At a recent memorial service for a pianist friend who died needlessly young, the most powerful and moving portion was not the words of the man’s father, brother, friend or colleague. It was the silence.
Nobody spoke or dared breath as recordings of the friend performing played around the packed room for perhaps 15 minutes. And then there was silence, and the memorial ended. And it was the silence after the music that told us, in gut-wrenching poignancy, what was missing.
I sometimes wish the media and digital universe had an appreciation for silence.
For major public tragedies of senseless deaths and injuries, words fail to explain why. But it doesn’t stop anyone from trying.
The shocking news out of Aurora, Colorado, on Friday morning was the latest in a seemingly endless series of violent attacks on innocent people. They are simultaneously unexpected, and yet unsurprising.
Ask “why” all you want, but no answer will ever be sufficient. All answers offer small comfort to the friends and family left behind. If there was an easy explanation, it would solve the most complex of scientific equations and reveal the deepest of theological mysteries all at once.
From the moment of the shootings at a late-night screening of the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, the level of speculation was of delirious proportions. The demand for “statements” from anyone and everyone continues, as though it is somehow a comfort.
The Huffington Post described the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, as having “broken his silence on Friday”
The event only happened on Friday – how quickly must someone comment without being portrayed as being “silent”?
Because the gunman, James Holmes, supposedly portrayed The Joker, from the previous Batman film, even the father of late actor Heath Ledger spoke out. Why? Are we holding the dad of the actor responsible because his son gave a compelling performance?
I watched BBC News 24 most of Friday, which frequently cut across to American networks, while also looking at Twitter and online coverage. It would be difficult to decide which medium was more desperate.
Some reporters bombarded victims who had tweeted about the incident with interview requests. Only a handful were polite and seemingly understanding of the ordeal.
ABC News practically yelled “Confirmed!” when they got the first photo of the shooter. They tweeted “the first confirmed photo. . . has surfaced”. It didn’t surface, it was released by the university the guy had attended until last month.
When dozens of tweets per second are being made about a singular event, you have to stand out, clearly. And when you have 24 hours of television to fill in a day, you get desperate to say anything to fill the void.
The same network also hinted, then later apologised, for reporting that the shooter might have been in member of the Tea Party movement, based on someone with the same name.
Similarly, this piece - I won’t call it journalism – suggested the shooter could be a Democrat. If you read it, nothing is proven, it unravels itself, but that doesn’t matter because you’re filling a need for “stuff”.
The story firmly states they can’t back anything up. So why run it? Does the web require you to post something that you can’t prove?
Perhaps the worst example of bad timing, was the Daily Telegraph article about the “curse” of the Batman films, which was quickly taken down, but not before a screengrab flooded Twitter.
How do you prove a curse? How is the death of an actor from one film relevant to the murder of filmgoers to a sequel?
For others online, the shooting immediately became a moral and political subject. Author Salman Rushdie got into a Twitter battle when he immediately put the blame for the shooting on the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, the infamous “right of the people to keep and bear Arms”.
There were some political responses, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, repeating calls for more gun control. A Republican member of Congress blamed a lack of Christian values.
That was the subject of a debate on Fox News on Saturday, asking “why did god let this happen?”
Dr Alex McFarland, director of worldview and apologetics at North Greenville University, said, “The escalation in violence since 1960 – we’ve seen violence escalate like 600 times within our culture. Without morality, without the 10 commandments, without a belief in god, this increase in violence is really to be expected. “Clearly, god allowed this to happen. The reasons he allowed that will have to be forthcoming.”
Such questions for people of faith are legitimate and important. But does it need to be on TV? Does it need to be immediate? Do we learn anything from talking into the ether about events and people we don’t know?
TV news networks, websites, social media – all behave as if perpetual vacuums needing dirt and mess to suction up.
But there is a vacuum, left by the victims of senseless violence, a black hole of loss, and talk doesn’t fill that, certainly not in the first minutes. News organisations, whether professional like ABC News, or amateur, like Breitbart, have a greater responsibility than simply filling a space.
Report what is known, what others are reporting perhaps; but what is the value of speculation? What is the benefit of idle comment? There will be plenty of time to contemplate the Aurora
shooting in the days, weeks and months ahead, when more facts are known.
Every time one of these mass killings happens, we look for responsible reporting and behaviour from those in the public eye, and that includes the news media. As usual, they failed.
And all the endless filler on TV and online fails to answer “why” – it simply can’t. Silence is the more effective answer to the answerless question.