A man goes into an immigration services center in Binghamton New York, blocks the exit in the back with his car, goes through the front door with handguns, body armor and ammunition. He shoots the receptionists and opens fire on a citizenship class. He murders thirteen. This is horrific. I offer my thoughts and prayers.
A psychiatrist trained to help others with the stress of combat goes to Ft. Hood, the army base at which he is stationed, and opens fire on his fellow soldiers and some civilians, too. Another thirteen people are murdered there. Three are killed charging the shooter. Words cannot express my sorrow. I offer my thoughts and prayers.
A professor is denied tenure at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. She goes to a department faculty meeting and in that conference room pulls out a nine-millimeter handgun and shoots six people, three of whom she manages to murder. Those people were just doing their jobs and what happened to them is terrible. I don’t want to have to think about it any further. I offer my thoughts and prayers.
A truck driver in Manchester, Connecticut comes out of a company disciplinary hearing for allegedly stealing beer and starts shooting up his place of work. He murders eight people, calls his mother and tells her about it, and then shoots himself. Gun control discussions are a mess in this country and they never go anywhere productive, there’s no middle ground, and they make me tired thinking about them. I offer my thoughts and prayers.
In Tucson, Arizona, a member of Congress is meeting with her constituents in the parking lot of a supermarket, and a 22-year-old man comes up and shoots her straight in the head. A representative to Congress, can you believe that! She somehow survives, but he murders six others, ranging in age from nine to 79. That’s quite a range. Surely the attempted assassination of a US Representative will start a substantive discussion by someone. In the meantime, I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Seal Beach, California, where a man and a woman are having a custody dispute. His solution: Enter his wife’s place of work, a hair salon, and open fire on anyone there. He murders his ex-wife and seven other people, including one man not even in the salon. He is in his car in the parking lot outside the salon. Bad luck. Here’s an interesting thing: there is a sort of magical power to saying that you offer your thoughts and prayers.
Oakland, California, and at a small Christian college, a man who had been expelled for behavioral and anger management problems decides that he’s going to find an administrator he has issues with. He doesn’t find her, so instead grabs a secretary, enters a classroom and orders the students there to line against a wall. Some refuse. He shoots, reloads and shoots some more. Seven people are murdered. The shooter later says he’s sorry. The magical power of saying that you offer your thoughts and prayers is that once you do it, you’re not required to do anything other than to offer your thoughts and prayers.
In Aurora, Colorado, a midnight audience of Batman fans are half an hour into the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s superhero trilogy when a man enters the theater, clad in protective armor, sets off two gas canisters and starts shooting. Some audience members think this is a stunt tied into the film. It’s not a stunt, and the shooter, armed with an assault rife, a shotgun and a glock, murders a dozen people, ten of whom die right there in the theater. When police visit the shooter’s home, they find it rigged with explosives. The shooter placed a camera to record what happens if the police just barge in. Saying “thoughts and prayers” is performative, which is to say that just in saying it, you’ve performed an action. Prayers leave your mind and go to God. It is a blessed, holy and as such apparently sufficient thing, to offer your thoughts and prayers.
Sunday morning, and in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, members of the Sikh temple there have gathered for services and meditation and are preparing a communal meal when a white supremacist and Army veteran starts shooting, murdering six and wounding a police officer before killing himself. Did you know that Sikhs are often confused by the unknowing and possibly uncaring for being Muslim, and that the excuse of “I thought they were Muslims” is itself a sign of racial hatred? Mind you, there are people who will say to you that it’s not enough, only to offer your thoughts and prayers.
In Minneapolis, a man is called into an office by his supervisor and told he is losing his job. The man replies, “Oh, really?” and pulls out a handgun, shooting the supervisor after a struggle for the weapon, eventually murdering five others before killing himself. Indeed, people particularly expect more from lawmakers, who have the ability to call hearings and allow government studies and even change laws, rather than only to offer their thoughts and prayers.
Brookfield, Wisconsin, another hair salon, another estranged couple. The wife seeks a restraining order when the husband threatens to burn her with acid and set her on fire with gasoline. He does neither. He does, however, murder her, along with two other women. Witnesses say the wife tried to protect the others before she died. But again, even if you’re a lawmaker, with the ability to do things that could have concrete impact, you might argue that your responsibility to women being murdered by husbands, workers murdered by co-workers, religious minorities murdered by bigots, soldiers murdered by other soldiers, innocents murdered by those who are not, ends when you, in a tweet, Facebook post or press release, offer your thoughts and prayers.
A man enters an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and with a Bushmaster XM15-E2S carbine rifle, murders twenty children, all of whom are either six or seven years old.
We pause here a moment to think about that.
Twenty children. Ages six, or seven.
And here maybe you think to yourself, this is it. This is the place and time where thoughts and prayers in fact aren’t enough, where those who only offer their thoughts and prayers recognize that others see them in their inaction, see that the convenient self-absolution of thoughts and prayers, that the magical abnegation thoughts and prayers offer, is no longer sufficient, is no longer proper, is no longer just or moral, or even offers the appearance of morality.
We pause here a moment, and wait to see what happens next.
And then they come. One after another.
I offer my thoughts and prayers.
And it keeps going.
Five murdered in Santa Monica, California by a gunman. I offer my thoughts and prayers.
12 murdered in a running firefight through the Washington Navy Yard in DC. Like a ritual, I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Ft. Hood, Texas again, for another three murdered. Like a litany, I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Six murdered in Isla Vista, California. Violence against women is horrible, and I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Nine murdered in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s unspeakable that violence against black Americans has happened like this, and I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Five murdered in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Muslims should answer for the crimes of this person, even if they do not know him or would in any way condone the action, and I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Nine murdered in Roseburg, Oregon. I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Three murdered in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Thoughts and prayers.
Fourteen murdered in San Bernadino. Thoughts. Prayers.
Fifty murdered in Orlando.
Fifty people, in a gay club, by a shooter who his father says was disgusted by the sight of two men kissing, and who news reports now tell us had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
And what do we do now, I wonder, when the victims are who they are and the perpetrator is who he is, the situation is ripe for posturing, and there’s a phrase to be used that allows one to assert maximum public virtue with minimum personal effort or responsibility?
What do we do now, when thoughts and prayers are easy, and everything else is hard?
Here is the thing: In the aftermath of terrible violence, offer thoughts, and prayers, if it is your desire to do so.
Then offer more than thoughts and prayers. Ask for more than thoughts and prayers. Vote for more than thoughts and prayers. Help those for whom thoughts and prayers are the start of their responsibilities, not the abdication of them. And as for the others, you may politely remind them of Matthew 6:5-6, and perhaps also Matthew 7:21-23. Perhaps they will see themselves in the words there. Perhaps not. They’re worth thinking on regardless.
“I offer my thoughts and prayers.”
It’s not enough.
It never was.
What more do you have to offer?