Reaction To Steve Scalise’s Shooting Teaches Us To Fear Indifference More Than Hate

Reaction To Steve Scalise’s Shooting Teaches Us To Fear Indifference More Than Hate

It’s likely that most Americans have little recollection of where they were or what they were doing when they learned about Steve Scalise and the others who had been wounded. Why?
Matthew Petrusek
By

As the June 14 shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise fades from the news cycle, it is important to ask why the June 14 shooting of Steve Scalise is fading from the news cycle.

There is the obvious reason, of course, pithily explained by Dennis Prager in a recent column: the attempted assassination of GOP members of Congress by a leftwing political activist for political reasons does not fit the “climate of hate” narrative most members of the media prefer, so the event must be obfuscated by creating empirically false historical parallels, excused by redistributing blame, then ignored and forgotten.

But there appears to be something deeper going on than run-of-the mill partisan bias.

Where Were You When…?

What is surprising, if we pause to think about it, is how uneventful this event has been. For example, my parents remember where they were and what they were doing when President John F. Kennedy was shot. They also remember where they were and what they were doing when Sen. Robert Kennedy was shot. Although the memories are not quite as vivid, the same goes for Ronald Reagan’s shooting.

So where were you and what were you doing when Scalise was shot and, in particular, when you learned the gunman would likely have been able to kill numerous members of Congress if it were not for Scalise’s security detail? The parallel to previous assassinations and attempted assassinations is not perfect, but it’s close enough. In an alternate universe, it is the kind of event that would cause massive cultural and political introspection, something that, at the very least, would quiet the chatter and focus the attention of most of the country on something that meets the criteria for being a national crisis.

Yet it’s likely that most Americans have little to no recollection of where they were or what they were doing when they learned about Scalise and the others who had been wounded. That means that the news made little or no emotional impact. Why not?

When Everything is News, Nothing Is

We can trace some of the indifference to the nature of news itself. Until the advent of 24-hour news channels and the explosion of the Internet, most news came in a finite package people consumed once daily in the form of newspapers and nightly broadcasts. “News,” in other words, was not part of the circulatory system of everyday life; watching or reading it meant that you were temporarily focusing your attention on domestic and international events before returning to the regularly scheduled programming of your own family, social group, and job.

“Breaking news” in those days was also always a big deal—a bombing campaign commencing, a shuttle exploding, an embassy attacked. It did not include how many scoops of ice cream the president received.

Today, of course, the influx of news is constant, and its generators and interpreters have financial incentives to keep it moving and fresh. In this context, it’s not hard to see how the attempted murder of members of Congress can get lost in a swirl of stories about Russia, alleged obstruction of justice, North Korea, health care, and the names of Beyoncé’s twins.

An unavoidable consequence of the faster-moving and more densely packed cycles of information is that most breaking news is just a breath away from oblivion—including news about the attempted assassination of members of Congress, or the slaughter of children at a concert in London, or that one time, way back in 2016, that dozens of Americans died in the single largest attack since 9/11.

What About All That Hate?

Still, it is incomplete to blame the lackluster attention paid to the shooting on the news industry alone. Part of it is certainly partisan bias, and part of it is driven by ratings, but the biggest reason may be even more mundane: nobody cares.

That may sound like an odd claim in our contemporary political climate. When windows are being smashed, speakers are being assaulted, people are taking to blows in the streets, representations of the president are being beheaded and gored, and conspiracy theorists abound, the stronger argument seems to be that too many people care too much about politics. Indeed, the evidence suggests that a large swath of our political culture is swimming in hate if, by hate, we mean the all-encompassing desire to obliterate the political—if not physical—existence of the other.

But hate is not an emotion. It is an ongoing disposition. The seeds of hate may lie in an emotion—perhaps anger, revulsion, or contempt—but it can only grow if fed with time and thought. Indeed, hate is not “irrational” in the sense that it operates independently of reason; it is irrational because it perverts reasoning, applying an epistemological filter on reality that only lets in that which justifies and augments the hate.

In other words, to hate is to subsume all other goods to the “good” of the destruction of the other, and that involves a lot of calculation. Note, for example, how much this college professor thought about his hatred before taking to Twitter recently. Academic phrases in his rant can only be the result of the sustained, thoughtful stewing of a poisoned mind.

The Wisdom of the Untutored Emotions

But emotions are something else. They erupt, often unexpectedly. They may not be irrational in the sense of arbitrary, but they do appear to have some independence from our thoughts in the sense that we have trouble thinking them into existence. Try to make yourself laugh, for example—really laugh, like you’ve just heard a joke whose punchline surprised you. Or try to make yourself cry—really cry, like you just lost someone dear to you. It’s hard.

And while thought may be able to set the stage for an emotion (like recalling a memory), emotion itself seems to have a life on its own, and, as such, defies all artificiality and calculation. This is why we often point to emotions as one of the essential characteristics of our humanity, something that makes us naturally human.

So let me ask: What is the natural response to learning that someone has been shot while playing baseball, that bullets have pierced his skin and shattered his bones, caused his body to hemorrhage blood, and brought him close to death? What is the natural response when you find that person has a spouse and children who, like anyone else in the same situation, will be suffering from nauseous panic and worry? What is the natural response to recognizing that this was an attack not only against a person, but against a high-ranking elected member of the government who, whether you agree with him or not, represents roughly half of your country?

Shock, sadness, grief, and disbelief come to mind. A hand over the mouth. That’s what would be natural, what would be human. But those responses were mostly absent in the aftermath of the event, even from many of those on Scalise’s “side.”

Cry for Yourself, America

This is, or should be, shocking. Yawning at the shooting is almost as much of a moral scandal as celebrating it. Yes, many, many people are suffering in our country and across the world, and we can’t cry for everyone. But that’s not the point. The point is: Are we able to cry for anyone anymore, at least anyone outside of our immediate circle of concern?

The response to the Scalise shooting suggests that even our crocodile tears have now dried up. Mutual hatred may be sparking the fire that threatens our republic. But it is our brittle, desiccated hearts that will let it burn.

Matthew Petrusek is an assistant professor of theological ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and the founder of Wisefaith Ministries.

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