially as long as it’s intertwined with our current political divisions, the obsession with maintaining the 2nd Amendment as a sacrosanct justification for bearing every kind of firearm (including assault rifles), minimizing the responsibility to ensure personal safety in the face of 2nd Amendment freedoms, and profound questions about the violent nature of humans and the scale of man’s inhumanity to man.
Culture change requires confronting the pieces, including guns, toxic masculinity, murder-filled popular entertainment, militarized police forces and failed training, leaders that are modeling cruelty and promoting violence, and larger societal issues that exacerbate stress and motivate people to act out violently. It means (to name a few) electing leaders dedicated to stricter gun laws, continuing to lessen the power of the gun lobby, seriously rethinking the role of police and policing, expanding the Supreme Court with justices that may revisit the 2008 Heller case that expanded the individual right to possess and use firearms. The effort must also be about electing more leaders who energetically model empathy and kindness—and for each of us to do the same.
Re-reading this now, I’d suggest it’s a reasonable list, if by reasonable I meant I was living in a sane place—a country, that is, without over 400 million guns, more guns than inhabitants, and without political leaders who think spewing the empty phrase of “thoughts and prayers” and its many variants is an appropriate response to the systemic failure of the political system to stem gun violence.
Until we throw out the bums in office who rely on thoughts and prayers—and stand in the way of gun laws that can save lives and slow the bloodshed—then we can all continue to decry the horror while the soundtrack of our lives is a drumbeat of mass shootings. Even as individual families and the many innocent bystanders suffer the never-ending pain of murder, they and those who care will be nothing more than collateral damage in the ongoing prioritizing of money and power over the value of human life.
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