The Newtown massacre has captivated the nation’s sympathy, more so than other violent incidents in recent history. Two weeks after the murder of 20 children and seven women, media coverage continues. People are still talking about the changes they want to see. A super strain of compassion is driving us to commit random acts of kindness, and to drown Newtown with so many gifts that they have been forced to nicely beg us to stop.
Rarely does an act of violence galvanize the nation the way that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has. Why is that? What exactly about the Newtown murders makes us behave with such caring and conviction?
On 12/23/12, Huffington Post published The Unbearable Whiteness of Suicide-by-Mass-Murder, an article by Michael Kimmel and Cliff Leek. The authors explain how our response to violence is shaped by race. When the shooter is white, we’re quicker to attribute his behavior to him having a mental illness. When the shooter is not white, we’re more likely to assume his behavior is the result of the culture within which he lives. Either way, we divest ourselves of responsibility for the shooter, regardless of his race.
However, we allow our view of the gunman to also cast a shadow on our view of the victims. Victims who are murdered by a sick individual are likely to garner more of our sympathy than victims who are murdered because we believe they are members of a violent culture (unlike ours, of course).
There were 16 mass shootings in the United States in 2012. Sandy Hook was the deadliest, followed by the Aurora movie theater shooting in Colorado in July. Any guesses on the third deadliest massacre this year? I’ll give you a hint. In August, an Army veteran walked into a suburban place of worship and opened fire upon the families, killing six people. Do you remember? That shooting took place inside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
On 12/25/12, Alternative Radio rebroadcast a talk by Deepa Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. Kumar shares how our concept of Muslims as violent extremists has manifested in both blatant and subtle acts of racism against Muslims and anyone we perceive as being Muslim. In one example, she mentions how little attention the mass shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek received in comparison to other mass shootings.
On 12/26/12, KPFA conducted an interview with Beth Richie, author of Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation. Richie explains how black women are both victimized and then criminalized, while white, middle-class women are more likely to be seen as innocent victims who are taken up as national causes. She notes that the mainstream movement argues for innocent victims instead of looking at the ways that race and class position some women to be more vulnerable to violence. Richie shares that even when black women are murdered, the media tends to tell a story of the women’s wrongdoing, criminal records, and so forth, instead of telling the story of their victimization.
Twenty children were killed in Newtown. Over 530 youth, mostly African-Americans and Latinos, have been shot to death in Chicago since 2008.
Our compassion and support for the Newtown families are appropriate responses. Isn’t it time we spread our caring and kindness around?