What “Morgan Freeman” should have said about the Newton, CT shooting

Many people are applauding what is circulating as Morgan Freeman’s take on the Connecticut shooting. There’s some indication that the quote may be a hoax. When I originally wrote this post, I had done some research to qualify it, but sometimes that’s not enough. Now that I think of it, this could explain why the reaction doesn’t make as much sense to me as I would expect it to. It is nevertheless an illuminating response, regardless of the source. Here’s the quote:

Morgan_Freeman“You want to know why? This may sound cynical, but here’s why. It’s because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single victim of Columbine? Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he’ll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody.
CNN’s article says that if the body count ‘holds up’, this will rank as the second deadliest shooting behind Virginia Tech, as if statistics somehow make one shooting worse than another. Then they post a video interview of third-graders for all the details of what they saw and heard while the shootings were happening. Fox News has plastered the killer’s face on all their reports for hours. Any articles or news stories yet that focus on the victims and ignore the killer’s identity? None that I’ve seen yet. Because they don’t sell. So congratulations, sensationalist media, you’ve just lit the fire for someone to top this and knock off a day care center or a maternity ward next.
You can help by forgetting you ever read this man’s name, and remembering the name of at least one victim. You can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem. You can help by turning off the news.”

Whoever wrote/said this is bang on about how the media breeds fear, sensationalism and violence and I think most of us were relieved to finally hear someone of his social stature say it (or so we thought). Charlie Brooker correctly states, “Repeatedly showing us a killer’s face isn’t news, it’s just rubberneck“.

For my part, I’d just like to point out that the deplorable reporting of the Newton, CT shooting is actually a symptom – not the disease. A service that is supposed to exist to inform the public is much less likely to do so when ownership rests in the private domain and moreover when it is highly concentrated in the hands of a small number of large, powerful corporations. This reduces the news to a commodity, a product subject to all of the operational efficiencies one would expect in any other industry. With profit being the paramount concern, ethical or moral considerations are viewed as inconvenient expenses. Expressions of this include the erosion of journalistic integrity and the common practice of traumatizing victims (even kids) by asking them to relive their horror for the transfixed masses. Not to mention the inherent bias in business-oriented organizations filtering our information and thus framing what and how we think.

I’ve read some preposterous suggestions that there be a media blackout of information relating to the shooter. “Morgan Freeman” is right to criticize the disproportionate amount of attention paid to the killer as opposed to the victims, but I fail to see why the solution should be, as (s)he puts it, “forgetting you ever read this man’s name”.

I understand the revulsion that people feel toward someone who could commit these sorts of acts but there has to be a point where we trade emotion for rational thought. Some people believe that we shouldn’t ‘prematurely’ label these people as mentally ill because this shifts the focus from identifying the real cause (a fundamentally flawed culture) and it may add even more stigma to mental illness. These are all thoughtful points. The fact remains that Adam Lanza was not in control of his faculties. A sane, well person simply doesn’t burst into a school and shoot children. There’s a reason why we allow people to plead criminal insanity. It’s because they can’t in fairness be held responsible for their actions. And calling a clearly troubled individual who went over the edge a monster, as many do, says something deeply derogatory about the many people who fight to keep their dignity as they suffer through mental illness. Forgetting how serious this problem is – how it can ruin of the lives of everyone connected – justifies neglect of the people who need our support but are the least likely to seek it out.

Reality shows about tough cops chasing down addicts, the worship of pro athletes, soldiers and James Bond, the love of guns, war, sexism, etc. – some of these things are questionable and could maybe influence already unstable people. Maybe. But none of these things on their own cause otherwise sane people to go out and slaughter people. What we have is a very complex picture that can’t realistically produce one single factor as the cause.

I’m quite confused by the suggestion that we donate to mental health research. Research? That’s the target, over treatment and facilities? Maybe they’re broadly referring to all of these things. I don’t know. But if we’re going to depend on voluntary donations to help these people, that’s a problem. Increasingly fiscally challenged states, under whose jurisdiction mental healthcare rests, are failing to deliver basic services. It’s unclear how funding research would make that problem disappear.

“Freeman” doesn’t give any reasons why (s)he thinks gun control isn’t the issue; I surmise they don’t think it was a significant factor. Well, I’m not so sure about that. There is definitely something wrong with how easy it is for mentally ill people to buy guns in the United States, as well as some of the guns and related paraphernalia that can be purchased in general. That much is clear.

Attitudes around gun ownership aren’t just centered on the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights appears to have been written to actually limit the right to bear arms in a militia. Only in two separate rulings in 2008 and 2010 did the Supreme Court determine that this right was unconnected with militia service and that the law allows people to carry guns for their own personal safety.

This leads me to the question Americans should be (and the rest of the world has been) asking: Why are so many Americans so afraid that they feel they need to protect themselves? This nation with a powerful state and a mighty military that vows to defend its interests and values at home and abroad – what has them so freaked out that they don’t realize that adding more guns to the mix is probably a bad idea? Or that their guns probably won’t be handy if the need does arise? These are people ruled by fear, isolation, distrust and aggression. Ten years ago filmmaker Michael Moore released Bowling for Columbine but has largely avoided getting involved in the debate. After the mass shooting in Aurora in July of this year, he criticized both the liberals and conservatives for each being half-right, saying, “Guns don’t kill people, Americans kill people”. His main purpose for speaking with Piers Morgan was to delve into the question, “What is it about us Americans?”:

If this is the kind of society that the current political, economic and social systems are producing, then it’s time to think about digging much deeper than donating our money or censoring violence on TV. In fact, I’m going to expand on the advice offered by “Freeman”: turn off your TV, shut down your computer and close your books. Every time something horrible like this happens we go through the same blame game and have the same arguments. But nothing changes. We’re very good at distilling every issue down to news reports and statistics. We hear from politicians, academics and other experts. But what we’re not so good at is thinking for ourselves. I propose that we each sit in silence, ask some tough questions of ourselves and see what bubbles up. Why is there so much mental illness and why aren’t we taking care of these poor people and their families so that things don’t get to this point? Why is there so much anger and fear? Why, in short, are we doing this to each other? I believe that each of us regardless of our education and background has the wisdom to figure this out if we harness the presence of mind to step back and look at our society with fresh eyes and honest hearts.

What do you think?


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