‘Thoughts and prayers’ are now political

Of course. Everything else is these days.

I remember when tragedies brought even political opponents together in what seemed potentially like a learning moment about our shared humanity being larger than the differences of opinions, beliefs and ideas that divide us. Certainly that happened after 9/11, and it seemed that whatever renewed sense of unity and solidarity members of government shared with locked arms in appearances before the nation in those days soon after, and complete strangers shared with bowed heads and tear streamed cheeks on the steps of churches and cathedrals as the crowds poured out the doors for days after that horror, would last long enough to change our nation for the better. It didn’t last that long.

Nor did it when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others were shot in a Tuscon, Arizona supermarket parking lot in January 2011 during a routine gathering of citizens meeting their congressional representative. One of the six people who died in that shooting was a nine year old girl who was born on September 11, 2001. President Obama referred to her several times in his speech at the Together We Thrive: Tucson and America memorial on January 12, 2011.

Preparing for that speech, Obama conferred with a Pentecostal clergyman, the head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. White House staffers conferred with religious advisers about biblical passages the president might use in the speech to speak to a nation jarred to the core. But at the core there was still – at that point in our relatively recent history – the need to connect worldly events with spiritual aspirations.

Obama decided to quote from the Book of Job and Psalm 46.

And he did so to acknowledge and grieve the occasion when six people were killed and Rep. Giffords was shot in the head while “gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech.” That is clearly close to the occasion of the Texas massacre last week when people were gathered inside a church to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of religion.

In his remarks after the tragedy in January 2011, Obama remarked that people were seeking to make sense out of the senseless by debating issues like gun safety laws and the breakdown of the mental health treatment system.

He urged that the polarized national debate be conducted “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” Quoting the Book of Job 30:26, Obama said “terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding.” Urging Americans to avoid using the tragedy as “one more occasion to turn on one another”, he called for a new civility in the nation and political and public discourse. He recommended humility, empathy and especially reflection, urging people to consider whether they have “shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives”.

Obama said “we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -– but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.”

And he closed the speech with a blessing.

This is good to remember as we go through tragedy after mind-numbing tragedy, and political discourse is growing more unkind, uncharitable, accusatory, harsh, intolerant, divisive, and scornful of religion.

As Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn sees it, for many politicians in President Obama’s party, and media sympathizers, GOP leaders offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ after the Texas massacre is ‘deplorable’.

“Thoughts & prayers are not enough, GOP,” wrote the Massachusetts Democrat. “We must end this violence. We must stop these tragedies. People are dying while you wait.” In short, if you are a Republican praying instead of passing gun control, you’ve got blood on your hands.


The Huffington Post devoted an entire piece to the phenomenon, under the headline “People Fed Up With ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Demand Action After Texas Church Massacre.” It featured tweets from celebrities and gun-control advocates who believe they had discovered something big: Prayers aren’t always answered…


Surely it is possible to make the case for gun control without mocking prayer. But as with Mrs. Clinton and her infamous remarks about Trump voters—not only deplorable but irredeemable—those denouncing Messrs. Trump and Ryan’s offer of prayers don’t really want an argument. They want to express their feelings of moral superiority.


Michael Brendan Dougherty said something similar in his National Review Online piece, asserting that prayer is not a distraction. But the outrage expressed by progressive politicians is.

The effect is increasing the ambient background level of contempt and hatred in American society.

This is precisely what we need less of, especially right exactly now.

In the moments after a tragedy, the fact is we have no idea whether the killer would have been deterred by stricter gun-control laws, whether he broke existing ones, or whether he would have sought to circumvent them the way mass killers do in other countries. We often have no idea how any particular gun-control policies we would like to see implemented would have changed these events. And so attacking the prayers of politicians in fact substitutes for thought and reflection. It is a way for those who favor more gun control, as I do, to express a sentiment about gun violence, without actually putting forward a policy that addresses the issue at hand. If anyone is using “prayer” as a distraction in the wake of a mass shooting, it is those who want gun control but have no idea how their policy preferences could be implemented, and how those policies would have changed the events.

He zeroes in on the point.

The anti-prayer tweets aren’t encouraging a debate about gun control; they are discouraging expressions of shock, sympathy, and mourning. That is, they are discouraging statements about the inherent value of the lives lost that address the real grief of the bereaved. Often that is the only thing we can sensibly offer in the minutes after awful news breaks across our screens. By discouraging these expressions, they are also inadvertently boxing pro-gun-control politicians into talking about the victims of mass shootings in a purely instrumental way, a less human way — thereby reducing such deaths to having no other public meaning beyond another reason to pass legislation that these politicians already wanted to pass. Without being able to offer a plain expression of sorrow and anger, even pro-gun-control politicians are deprived of a means of offering human respect before engaging in politics. This opens them to the charge of disrespecting the dead by using their deaths to promote views to which the dead would object.


So even if you are frustrated with America’s permissive gun rights, it isn’t the prayers offered to the dead that are the problem. Let people mourn the dead. Let them say the human thing first. And then engage in vigorous political debate afterward.

Columnist Bill McGurn reminded us that

…Barack Obama offered his “thoughts and prayers” as often as any president, such as after a 2013 shooting in Washington when he said, “We send our thoughts and prayers to all at the Navy Yard who’ve been touched by this tragedy.” No one complained then, either because they were comfortable that Mr. Obama didn’t really believe in prayer or his faith in gun control was absolute.


Over the next few weeks, the surviving members of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs will wrap their fallen in love and lay them to rest. What these survivors may individually believe about gun control is anyone’s guess. But it’s hard to believe that the way to their hearts is by mocking offers of prayer, even from Republicans.

For the most part, the right to life has become an extremely partisan issue over the past few decades. That battle will continue to be fought in the legislature, the courts and the arena of public ideas. In the Texas massacre, one of the victims authorities included among the dead was an unborn child, and naturally so.

Let prayers be offered in peace and goodwill, by all who claim to care the most for the true good of humanity. As President Obama urged, in a time of tragedy, conduct public debate “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” And Democrats would do well to remember his words” “we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -– but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.”

In the aftermath of horror

Here we are again. Collectively crying and praying and consoling and grieving after another massacre, and this one in a school with innocent little children brutally slaughtered. When will this end? How can we change things enough to bring this to an end? Or can we?

We couldn’t even keep the post-9/11 goodwill going, which brought the people of this nation to our knees and back to church and made politicians drop their partisan bickering because we’re all Americans and we had just been attacked like never before. After the Tucson shootings politicians and media elites, worried about increasingly heated rhetoric, called for greater civility in the way we talk with and deal with each other, and that lasted a few days. We’ve suffered through Columbine, Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood, the Amish community attack for crying out loud, the Colorado movie theater massacre followed by the Wisconsin church shootings, last week’s shopping mall shooting spree followed quickly by the Sandy Hook elementary school murders.

This is mind-numbing. We always say that. We always call these things ‘horrific’, because we’ve run out of superlatives to speak for the unspeakable, the horror beyond all telling. And yet it’s getting so commonplace we’re terrified that it could be just around the corner or right through the door for us. Who knows?

No one. We can never know. So we look for answers. Even people of faith are shaken, badly enough that some are asking the oft-asked question ‘Where was God?’ How can there be a God if this evil is allowed to happen?

Some are demanding new gun control laws. Some are crying out to eliminate the filth from the easily accessible entertainment culture. And some are raising questions about mental health issues in this country.

These are questions that apply beyond this country. They call for discussion and very public attention to each one. So, here’s a roundup.

On the presence of evil in the world. Fr. Robert Barron addresses this again and again.

On violence in the entertainment culture.

On our coarsened culture in general in this good column. Written by a USA Today sports writer.

Much of the discussion in response to all the dead kindergartners in Newtown, Conn., will focus on guns, and rightfully so. If little girls gunned down at their desks don’t force the issue, what will?

But it is so much more. What is it about us, that so many pull triggers? This was the act of a disturbed man, but why so many acts, and why so many killers? No new gun control law can answer that.

The psychologists will eventually tell us their theories about this individual and why he picked up weapons one morning and decided to shoot 5-year-olds. If only it was as simple as one madman. Only as infrequent as one grim Friday.

But it’s not. You wonder if we have created too fertile a breeding ground for violence. You wonder why the predominant emotion among so many of us so often is rage.

And then you look around, and the way we communicate with one another.

Yes. Exactly. That is violence, and it’s done freely and seemingly without limits every day in public discourse, if it can be called that. Yes, it’s the way we communicate with one another, dehumanizing the ‘Other’ because they’re not like us, or they disagree with us on big things that are very important to us.

You look at our talk shows that once fostered thoughtful discussion and meaningful debate. Now they value one word only. Attack. Attack. Attack. The more vicious the better, because it sells.

You look at our Internet, and its vast promise of an interchange of ideas. And then see how that promise has been perverted, to where assault is made all the easier by anonymity, and even the media no longer has use for beauty or perspective, because scandal and conflict and heated rhetoric get so many more computer hits…

If rage and rancor are so much a part of our daily lives, it should not be a shock that gunfire breaks out. It has happened so often, that now when the first reports come, we ask the same questions, dulled as we are by mayhem.

About the rage and rancor, and being desensitized to mayhem, we have to get sensitive to something else critically important to the welfare of humans and human dignity and the common good in society. We have to deal with mental illness.

This mother’s story heart-wrenchingly exposes that overlooked and undertreated (and often terribly mistreated) sickness, of the person and the family and the state. Read it. Read it all.

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan — they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.

We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael.

How heartbreaking is this.

His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.

How common is her story?

This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people.

This is terrible. Unacceptably horrible for human beings who need help, but only get funneled into a damaging system that will make them worse and dehumanize them.

No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”

I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.

God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.

Among all other such cries going up echoing this plea, the Pope made his petition, for peacemakers, echoing his predecessor.

You, with your prayer and with the testimony of goodness, can offer a daily contribution to the cause of the pacification of hearts and the establishment of peace among men. I have come to tell you that the Pope relies on your hidden but effective contribution: ask God for the gift of peace to hearts, to families, and to peoples. Beloved ones! In the face of the tragedies of men, prayers may seem ineffective and vain, but they always open new glimpses of hope, especially when they are enhanced by the pain that is transformed into love.

Those who will, need to step up this “hidden but effective contribution.”

At the tail end of a television news interview with a law enforcement expert, he added: ‘as bad as this is, someone, somewhere is sitting out there planning something bigger than this.’ Yes, it’s a dangerous world.

Sunday evening, a deeply moving interfaith prayer service was held in Newtown, Connecticut, where – as the chief of the state police put it in a press conference – evil visited. This time, please God, may the desire for change persist and prevail.