People die every day. Every single day. People are dying right now. Lots of them.
Some of them are 85 and older but some aren’t. Some are in the United States–your state or city even–but some aren’t. Some maybe played a part in their death, like they got drunk before they drove, or they joined a gang, or they smoked cigarettes for 20 years, or they dragged a razor against their wrist. Some didn’t play a part in it, like they were a baby who drowned in the bathtub because they didn’t even know what a bathtub was and their parents walked away for too long, or they were painting a building and the faulty ladder collapsed, or they were celebrating at a wedding in Yemen and the United States government murdered them with a robot.
How’s that song go? Six million ways to die: choose one.
If you do the math, which I did, about 33,000 people die per day throughout the world and 6,700 people die per day in the United States.
I’ve gotten better at watching and accepting the news without becoming worked up. I’m getting better, maybe I should say. I’m still working on it. Life includes horrible, terrible things, like constant death, more deaths than we can comprehend. About 23 deaths happen per minute. After I opened this browser window, I spaced out for 10 minutes thinking about what I wanted to write. Over 200 people probably died during that time. Death is upsetting. I will probably never not be upset by it, but I can at least accept that it happens and that it upsets me.
I no longer feel confused about the fact of death. Sure, I’ll never truly “get” it, but that’s because I’m not God. I accept that deaths happen. I accept that they won’t stop happening. I accept that I’ll never fully comprehend it. In my teenage years, I didn’t have this acceptance. I was obsessed with the concept. I desperately wanted to understand why. Not any more. I accept that I cannot know.
What I don’t “get,” what I’m stuck on now, what I hope I can start to see more clearly, is, with so many deaths, how do we pick? Which deaths matter? How do we decide? Which deaths are the most sad? Which are unfair? Which are tragedies? Which should make national or international news? Which ones deserve our attention, and which do not? Which should we rally around and have conversations about? Which type of death should we work the hardest to prevent from recurring? At a societal level and at an individual level, when to respond and when to ignore death?
I read Elliot Rodger’s autobiography. I felt sad for him. Maybe it’s because he was a decent writer and I relate to writers. Maybe it’s because I generally empathize with loners and outcasts. Maybe it’s because he was clearly an unreliable narrator, clearly delusional, and I could see his mistakes happening in slow motion throughout his story, but I knew it was too late for me or anyone to try and intervene. I didn’t pick these emotions; they just popped up. I noticed them, though. I accept them.
Rodger killed and died because of almost entirely imaginary rejection. He was convinced women were repulsed by him, but he had never so much as said “hi” to one that he liked. I felt sad that he dealt with that anger and loneliness. I felt sad that his anger and delusion drove him to such an extreme. I felt sad that his life ended so early. I felt a sad, deep sense of loss while reading that he toyed with the idea of becoming a writer. When I read that his mom had encouraged it as a career path, I saw a glimmer of hope, a salvation he had nearly grabbed, but let slip through his fingers. Writing is transcendent. I felt sad he got stuck in his own obsessions, and wasn’t able to use writing to overcome them, to gain clarity, to see them for what they were.
Which deaths matter? I’ve seen many people write that they’re glad Elliot died. I’m not. I don’t agree with what he did, of course. You might think it’s foolish, but I don’t know I can honestly say I’m glad about anyone having died, ever. I’m sure some deaths throughout history have been for a greater good, but even typing the beginning of that sentence puts a bad taste in my mouth. I mourn for the friends and families of Elliot’s victims. Still, I don’t think his death is any less sad than the deaths he caused. Yes, even though he chose his death. Even though, according to many, he “deserved” it. It’s still sad. It’s all sad. Death, itself, is sad.
Were the seven deaths that occurred in Isla Vista more sad than the ~33,000 other deaths that happened across the planet that same day? More sad than the ~6,700 deaths that happened in the US? They certainly garnered more air time. Who chooses? Who gets to pick? We seem to agree that when the elderly die, it isn’t as sad or important because it’s more expected. Plus it seems more fair–they were given a chance to have their way with life. But even excluding the elderly, there are still thousands of deaths per day. How many deaths can we hold in our attention at once? How many should we hold? How do we pick which ones matter?
Like I wrote earlier, I’m getting better at watching, at accepting. I see waves of outrage and despair. I see raw, expanding, uncontrolled emotion. Sometimes I feel it in myself, but then I stop and look at it. I try to figure out how it got there. Why am I outraged about this death, and not the thousands of others? Generally, the answer is that it’s because I know about this death. I’ve heard details. I can fairly easily imagine either the life of the victim or of the mourning loved ones.
I don’t want to call the outrage and despair “manufactured.” These are emotions that feel awful and real, in response to events that are terrible. Who am I to trivialize them? Still, when there are 33,000 deaths a day and large groups of people are all blinded by anger over the same six, I’m suspicious. Who picked which deaths people were supposed to feel sad about that day? Could it have just as easily been different deaths?
How does the media choose which deaths to emphasize and run detail after detail about? Am I a cynic to think they choose the deaths that involve the largest spectacle, or are the most novel? Am I a cynic to think they choose the deaths with the story attached that is most easy for their audience to understand? Am I a cynic to think they choose the deaths that are most likely to rile people up and get them angry, ensuring they’ll watch, click, comment, and share?
Am I insensitive to say that, in the whole scheme of things, if we’re sorting deaths by importance, which we are by necessity because of the sheer number of them, that I think the Elliot Rodger mass shooting-related deaths were probably some of the least important that occurred that week, and least worthy of our mass amounts of attention? I fell into it, too. I watched his videos. I read 138 pages of his writing. I got caught up in it. Only later did I realize it wasn’t a good use of my time or attention.
About 100 people die per day in car crashes in the US. That’s much more important to me than mass shootings because it’s more likely to negatively impact me or someone I love. Even if I view it unselfishly and objectively, car crashes are still more important because they’re more likely to affect anyone. It seems logical to focus most on the deaths that are frequent and most preventable. Car crashes get my vote. Connect them as a trend. Market them as an overwhelming tragedy deserving of our attention. Talk about them in connection to one another on the news in grave voices night after night until something is done.
Car crashes don’t have a simple story line, however. They’re not very sensational. The American public watches psychological thrillers and murder mystery shows, not shows about how to build safer cars, write policy that reduces drunk driving, or create more widely used transit systems. The mass shooting deaths follow a story line that we’ve seen before, feel familiar with, and, in some perverse sense, have fun trying to solve. In the past week I’ve read literally dozens of articles, blog posts, and tweets of people who believe they’ve figured out the six Elliot Rodger murders and know how they could’ve been prevented. I’ve even shared my two cents in conversations with friends. I haven’t seen anyone in the past week, however, comment on how we as a society should handle the probable 1,200 car crash deaths that have happened since the day of the shooting.
Or maybe it isn’t the lack of a catchy story. Maybe it’s big oil. Maybe it’s the car manufacturers. Who owns the media? What stake do they have in an auto-centric society? How involved are they with government, and in what way? I’m not sure. Thinking about it makes me feel sadder, and tired. Who chooses which deaths are important? Not us, I don’t think. Not the ones feeling the outrage and despair. Not usually. People with more power.
Several mass shootings have occurred in Chicago recently. Why aren’t those stories sweeping the nation? Murders happen in Chicago neighborhoods way more than they do on college campuses. Wouldn’t it be most beneficial to use our time and effort trying to solve that problem? Maybe there’s silence because of the unspoken social agreement that deaths are less important when they happen to people who “deserve” them. Maybe the American public can’t find clear cut “good guys” and “bad guys” in the Chicago murders. Does a gang banger deserve to die? Does a drug dealer? Because of racism, is the American public fuzzy on which of these Black deaths are “innocent” and which aren’t? Everyone knows the blonde, teenage sorority sister was innocent, and that the narcissistic sociopath who daydreamed about forcing all women to starve in concentration camps was not. That mass shooting was clearer cut, easier to understand.
Confession: I don’t have a conclusion. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’m not building up to “the answer.” I’m muddling along. I’m thinking about all of the people our federal government is killing with drones and I’m feeling sad, then I’m looking around and not seeing many others feeling sad for that reason and as a result I’m feeling isolated. Which lives matter? Which deaths are important? Who gets to pick? What constitutes “news?”
Maybe the slightly sick feeling I have is because I’m so averse to manipulation. Maybe I can’t stand knowing that these corporate media outlets play such a big role in dictating what we talk about and think about on a day-to-day basis. Maybe part of my sadness lies in looking around and realizing that so many others, even intelligent others, don’t seem to notice this regular cycle of manipulation of thoughts and emotions. Maybe part of my anger and frustration is with myself for not having cracked the code yet, for not having figured it out. Who chooses which deaths are important? How do they pick? What are their motives? Could more deaths be prevented if different stories were run? Could our wars end? What are we sacrificing as a society by giving away our attention, by trusting that the stories we see on TV and the internet most often are the most important?