Mar 20, 2023 - Politics & Policy

America becomes numb to tragedy

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

On an icy Feb. 1 in Tennessee, mourners gathered in a Memphis church and vowed to keep Tyre Nichols on America's conscience. “Let’s never let them forget Memphis," attorney Ben Crump said.

  • By most measurements, it already has. The most convenient way to cope with one terrible news event in 2023 is to move on to the next one. But there's a cost: America's distraction addiction is numbing us into inaction and acceptance.

The big picture: That's a sign of far more than America's short attention span, people who have tried to confront the nation's social illnesses tell me. It's a sign of a country that's become indifferent to tragedy, and unable to have a national conversation long enough to prevent the next one.

"I don't think we've cried enough yet," says the Rev. William Barber II, the prominent civil rights leader who resurrected MLK's Poor People's Campaign. "Sometimes a nation needs to be made to cry if it's going to change."

  • "The media flips the pages," Barber adds. "It's almost like we treat bad public policy like it's a commercial."

Nichols was a 29-year-old father who loved the opera and ollies. He was driving home while Black in January when officers from a now-disbanded rough-'em-up police unit pulled him over and fatally beat him.

In 2023 alone, the horror stories also include: A mass shooting that killed 11 people on Lunar New Year in an Asian American community in California.

State of play: By mid-March, Google searches for "Tyre Nichols," which peaked Jan. 22-28, barely registered.

Consider Michigan State, and the shooting that left three students dead and five injured on Feb. 13.

  • Washington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox has written hundreds of thousands of words on mass shootings.
  • After Michigan State, Cox found a new, horrifying angle: a young woman who had lived through a mass shooting in high school was now a college freshman living through another.

What he's saying: Cox, who will become a father himself this summer, tells me he's more reluctant to jump to cover mass murders these days, but he also feels a duty to humanize them.

  • Last year he spent months working on the story of a 10-year-old Uvalde girl’s nightmares. He gained enough trust with her family that they let him put a baby monitor in her room so he could see her nightly struggles.
  • "As long as these stories hurt in the way that they should, I’ve got to keep doing them," he tells me. "Once you’re numb to something you’ve got to quit. The only way to do these stories is to bathe in it, to bathe in this anguish."

What's next: Cox believes death count can fall even without controversial legislation. It just takes focus and attention.

  • "It is only hopeless if … the goal is zero," he says. "If we went from 45,000 deaths [by guns per year] to 30,000 or 25,000, that is worth it. … The ripple of that is millions; it spares millions of people. And that’s worth it."

Barber puts a similar wide lens on injustices facing marginalized communities. He’s harsh on politicians who don’t pass anti-poverty measures.

  • And in our conversation one week after Nichols’ funeral, Barber suggested the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act be renamed to include more victims of police violence.
  • "It shouldn’t be just described only as an issue addressing the racism toward Black people," he says.
  • "It should be an issue of out-of-control, bad policing, and then they should aggregate how this system of police brutality hurts Black people, hurts Latino people, hurts gay people, hurts disabled people, hurts rural people, hurts urban people, hurts white people, hurts Native Americans."
  • "Put it all on the table. Let’s look at all the death. And then ask the public: Is this what you want?"

My thought bubble: I've spent a good portion of my career as a writer in North Carolina interviewing the state's civil rights legends.

  • They include Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil of the Greensboro Four, who on February 1, 1960 — 63 years to the day before Nichols' funeral — sat down at an all-white Woolworth's lunch counter and asked to be served, igniting a movement that lasted more than a year.
  • I've spent hours listening to Harvey Gantt, who integrated Clemson University and then became Charlotte's first Black mayor, and I've become close family friends with Dot Counts-Scoggins, who walked through a crowd of spitting and jeering white people to integrate Charlotte's schools in 1957.

All have a shared wish: That the next generations won't deal with the same trauma they did.

  • Gantt, for one, is now 80, and his grandkids participated in demonstrations following George Floyd's murder in 2020.
  • "I think about the world that they’re growing up in here and the world they’re going to make for themselves, and I pray that they make it better," Gantt told me once. "I pray that their tapes, or their history, are not going to be as trying as mine."

I've rewound that description — their "tapes" — over and over since that conversation. I have a son who just turned 3, and we have another on the way soon.

  • Each generation is defined by its tapes, and no generation in history has more access to its violent scripts than this one.

The bottom line: In the past few years, America has reformed police, convicted “bad apples,” settled lawsuits, condemned racism, empowered activists, diversified institutions, hardened schools, rehearsed lockdowns, armed guards, toppled statues, thought and prayed … and captured nearly every moment on video.

  • But violence of all kinds persists. In waves. And the tapes roll on.

"The question before America ... " Barber says, before pausing to reframe his thought as a statement.

  • "America has got to decide that death is no longer an option."
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