The voices followed me through the airport yesterday afternoon, their insistent tones blaring as loudly as the glaring screens that have colonized nearly every public place in American life. They chased after me offering insider knowledge: "The autopsy reports on Adam Lanza and his mother are providing some gruesome new details … "
I scurried out of sight and hearing of whatever gruesomeness was about to be unveiled. They quoted press releases from lobbying groups: "… prepared to make meaningful contributions to make sure this never happens again.…" I pondered how many PR professionals had polished that artfully vague phrase—"meaningful contributions"—and whether they truly believed that such a travesty would never happen again, no matter how meaningful their client's contributions.
No, it will happen again.
I did not actually curse in the televisions' direction until I heard them serve up the most heinous possible version of disaster theology—this, offered in all strident sincerity to best explain the fates of the victims to one's own children: "God needed some wonderful new angels. He asked for them, and he got them."
Not a single person in that airport was assisted in any way by these ghastly disclosures, pat press releases, and offensive atheologies. But this is the ironclad logic of continuous broadcasting: Broadcasting must be continuous. Someone must always be saying something even when there is nothing new to say. The most basic lesson for those who would comfort the victims of tragedy is that the first, best response to tragedy is presence, and often the best form of presence is silence. The grieving, the sick, and the dying sometimes need our words, sometimes need our touch, but almost always they need our presence. And there is no contradiction between presence and silence in the embodied life for which we were all created, to which we are all called, into which God himself entered. Bodies can be present without a word. That is the beauty of bodies.
Mediated communication, on the other hand—any form of communication that places something "in the middle," between persons—cannot abide silence. Radio hates dead air. Television hates sound without movement. As Garrison Keillor discovered when his perfect radio show became a mediocre television show, the camera cannot sit still. An audience of a thousand can sit utterly quiet as a single person plays an acoustic guitar, Keillor said ruefully, but the camera cannot—it must swoop and pan and zoom. Media cannot rest.
And while there was a time when you could count the number of broadcasters on one hand, we are all broadcasters now. A tragedy like the Newtown massacre becomes not just a media event, but also a social media event. As the journalist Alex Massie pointed out in his trenchant essay this week, silence is not an option in social media. Not to tweet or post or blog is not to be silently present—it is to be mutely absent. He suggested, fully aware of the futility of his suggestion, that perhaps we all could have simply posted one-word tweets on Friday, using the hashtag #silent, and left it at that. But we didn't, nor are we likely to during the next tragedy. #silent will never be a trending topic on Twitter.
All that any of us who do not live in Newtown, Connecticut, truly needed to know—possibly more than we needed to know—appeared in a 12-word news alert on my phone Friday afternoon. Almost everything else, I believe, was a distraction from the only thing that we who are not first responders, pastors, or parents in that community needed to do at that moment: to pray, which is to say, to put ourselves at the mercy of God and hold those who harmed and those who were harmed before the mercy of God.