Like Clockwork: Ritual and Satire in the Age of Mass Shootings

Zach Schonfeld

As reports of carnage flashed across conference room TVs, morning chatter grew hushed. The editorial staff wondered how to respond. Do we pull the Batman review that was supposed to run that day? Cancel our coverage of the weekend box office?

”Oh, and here’s another thing I hate I know. In exactly two weeks this will all be over and it will be like it never happened.”

-- Amy Brennan, fictitious Jacksonville resident, The Onion

I remember where I was when I learned of the Aurora shooting. Not that it was especially long ago, but maybe that’s the point. I was in New York, interning for an entertainment publication. As reports of carnage in Colorado flashed across conference room TVs, morning chatter grew hushed. The editorial staff wondered how to respond. Do we pull the Batman review that was supposed to run that day? Cancel our coverage of the weekend box office?

You can’t escape live coverage of a national horror when your job involves monitoring trending topics on the hour. That day, I was tasked with scrolling through Twitter for a roundup of celebrity reactions. With alarming familiarity, I snapped into following-live-updates-on-a-mass-shooting mode. "God help the families of the victims in the Colorado mass shooting this morning," @OneRepublic soon tweeted. "Our thoughts are with all those affected by this terrible event," @Nickelback concurred. Trending topics included #guns and #shrapnel. How do you monitor trending topics when mass murder is arriving in movie theaters, in shopping centers, in first-grade classrooms?

Still, everything was progressing eerily according to routine. The images of family members in shocked embrace. The sinister headshots of the killer. The solemn statements from political leaders. The familiar debates over gun control, followed by allegations of “politicizing” the tragedy, followed by conservative cries for more guns. It was uncanny. In our America, grief over mass gun violence chills us with déjà vu. I found myself stealing away from Twitter, not caring what @questlove or @flea333 have to say about gun control.

And then I checked The Onion. And kept refreshing it.

I wasn’t looking for comic relief. Not jokes. But I wanted to see how “America’s Finest News Source”, which has in recent years loosened its gruelingly involved editorial process to lampoon breaking news throughout the day, would grapple with the carnage. What would The Onion parody? Whom would it mock? When the media circus spins into force, The Onion is at its cleverest. But how do you wield cleverness in the face of profound horror?

The answer came around mid-afternoon. Headlined "Sadly, Nation Knows Exactly How Colorado Shooting's Aftermath Will Play Out", with an already familiar shot of the Century 16 multiplex plastered beneath, the article was fierce in its weary, biting tone and shockingly perceptive in its deconstruction of the media tropes that have become unnervingly commonplace in 2012. “The nation's 300 million citizens told reporters they can pinpoint down to the hour when the first candlelight vigil will be held, roughly how many people will attend, how many times the county sheriff will address the media in the coming weeks, and when the town-wide memorial service will be held,” the article narrates. “I hate to say it, but we as Americans are basically experts at this kind of thing by now,” a fictitious market analyst weighs in. The laundry list of mass murder regularities goes on, eerily routine-like and almost entirely accurate:

”According to the nation's citizenry, calls for a mature, thoughtful debate about the role of guns in American society started right on time, and should persist throughout the next week or so. However, the populace noted, the debate will soon spiral out of control and ultimately lead to nothing of any substance, a fact Americans everywhere acknowledged they felt "absolutely horrible" to be aware of.”

With “scalpel-like precision”, The Onion offered sharp, devastating clarity on a day full of confusion and panic. The unfolding of Aurora was chilling. But what was most unnerving about the episode, I reflected in a blog post that night, was "not the killer’s combat outfit or his advanced weaponry or booby-trapped apartment or even the on-scene cell phone videos spilling into news reports. Nor was it his family’s inevitable statement of grief or high school classmates’ obligatory interviews or the fact that, yes, there are a bunch of people named James Holmes on Facebook, and they are not all mass murderers."

No. What was most chilling was how eerily familiar the entire sequence was. And how many times we’ve seen it play out before, because that’s how it always plays out, and will it ever be different? When mass murder visits yet another quiet campus or bedroom community, it is submerged in a sea of mass media tropes, clichés, and routines, and is it any surprise we’ve grown used to the script? In Aurora or Columbine or Virginia Tech. In Fort Hood or Tucson or Oak Creek. Names that have become synonyms for bullets and bloodshed. They are locations and nouns and cultural signifiers and inevitable colloquialisms. We never seem to remember them, but we can never forget.

In the Internet age, there’s a ritualistic regularity to the aftermaths of these shootings that is terrifying and routine and terrifying in its routineness. Like clockwork, the violence erupts as regularly as daylight savings, and the same recurring web of media rituals and policy debates snaps dutifully into place, for two weeks or maybe three -- charged quibbles over gun control and mental health, arguments about parenting and school security and video games and bullying and concealed carry and godlessness -- and then we move on with our lives and forget, those of us who are lucky enough to be able to move on at least, until it’s on to the next. It’s always on to the next.

Now we have Newtown, a horrific episode characterized by the deadliness of its violence (the death toll makes it the second deadliest school shooting in US history, we say, as if we can quantify horror and senselessness of such proportion), the innocence of its victims (20 first-graders were gunned down in their classrooms), and -- for me -- the proximity of its setting. I go to Wesleyan, just 40 miles west of Sandy Hook. Each time I make the trip, I pass through Newtown. I’ve stopped for lunch at the Blue Colony Diner. I last passed through this weekend. The president’s motorcade was on its way. I didn’t stop for lunch.

Maybe this one will be different. That is what we say. “We always say this, after something like this: We'll do better,” the Atlantic Wire’s Jen Doll wrote just hours after Aurora, in a wonderful piece that echoes the Onion’s world-weary perspective. “And then, 6 months later, it's as if we, or most of us, have forgotten completely, only to be reminded when the next awful thing occurs.”

The Blur Between Satire and Reportage

What does satire have to do with all of this? In an era that marries a 24-hour media cycle with unprecedented flurries of mass murder, it takes a fake news organization to cut through the tropes and forge insight and truth from searing senselessness. Responding to tragedy, The Onion once based its strongest material in satirical fictions: "Columbine Jocks Safely Resume Bullying", for example, or "Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell." But in its coverage of recent shootings, the newspaper has found currency in tapping into and articulating national horror and fatigue instead of mocking it. Rather than being tasteless or even funny, really, The Onion has developed a startling voice that contains as much rage as it does humor, as much pathos as parody. By far the best example is "Fuck Everything, Nation Reports", The Onion’s swift, outraged response to the Sandy Hook shooting:

”Following the fatal shooting this morning at a Connecticut elementary school that left at least 27 dead, including 20 small children, sources across the nation shook their heads, stifled a sob in their voices, and reported fuck everything. Just fuck it all to hell.

[ . . . ]

Americans reported feelings of overwhelming disgust with whatever abhorrent bastard did this and with the world at large for ever allowing it to happen, as well as with politicians, with the NRA, and above all with their own pathetic goddamn selves, sitting in front of a fucking computer instead of doing fucking anything to help anyone -- Christ, as if that were even fucking possible, as if anyone could change what happened, as if the same fucking bullshit isn’t going to keep happening again and again and fucking again before people finally decide it’s time to change the way we live, so what’s the point? What the hell is the goddamned point?”

The piece is among the most candidly emotional slices of social commentary in The Onion’s archives, and it quickly went viral, hitting roughly 157,000 Facebook shares over the weekend. In the Facebook comments of The Onion’s posting, readers took notice. A few said they cried reading the piece. “True story. Onion, where's the satire?” one user commented. “This was not intended as a joke. This was a poignant commentary which pretty much sums up how I and everyone I talked to felt on Friday,” another wrote. On Twitter, too, thousands shared the link (as well as its brief counterparts, Report: It Okay To Spend Rest Of Day Curled In Fetal Position Under Desk and

Right To Own Handheld Device That Shoots Deadly Metal Pellets At High Speed Worth All Of This), remarking on the satirists’ ability to cut to the quick of collective grief:

What a strange web we weave when a satirical newspaper is receiving accolades for stark poignancy and resonant coverage of tragedy. But the most surreal blurring between satire and reportage came at the end of August, shortly after a string of deadly shootings in Aurora, Wisconsin, and Texas. The spree seemed to have stopped. So The Onion ran a story headlined “Nation Celebrates Full Week Without Deadly Mass Shooting”, imagining throngs of people gathered in Times Square to “celebrate an entire week having passed since the last time a madman opened fire on innocent civilians in some kind of fatal mass shooting.” The piece concludes, “At press time, federal authorities had issued a reminder to all Americans that a lot can happen in 24 hours, ‘so let’s not get too excited yet.’”

The following day, a laid-off apparel designer shot a co-worker and engaged police in a gunbattle outside the Empire State Building. The shooting took place ten blocks or so from the fictitious celebration. Like any diligent new source, The Onion updated their article accordingly.

* * *

Friday morning, as the grisly details from Sandy Hook began unfolding across state lines and clogging up social media with trending topics like #PrayForNewtown and #NRA, I thought back to that near week without a mass shooting. I thought back to “Jared Gerson” and “Amy Brennen", fictitious voices of the Aurora piece from July. “It's like clockwork,” Gerson observes, shaking his head, letting out a sigh. “Here’s another thing I hate I know,” Brennen says. “In exactly two weeks this will all be over and it will be like it never happened.”

I thought back to the blog post I wrote and where I was when I wrote it. Suddenly it was vivid. I pieced much of it together on Metro North, leaving work after eight straight hours of live coverage of Aurora, and I dashed off those final few paragraphs at the Starbucks near my parents’ house, reeling from the tragedy while wolfing down a muffin for dinner. It was getting late. I was planning to drive up to Wesleyan for the weekend, and I wanted to hit the road before dark. So I hit ‘Publish’ and closed my laptop, silencing for a few hours the livefeed of emerging factoids about James Eagan Holmes, escaping the photos of candlelight vigils. That’s what always happens at that time, of course. The vigils are for the victims, but the media zeros in on the killer -- his name, his Facebook profile, what his high school classmates have to say about him -- and we keep watching, attention rapt.

So I got into my car and I thought about Aurora and I thought about Virginia Tech and I thought about Columbine and I drove. I pulled onto I-84 East, a route I’ve taken dozens of times before, and I passed through Danbury, through Hawleyville, and directly through Newtown, where the familiar Blue Colony Diner sign flashes up at the interstate, beckoning you to exit. I must have driven within a mile or two of Sandy Hook Elementary that night, hours after Aurora. A coincidence, sure, but Nabokov might call it a “web of sense”. It’s no coincidence how familiar these rituals are. It’s no coincidence that we’ve had these conversations before, that we know how the aftermath will play out. We pray that it will be different this time. But that takes more than prayer.

Glance around when you’re on the interstate this week. The moment these numbing rituals snap into place, there’s another Adam Lanza in another Newtown in need of help.

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