Mediating Our Dead


By Rachel Wagner

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee. ~ John Donne (1624)

The shooting of 27 people, 18 of them children, in the small town of Newtown, Connecticut this morning is not news. And by that, I mean that it should shock us all. We should not be able to post photos of the children being rushed out of the building without crying, without seeing even this activity as an act of disrespect to the very real families who sent their little ones off to school this morning and now sit in empty rooms. I hope to God we don’t see images in the coming days of the violence itself. I predict we will see stories emerge of heroes, people who put themselves in harm’s way to try to protect the children, and stories about the children themselves: their families, their grief, their hopes destroyed.

Already, the image of the children with hands on one another’s backs being marched through a parking lot with a terrified teacher is all over the internet, a symbol of innocence and chaos. Messages like “We are better than this” have been printed by well meaning meme creators so they can post the image to their stream, as a statement of solidarity, a performance that morality is in fact not destroyed by such horror. Already the minions of gun control – on both sides of the issue – are hawking their angry words back and forth in a ping-pong of symbolic warfare. As for me, I keep thinking about some nameless chubby-cheeked five year old, watching his classmates collapse on the floor in pools of blood, waiting his turn and weeping, with the weight of a world so much heavier than he should have to bear. I keep thinking about the parents who have stacks of Christmas presents that will become toxic symbols of death and loss. And I remain convinced that there is no good answer to the question, “Why did this happen?” I don’t even want to try.

Although certain “lessons” can always be learned from tragedy (people pitching in to help; organizations and relationships formed afterward; religious meaning that transcends the events themselves), we shouldn’t ever hope to understand what the shooter’s motives are. There are no forgivable motives. There is nothing to “understand.” Unless we are the detectives assigned to his case, we should not probe into his background, nor read reports of whatever his life story might have been before this decision, and we should not diminish the real grief required here by using this real event as a symbol in the back-and-forth about gun control. Not yet. Not today. Not even tomorrow. We should not use the real heartbreak of the parents of these small citizens as a reason to tout our own opinions about why we think it happened. Maybe, after we have properly mourned. But not now.  We should, for now, let the loss be real, let the chaos overwhelm us so that we remember it too is real. So we don’t make sense of the nonsensical. So we don’t forget how to grieve.

Those who say this is a clarion call for gun control believe that if guns are harder to get, fewer people will be killed with them. Whether this claim is true or not, it fails to address the anger, grief, or lack of sanity that prompted the killer, that always prompts killers. Murder is always insane, because it fails to acknowledge the dignity of the other.

The truth is that we are all implicated here. We can no longer deny that shootings are on the rise. Our era is one of uncertainty and death, around the globe.  Today in China, another killer attacked a kindergarten class in the village of Chengping, stabbing children and then himself. In other parts of the world, children starve, or live in the rubble of war. The question left is the cause of such violence and the answer to this is never going to be simple. The world is changing, and our sense of community is collapsing around us. This desensitization takes another form in the reduction of real deaths to symbolic causes, the immediate impulse to ask – only hours after these babies died – how can this image help my cause, or how can I defend my view about guns? We have become incapable of sitting with tragedy and loss, and instantly seek to make order of it through media. We feel compelled to tweet, post, re-post, comment, like, share. We all do it.  The image has become the real, and because the image always works as symbol, we use it in service of our cause, or our order-making, or our own attempts at understanding.

But this kind of order-making is about us not them, and it is meant to assuage our grief. By integrating the chaos of the events themselves into the social media stream, we normalize it. We impose structure on it. We comment on it, link to it, and try to interpret in some way that doesn’t make us want to collapse in grief. Even by writing this, I condemn myself by putting words to the page. Instead, we should all let out a skyward cry of grief, wrenching ourselves into nonverbal agony, feeling only loss.

One of my students described the scene on the New York subway to me this evening, and expressed her own grief at our disconnectedness: “While I stood in the crowded subway train, I wondered how people could be laughing, talking about everyday things, like nothing had happened. Don’t you know? I wanted to shout. Lives have been taken in an act of terrifying violence. Children killed. Families grieving. A community in turmoil. Part of me wants everyone to be feeling like I do right now, torn up, confused, horrified, angered, and so incredibly sad. Because maybe if everyone would feel like you and I do then maybe we could finally get it together and try to make a difference, all of us, together. Because this isn’t the responsibility of just one person, of one situation, one family, one community, This is on all of us.”


Rachel Wagner is Associate Professor of Religion and Culture at Ithaca College. Her book Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality (Routledge, 2012) explores how our fascination with all things virtual reveals our desire for new rituals and new modes of world building. During the fall semester of 2012, she is a Fellow at the Center for Religion and Media at NYU.

Image: Berndnaut Smilde via

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