Anyone who has been raised under the sway of a spiritual belief system -- Christian or Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or pagan -- knows that when a crisis arises, one thing you do is listen for a sound. A still, small voice. A heavenly choir. A righteous cry unto the Lord.
Sound, especially music, often shapes our emotional responses and guides our thought processes. But since Saturday, when a gunmen identified by police as Jared Lee Loughner aimed his deadly weapon at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her consituency in Tucson, I've been waiting to hear something that might help me comprehend what's going on. And all I hear is static, like the restless turning of a radio dial.
Usually, when an event like the Tucson shootings occurs, a soundtrack quickly emerges. Music tends to play two roles in such situations. It focuses our anger or softens the impact of our grief.
If the disaster has a human cause, like the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 or Bard College at Simon's Rock in Massachusetts in 1992, music often fills the need for a scapegoat. Trying to grasp the motivations of young killers such as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at Columbine or Wayne Lo at Simon's Rock, those tasked with interpreting their mayhem looked for signs blasting from boomboxes.
The frenzy surrounding the Columbine shooters' alleged interest in industrial and goth rock eventually subsided; in his important book on the rampage, published a decade later, journalist Dave Cullen thoroughly disproved the link. And Lo himself denied that hard sound motivated him. In a prison letter to the rock critic Chuck Klosterman, he insisted that the T-shirt he wore that day -- emblazoned with the name of the hard-core band Sick of It All -- was an arbitrary choice, and wondered what conclusions observers might have drawn had he pulled one hawking Poison from his drawer.
It's mostly a good thing, I think, that music (or video gaming, another easy target) isn't being blamed for Loughner's alleged actions.
“These details are dug up by journalists in part to give 'color' and personality to the gunmen, often in haste and without much fact-checking,” journalist Beth Winegarner writes in an as-yet unpublished piece inspired by media reactions to Loughner's alleged deed. This time, former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and the odious Fred Phelps, founder of Kansas' Westboro Baptist Church, whose members were planning to picket the funerals of shooting victims, have provided all the color pundits need.
Winegarner, who is working on a book about media reaction to teen violence, notes that the media tend to focus on the cultural tastes of teens in such situations, while blaming mental instability when adults are responsible.