On Blogging in Response to Tragedy

As I sat on the sunny bench in my front yard on Friday afternoon, where I had planned to tie up a few loose writing ends and was quickly waylaid by the awful news coming out of the small town not far west of here, I thought about whether and how to respond. I didn’t want anyone to perceive a blog post about this tragic event as a manipulative bid to get page views. I certainly wasn’t thinking about how to use this story for political or self-serving purposes.

I did feel a strong urge to write something, if only to acknowledge what was happening right in my own state, to children the same age as my own.

Writing for public consumption is an opaque process in which motive and intent and benefit and cost are hard to tease apart. We bloggers are critiqued as attention-mongers, but the purpose of professional writing is, after all, to communicate with people—which requires writers to pen well-crafted words that will engage readers’ attention. We are conditioned to look for the “news hook,” to write about what is on people’s minds and hearts. This is practical and, yes, self-serving; people are more likely to read something if it speaks to what they are already reading and talking about, and our jobs as writers depend on people reading what we write. But writing about what is on people’s minds and hearts is also an act of service; one of my goals as a writer is to help people explore their own thoughts, feelings, and reactions by offering them words that they might struggle to come up with on their own.

On Friday afternoon, I was overcome by the need to say something, which was partly a normal human reaction (judging from my Facebook feed on Friday afternoon, it was a very common reaction) and partly a normal writerly reaction. My own emotions were so raw that any attempt to put them into words would have been disastrous. So I decided to simply rerun a popular post I wrote in response to another mass shooting earlier this year, about Christians and guns, with a short new introduction. If nothing else, I thought that rerunning the post a mere five months after I first wrote it might drive home the point that mass shootings are becoming tragically frequent. I posted the gun control piece and then closed my computer for the day.

Over the weekend, those of us who raised the issue of gun control in the shooting’s immediate aftermath were criticized more and more for politicizing this tragedy. Some critiques included an explicit or implicit accusation that we were somehow dishonoring the grieving families of Newtown by writing about policy instead of focusing solely on their grief. If I had a friend or neighbor who lost a loved one on Friday, if I were a pastor of a Newtown church or columnist for a Newtown paper, I would likely not have written about guns as my first response. But I’m not any of those things. I’m writing primarily to an audience who is not directly affected by Friday’s shooting, other than being caught up, as I am, in our national grief and outrage.

I’m not a perfect writer, and even my best work isn’t going to speak to every reader. Writing about sensitive issues (politics, tragedy, babies) ups the ante, making it more likely that I will receive both outspoken support and vehement criticism.

When I posted about gun control on Friday afternoon, I didn’t calculate that the shooting was a terrific “news hook.” I didn’t do it to up my blog traffic or score political points. I did it because I felt incredibly sad and scared and powerless. I felt powerless because, no matter how good a mom I am, no matter how responsible a citizen, I cannot protect my children or other people’s children from angry people with guns.

But as a citizen, I am not completely powerless when it comes to making future mass shootings less likely. I can continue to use my platform as a writer to argue that if regulations were in place to make it much, much harder for angry and/or unstable people to obtain weapons of mass murder, if our laws weren’t designed to protect the rights of the “gun enthusiast” over the rights of citizens to be safe from gun violence in public places, we wouldn’t have to endure regular stories of people being mowed down by bullets in movie theaters and workplaces and elementary schools. So on Friday afternoon, I chose to channel my grief and anger and powerlessness into doing one thing that might make a difference for other families—using my platform as a writer to argue for limiting access to weapons that might be used in mass shootings—before I went off to do another, much more important thing—pick up my kids from school and hug them extra hard.

I stand by that decision, and will continue to write about guns as long as I live in a country that continually fails to pass and maintain common-sense limits on gun ownership. As Nicholas Kristof wrote, “The fundamental reason kids are dying in massacres like this one is not that we have lunatics or criminals — all countries have them — but that we suffer from a political failure to regulate guns.”

Writing about gun control did not distract me from the important work of grieving with and for the families of Sandy Hook Elementary School, which we will all be doing for a long, long time. If anything, it has made the grief sharper, because I can’t stop thinking about how much less pain Adam Lanza might have inflicted if he didn’t live in a country where people’s right to own a bunch of murder weapons has been upheld to a nonsensical extent.

Here is another brilliant essay from Garry Wills, writing for the New York Review of Books. Among other important things, Wills says this about those arguing that this weekend wasn’t the time to be talking about guns:

That horror [at Sandy Hook] cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines…Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.

I am in conversation with other Christian bloggers about how Wills’s essay might provide a substantive core for a newly energized Christian movement around gun violence. I will share information here as we continue to gather, converse, and strategize a way forward. In the meantime, here is my friend Rachel Stone’s Christian witness on the need for us to stand up in Jesus’s name to prevent future tragedies like what happened in Newtown:

Ever since Constantine had his soldiers put a cross on their shields, Christians have been divided on something that Jesus was shockingly unambiguous about: violence perpetuates violence perpetuates violence perpetuates violence perpetually–and you don’t get to wield or excuse or perpetuate violence in Jesus’ name. That’s blasphemy.

But in many quarters, it seems, to break ranks with conservative American values and say ‘enough with the guns that have no purpose except to kill people’ is a greater blasphemy.

If the name of Jesus is on you–and if you call yourself Christian, it is–then for someone to perpetuate violence in your name is blasphemy. And so I say to lawmakers who won’t stand up to the NRA, who won’t require insurance companies to provide adequate coverage for mental health care, who wage undeclared wars, who criminalize those who should be hospitalized: not in my name.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

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  • DaveP

    > I felt powerless because, no matter how good a mom I am, no matter how responsible a citizen, I cannot protect my children or other people’s children from angry people with guns.

    Yes you can. Get a concealed carry permit. The best way to deter violence is to be willing to fight against it.

    That’s what Jesus would do. As He said: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”. John 15:13

    Dec 14, gun free zone, Shady Hook Elementary School, teachers disarmed by law, disaster ensues.

    Dec 11, citizen defense zone, Clackamas mall, armed citizen confronted shooter, shooter commited suicide immediately, disaster averted.

    “Lesson Of Sandy Hook, Clackamas — Ban Gun-Free Zones”

    http://news.investors.com/ibd-editorials/121712-637367-sandy-hook-tragedy-prevented-at-clackamas.htm

    “Before the tragedy in Connecticut, a shooter at an Oregon shopping mall was stopped by an armed citizen with a concealed carry permit who refused to be a victim, preventing another mass tragedy.”

    • Jeannie

      I don’t think there is any way John 15:13 can be interpreted to mean “Greater love has no man than that he carry a concealed firearm so that he can kill those who threaten his friends.” And as to “what Jesus would do”: if you can provide an example in Scripture in which Jesus fought physically against violence in order to deter it, or encouraged others to do so, I would very much like to see that. I think we can best judge what he would do by what he did.

      The best antidote to darkness is light. The best antidote to evil is good. The best antidote to hatred is love. I’m not a pacifist (or a passivist, a term Tim used yesterday) or a quietist or a doormat — and I know we Canadians are sometimes seen as coming from a different planet on this issue. I was hesitant to reply here because I’ve commented on a few blogs on this subject lately and don’t want to be too ubiquitous. But I just CAN’T accept what you’ve said.

      • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

        Oh Jeannie. Bless you for stepping into this particular pile. Because Dave and I have been round and round on this issue (which is why I’m not responding to him any more on this issue), I have an idea of what scripture he is going to pull out. I’d like to offer this alternative interpretation of that scripture (see link to another post below; the passage I refer to is toward the end of the post). And I wish you luck :)

        http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ellenpainterdollar/2012/07/five-lessons-from-my-post-on-gun-control/

      • DaveP

        > if you can provide an example in Scripture in which Jesus fought physically against violence in order to deter it, or encouraged others to do so, I would very much like to see that.

        Luke 22: 36: “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one”.

        Also, Jesus didn’t forbid his disciples from carrying swords for defensive purposes, only for using them for offensive purposes, Matt 26:52: “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” In other words, Jesus was an advocate of concealed carry.

        Also, although Jesus didn’t say this, in Revelations 13:10 it says to combat swords with swords: “He that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword”.

        • DaveP

          > The best antidote to evil is good.

          I agree. But: “All it takes for evil to win is for good people to do nothing”.

          Connecticut voted to disarm teachers so that they could do nothing if a suicidal child killer armed with a gun, or a machete, or a sledge hammer, etc, came into their school. Connecticut voted to have their teachers and children be slaughtered rather than fight back.

          I don’t think that too many voters in other states are going to follow the “Connecticut example”.

          “County Police Chief Recommends Arming School Personnel”

          http://stlouis.cbslocal.com/2012/12/17/county-police-chief-recommends-arming-school-personnel/

          • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

            In response to the ridiculous idea that a school principal or teacher with a gun could easily and without unnecessary bloodshed stop someone from shooting up a school, I repeat from an earlier blog post in regards to the Aurora theater shooting:

            “The gun-wielding-citizen-as-protector ideal is nonsense. Police officers go through hours of specialized training to help them discern when the use of deadly force is justified. As we know from not a few front-page tragedies involving police shootings, despite such rigorous training, even the best-trained officers don’t always get it right. Yet we want to believe that an armed citizen with a few hours of practice on the shooting range will be able to make split-second judgments well enough to ensure that the only people who end up dead are the bad guys. We don’t have to look any farther than an early February morning in a Florida gated community to know that such a belief is sadly misplaced.

            Perhaps some well-meaning gun-toting citizen could have stopped James Holmes before he murdered a dozen people. Or perhaps that gun-toting citizen would have been perceived as a threat and gunned down by the police (or another gun-toting citizen). Perhaps that citizen, shooting in a dark theater of panicked people instead of on a quiet shooting range, would have missed the target and upped the death tool to 13 or more. Perhaps he or she would have accidentally killed a teenager with nothing more threatening on him than a box of Skittles.”

            And then there’s the very practical question of how one manages to 1) keep school personnel armed and able to respond with armed force at a moment’s notice while also 2) protecting them and the children in their care from the bloody results of the accidental or unintentional shootings that are bound to happen when a loaded gun is present and accessible.

            “All it takes for evil to win is for good people to do nothing.” – Agreed. And I firmly believe the good people of this nation are finally ready to fight back against evil by disarming it of weapons of mass murder.

          • DaveP

            > The gun-wielding-citizen-as-protector ideal is nonsense

            Well, you can keep repeating that without any evidence, but everyone else in the country is looking at what happened on Dec 11 in the Clackamas Mall in Oregeon, where a single gun-wielding-citizen-as-protector stopped a mass slaughter without firing a single shot. They then compare that to what happened on Dec 14 in Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Connecticut voters said they preferrred to have their children and teachers slaughtered rather than fight back.

            Oregon voters got the outcome they voted for. Connecticut voters got they outcome they voted for.

            I think that voters in other states are more likely to follow the “Oregon example” rather than the “Connecticut example”.

          • Jeannie

            DaveP, you asked about gun carriage/transport in Canada. Not being an expert I did some research of my own and it appears that the only people who can carry handguns (we’ll leave predator-hunting & target-shooting etc. out of the discussion for now) are those who require them for their jobs (e.g. police, border guards) and those who the law deems to require them for “protection of life.” The latter could include people who are vulnerable because they transport large amounts of money or other desirables, or those who are granted authorization to carry a gun because of specific situations (e.g. a person is considered to be under direct threat by a specific individual/group known to police and the police can’t promise to protect them, etc.) — but these would be rare. So it would be very unlikely that a Canadian teacher would be authorized to carry a gun into school under those criteria.

            I think Jesus’ admonition to Peter to put the sword back in its place, not toss it on the ground, makes logical sense in the context; with amped-up soldiers present, tossing it away and allowing someone else to pick it up might just cause more carnage. I also think it’s important not to make too large a leap from “civilians carrying swords in Bible times” to “civilians carrying handguns in 2012.”

            We could interpret the Connecticut vote as a vote for hope and a better world. To interpret it as a bunch of pinkos preferring their children be massacred sounds awfully heartless in my ears.

          • DaveP

            > Not being an expert I did some research of my own …

            Thanks for all of the info, interesting.

            > I think Jesus’ admonition to Peter to put the sword back in its place, not toss it on the ground, makes logical sense in the context; with amped-up soldiers present, tossing it away and allowing someone else to pick it up might just cause more carnage.

            I agree. But before that incident, for however many months or years they were together, why was Jesus allowing Peter to carry a sword at all? The only reason I can think of is for self-defense. Which ties in with Jesus’s saying about laying down your life for your friend. If it came to a fight, Peter would have been the one laying down his life for Jesus.

            Just like they teach in concealed carry classes. If you have a gun, you also have the responsibility to put yourself in front of everyone else. You will be the person most likely to die because you are now the shooter’s most important target, but everyone else is more likely to survive because of you.

            > We could interpret the Connecticut vote as a vote for hope and a better world.

            I’m sure the Connecticut voters had good intentions.

            > To interpret it as a bunch of pinkos preferring their children be massacred sounds awfully heartless in my ears.

            Yep, to my ears too. But in my experience, sometimes it turns out to be best to appear to be heartless in order to solve a problem. For example, maybe the Catholic Church should have been more heartless towards the pedophile priests and immediately turned them over to the police.

        • Jeannie

          I can’t accept your interpretations, DaveP. The sell-cloak-buy-sword remark is usually, I believe, taken more figuratively: Jesus is saying, “Look guys, to fulfill the prophecy of my dying with the lawless, we need to have swords on us — two should do it.” This cannot be taken as encouragement to violence; the idea of their fighting off the hordes with 2 swords is ridiculous anyway.

          Jesus’ admonition to Peter to put away his sword surely means “Put it away and do not use it” — not “Put it away and only draw it if the bad guys draw theirs first.” And the Revelations passage has other translations such as “If you’re destined to die by the sword, you’ll die by the sword”; it’s not nearly definite enough to support your position.

          As for the Burke (or whoever) quote about “good men doing nothing”: twisting that in order to claim that Connecticut voters “chose to have their children slaughtered” is unworthy of rebuttal. (Sorry, Ellen, I’m not as tough as you!) :-) :-(

          • DaveP

            > The sell-cloak-buy-sword remark is usually, I believe, taken more figuratively: Jesus is saying, “Look guys, to fulfill the prophecy of my dying with the lawless, we need to have swords on us — two should do it.”

            Even if taken figuratively, it shows that Jesus was not an advocate of “sword control”.

            > This cannot be taken as encouragement to violence;

            I never said Jesus “encouraged violence”. Using a sword for defensive purposes does not encourage violence, it deters it.

            > surely means “Put it away and do not use it” — not “Put it away and only draw it if the bad guys draw theirs first.”

            “Surely”? Then why didn’t Jesus tell Peter (and whoever else was carrying the other two swords) to throw their swords away instead of merely sheathing them? What Jesus told Peter is exactly that they teach in concealed carry classes.

            > to claim that Connecticut voters “chose to have their children slaughtered” is unworthy of rebuttal.

            Any time you vote, you’re choosing between options. What did Connecticut voters expect to happen if they disarmed school teachers and administrators, and someone decided to shoot up the school?

            By the way, you mentioned that you were Canadian, and as far as I can tell from an internet search, unlike Connecticut if a teacher in Canada has a permit to carry, then can bring their gun to their school. Do you know if that’s correct or not?

          • DaveP

            > the idea of their fighting off the hordes with 2 swords is ridiculous anyway.

            My wife is a teacher. In our state teachers are allowed to conceal carry in school. On an average day in my wife’s school, about 1 out of 6 teachers and administrators is armed. That seems to have deterred any school violence here. In at least one case, two rival gangs deliberately took a fight off of school grounds because they knew the teachers were armed. One of the gang members was shot, and his gang actually brought him back to the school to protect him from the other gang because they knew the school was a safe zone.

            1 out of 6 teachers is the same ratio as 2 out of 12 disciples. Coincidence? Or is 1/6 the level at which the other 5/6 of the population feels safe because they know that 1/6 are willing to “lay down their lives for their friends”?

      • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

        Oh, and I too am feeling a bit “ubiquitous.” I can’t seem to stop myself from commenting on every mention of gun control stuff on Facebook and elsewhere. Trying not to overdo it, but also feeling like it can’t be overdone given what happened on Friday. Trying to decide whether to do one more post this week, this time on how police officers view an assault weapons ban (very favorably). I worked with a police chiefs’ association in the 1990s and law enforcement groups are generally heavily in favor of tighter gun regulations, given that they are often the first to see the bloodshed wrought by easy access to firearms in the form of accidents, suicides, and homicides.

    • Jeannie

      Re your last comment: “For example, maybe the Catholic Church should have been more heartless towards the pedophile priests and immediately turned them over to the police”: excuse me, but that’s just a wanton mangling of my use of the word “heartless”. Turning pedophiles over to the authorities is a morally and legally correct action that’s irrelevant to this conversation. By contrast, blanket statements like “These people voted for gun control because they want their kids murdered”; “These people voted against gun control because they delight in all the murders that take place in the US”; “We took God out of the schools so He decided to sit back and enjoy the carnage from the distance we’d placed Him at” are dehumanizing and simplistic.

      • DaveP

        > excuse me, but that’s just a wanton mangling of my use of the word “heartless”.

        Sorry if I misunderstood. To clarify: the Catholic Church acted out of “good intentions”, with horrific results, when it decided not to turn the priests over to the police. The Catholic Church probably thinks that people who criticize them for that are “heartless”.

        Just as the voters of Connecticut acted out of “good intentions”, with horrific results, when they decided to prevent teachers from defending themselves and their students. And I suppose the voters of Connecticut think that people who criticize them for that are “heartless”.

        >Turning pedophiles over to the authorities is a morally and legally correct action that’s irrelevant to this conversation.

        Why irrelevant? Bearing a firearm in order to defend yourself and the children around you is a morally correct action. Since the 2nd amendment says that right shall “not be abridged”, in my opinion it’s also a legally correct action. I wonder whether the Supreme Court would overturn the decision of Connecticut voters to deprive teachers of the right to defend themselves and their students?

        > By contrast, blanket statements like … are dehumanizing and simplistic.

        I agree. And I never made any of those statements.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Ellen, I am so glad you encouraged me to re-ruin my post about carrying firearms at my place yesterday. As you say here, there are a lot of people who need to discuss these issues. I also found myself watching my visitor and page view numbers go higher and higher, and then wondered if there was something wrong with me for paying attention to them at all. But you’re right, we are blogging because we think we have something to say and that others might need to read it. One thing I found is that some of the comments are coming from people abroad, and their perspectives are so insightful on these issues. They are certainly a far cry form those who say the proper response is to be better armed ourselves.

    BLessings,
    Tim

    • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

      Aack, I said re-ruin instead of re-run! Then again, maybe I got it right the first time …

  • DaveP

    Touch of irony here.

    As a consequence of the elementary school near Ellen sadly making national news on Friday…

    … the elementary school that all my kids attended made national news on Monday.

    “Student brings gun to West Kearns Elementary”

    http://www.abc4.com/mostpopular/story/Student-brings-gun-to-West-Kearns-Elementary/hmaOxzSHkUurqsCoQ5ca2w.cspx

    “Panic and fear spread among parents and children after a 6th grade boy brought a handgun and ammunition to school on Monday.

    The 11-year-old said he was worried about the events of the Newtown, CT shooting.”

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      OK, so Dave, here’s the deal:

      Obviously, you and I disagree on gun control. It’s what brought us together, so to speak! I am going to be blogging more about gun control in the coming year. I am working with some other Christian bloggers to provide a more coordinated witness in favor of an assault weapons ban and other gun legislation.

      While I, in general, welcome dissent as long as it’s done politely, I cannot have you monopolizing any and all conversations I host on this topic. Again, to compare my job to that of a dinner host who invites people over periodically for lively discussion, I wouldn’t allow someone to dominate an in-person conversation either.

      I’d like to ask you to monitor yourself re: future gun-related posts so I don’t have to monitor your comments for you (that is, block you from commenting, which I don’t want to do). I need other people to feel welcome to post and many people will avoid a comment thread in which one person monopolizes the topic, particularly when he also likes to drop provocative little nuggets into his comments that are sure to get other people riled up. I’d like to ask that, in future, you keep your comments on my gun-related posts to a minimum. One or two per post. I know how you feel; now I’d like to hear from others. I am responsible for the tone as well as the content of this blog. Thank you.

      • DaveP

        > OK, so Dave, here’s the deal:

        Will do, thanks for putting up with me!


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