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The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents

2012 December 21

It makes it more poignant that this has happened at Christmas, a radio reporter said to one of the parents at the school in America where 20 infants and six adults were killed by a gunman last week. As banal remarks go, it outstripped the usual “so how do you feel” question to the unhappy individuals in the vortex of the latest media tornado. It betrays, of course, something of the sentimental contemporary view of Christmas which routinely forgets that the child in the manager is born to be crucified. The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents is neatly elided in the secular calendar between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve. But the remark speaks of something more disquieting.

Perhaps I am out on a limb here but I felt a curious sense of unease at the blanket media coverage of the events. There has been a melodrama about much of the writing which is otiose in a situation where the events are dramatic enough without prurient adornment. It feels at times like a self-indulgent peddling in a grief which is too profound for casual journalism to fathom.

That kind of writing might be excusable in the United States where heart-breaking detail might in some way influence the debate on the politics of gun control. But what we write and read here will change nothing, just as the previous litany of names like Columbine, Virginia Tech and the Batman shooting at Aurora changed nothing. They are just the mass shootings we remember – there were 13 other such attacks in 2012 alone according to the Washington Post. Each produces the same howls of outrage and the same futile round of arguments as the previous massacre.

In America the House of Representatives is currently controlled by a Republican party  deeply in hock to the National Rifle Association which vehemently opposes bans on guns with arguments about how this is “more of a mental health problem than a gun control problem”.  Many Democrat politicians, fearful the NRA could oust them, acquiesce. What makes things even more complex  is that most gun legislation is set by states rather than the federal government – and gun shows and the internet are exempt from regulation. Britons railing against this, forgetting Dunblane and Hungerford, do little more than insist we are rationally and morally superior to our purblind American cousins.

In the wake of the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who took the hoax call about the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge, the Samaritans issued an interesting media briefing. Noting strong evidence that copycat suicides occur as a result of extensive press coverage, it counselled against giving too many explicit details – on the method of death, the contents of any suicide note and reporting which was too detailed or sensationalist. Some of those cautions would be well applied to the horrors at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Grief and bereavement should not be turned into the latest myth as if they were some newly discovered fairy story by Hans Christian Anderson. Myth was a pre-religious way of making sense of the world, telling stories that help us through adversity by convincing us that the world is not totally random but has shape and purpose. The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents is a revealing theological corollary to the joy of the Christmas story.

But Herod’s story is a warning against the cruelty of power where Sandy Hook plunges us only into the sick psychology of derangement. Stories of courage and love in that terrified school were reported but the primary media fascination was with the lurid detail of the killing, the anguish of the bereaved and the motivation of the gunman. That offers only a modern parable of existential futility. We should not hide from the truth, but nor should we wallow in it.

The Church Times

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