Dorothy Day Caucus of the American Solidarity Party A Revolution of the Heart
by Anthony Resnick
Another mass shooting, and again in a school. Another round of recriminations. Another call for more gun control. And, as seems to be increasingly the case, another wave of tying the call for greater gun control to ridicule of those offering thoughts and prayers instead of joining the call for gun control.
Personally, I think greater regulation of firearms possession would be a good thing. I share the scorn for the NRA and the contempt for politicians who seem paralyzed by its political influence. However, tying these sentiments to a condemnation of the offering of thoughts and prayers is wrong and, ultimately, deeply destructive.
There are two general formulations to the anti-"thoughts and prayers" sentiment. The first is "forget thoughts and prayers, do something about our gun laws." This is mostly directed at Republican politicians who make public statements of thoughts and prayers but stand in the way of new gun control legislation, but it can also be directed at anyone offering thoughts and prayers instead of calling their legislators. The tying of offering thoughts and prayers to action on gun control legislation is a non sequitur. Nobody is claiming that the reason we shouldn't enact new gun laws is because thoughts and prayers are sufficient to reduce gun violence. Politicians oppose new gun laws because of a mixture of ideology and political calculation. That opposition should be met with persuasion and building political pressure on the other side of the equation, but everyone, regardless of their politics, should be encouraged to respond to tragedy with sympathy.
The second form of ridiculing "thoughts and prayers" is along the lines of "your thoughts and prayers literally do nothing." This is wrong for at least two reasons. First, it is based on a childish view of religion, as if the purpose of prayer is to bring about some earthly outcome. Second, even if you don't believe in a higher power, things like saying "please," "thank you," "good morning," and "I love you" also "literally do nothing", yet (for now) nobody is arguing that we should do away with basic human decency altogether.
The ridiculing of "thoughts and prayers" is not just wrong, but destructive. Several years ago, following the Senate's failure to pass gun control legislation inspired by the Sandy Hook school shooting, I wrote an essay arguing that the "politicization" of tragic events is appropriate. My argument then was that minimizing human suffering is an appropriate aim of public policy, and the wake of mass suffering is an appropriate time to talk about whether any changes in policy could have avoided or minimized that suffering. I stand by that argument, but it is incomplete. It is incomplete because it leaves out just how much of our world is beyond the reach of public policy, and how much power we have to collectively shape the world in ways that have nothing to do with who we elect and what laws they enact.
There is something deeply unhealthy about a country where, with such regularity, people are moved to kill as many of their fellow humans as possible. The many causes and symptoms of this sickness are far beyond the scope of this essay and far beyond my capabilities to diagnose, but responding to great suffering primarily with righteous condemnation strikes me as one of the symptoms of this sickness -- many magnitudes different from mass murder, but not entirely unrelated. I suspect that the "forget your thoughts and prayers" half of the formulation does more harm than the "pass better gun laws" could ever do good.
We need better gun laws. We need better mental health services. We need campaign finance reform that doesn't allow the side that's able to raise the most money to dominate a particular issue. But if our politics (in the broadest possible definition of that term) has decayed to the point that we cannot pursue those goals while putting everyone's basic humanity at the center of all that we do, then I despair for how far even the best laws can take us.
Tara Ann Thieke