It has been a very quiet week at Bowdoin. A few hundred students are here playing on athletic teams, working on campus, or working on honors projects or independent studies, but most students are on break for one more week. The campus seems so peaceful with a thick and deep blanket of snow from Wednesday’s storm. There is nothing more beautiful than the Bowdoin Quad in the middle of the winter covered with fresh snow on a blue-sky day.
The serenity of Bowdoin seems a bit surreal though, as we think about recent events in our country and around the world. This week, we have all been focused on Saturday’s horror in Tucson, when a disturbed young man took the lives of six people and injured many others, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. We all grieve with the families who lost loved ones, and we pray for the speedy recovery of those who were injured. The fact that these horrible acts occurred while an elected leader and her constituents were exercising their responsibilities in our democratic tradition makes this unspeakable act of violence all the more dramatic and sad for our society and our country.
Of course, there are hundreds of tragedies that go unrecognized by all of us each and every week. I remember reading in one of the middle-of-the-paper stories in The New York Times last week (on the Web you have to hunt for these stories) about four people who were murdered in separate incidents in New York City during a six hour period on a single evening. Regrettably, ours is a violent society with close to 15,000 people murdered each year in the United States. Most of the time, only the victims’ families, friends, and neighbors grieve and pay attention. And just as in Tucson, most are killed with handguns.
What do we learn from incidents like the violence in Tucson? Of course, these shootings warranted our attention, given the circumstance and the identity of the people injured and murdered. But does the incessant media attention, finger pointing, and second-guessing on network and cable news, in newspapers, and on the radio really help us better understand the state of our nation?
President Obama was certainly correct when he said Wednesday evening that we will likely never know for sure what motivated the murderer. We may never know if his childhood, his education, video games, cable TV habits, political views, a chemical imbalance, or some other reason drove him to commit these terrible acts. In fact, there may not be a reason—other than insanity.
All of us condemn violent acts such as this, yet we also continue to debate whether it is wise to allow people like Jared Loughner ready access to handguns like the Glock he used on Saturday—a weapon that has the capacity to kill and maim with efficient ferocity.
I know that raising this issue will increase the blood pressure of those who believe in free access to firearms. I understand the right is embedded in our Constitution, but I wonder whether all weapons have to be available to all people. Perhaps even the most conservative among us can agree that some of these modern automatic weapons might fall within the purview of reasonable regulation and restriction. I understand that people kill, not guns; but the evidence of violent crime in America versus other countries must lead us to consider the issue more thoughtfully.
The other issue before us as a result of the Tucson shootings is the tenor of our political discourse in America and the role of the media in that discourse. I admit to being a “media junkie” who surfs the channels to listen to viewpoints from across the political spectrum. Fox, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Jon Stewart—all are networks or shows I regularly absorb. This week, I was nothing short of appalled at the media circus and shallow analysis common to all these folks as they battled for viewers. The pandering to all sides and the melodramatic lectures and debate were disheartening. Did we really need to have six people murdered and many others seriously injured to instigate a debate on the standards of our political discourse?
Cynically, I actually don’t believe the media actually cares much about these standards. With the exception of Jon Stewart, whose show is about comedy and entertainment, our media has become the news equivalent of “Survivor”—so-called “reality TV.” Whether it is these terrible shootings, the latest comment from Sarah Palin, or a snowstorm, the airwaves are filled with bloviating designed to entertain and titillate. So, from my perspective, this isn’t about whether our discourse is civil. The issue and the question is when will our society demand serious and thoughtful discussion?
So, what does all of this mean for Bowdoin and our other educational institutions? I think the condition of our national debate only reinforces our job of educating an informed electorate. It goes to the point I made earlier this year: our form of education is focused on ideas and facts, debate and controversy, good values and judgment—all of which are at the heart of our democracy.
The good news for me is that after this week, I am now a reformed cable news junkie who has gained a number of hours a week to read and think and work for Bowdoin.
In the coming weeks, I will continue to offer my thoughts on subjects interesting to me or of importance to the College, but I want to hear your ideas too. If there is a subject you’d like me to address, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org