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Thoughts and prayers: an undermined response to mass shootings

| Friday, September 6, 2019

In wake of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings, Americans are reminded of a grim cycle: a shooting occurs, social media responds, no action is taken. Angered by these events, individuals often criticize the infamous, yet well-intentioned, phrase “thoughts and prayers”.

As social media floods with meaningless arguments and shouting matches, a common criticism towards government officials is their offering of “thoughts and prayers” for the victims. In a column at The Washington Post, Dana Milbank asks if Republican lawmakers “realize that ‘thoughts and prayers’ has become a meme, a cynical punchline conveying inaction to guns?” Twitter and Facebook are an endless supply of demonization of these officials.

However, the assault has gone too far. The mere mention of the phrase garners vicious responses. The endless stream of articles criticizing the phrase proves this. Although it is justified to criticize inaction, the assault on thoughts and prayers undermines the value they provide to our nation in times of crisis. 

Thoughts and prayers are necessary for a nation in need of healing, and the United States has been ill for a long time. Joining as a community to mourn the loss of innocent civilians allows a moment of reflection. It provides the chance to step back from life’s uncertainty into a solemn moment of silence. It forces us to break away from politics to recognize the suffering of the victims and their families.

Most importantly, thoughts and prayers tear down the barriers that politics and society construct to divide Americans. This ability to dismantle discord between civilians grants the comfort needed when a crisis strikes home. The biggest example of this is the nation’s unity after the 9/11 attacks. As Americans joined together in mourning the losses of their fellow countrymen, petty rivalries were forgotten in the interest of the community. That is the feeling America needs now more than ever. Thoughts and prayers provide the opportunity for that unity. 

Moreover, reflection is necessary in search of a solution. Thoughts and prayers bring humanity to politics. By encouraging an atmosphere of mourning lives lost and consoling the suffering community, lawmakers and citizens become familiar with how close these massacres hit home. The care for one another incentivizes a civil discourse towards a common goal: the safety of American citizens.

Moving straight forward towards political action does nothing to heal the nation’s disdainful political divisions. However, a moment of reflection grants the opportunity to see past differences. Even if it is only for a short time, that time matters. That time creates bridges that are crossed in search of a solution. Even if a solution is not reached, the experience shows the country and world that the United States is able to set aside its petty differences when it truly matters. 

However, thoughts and prayers are not enough. While they may alleviate the pain for a short time, the nation only truly heals when the illness is cured by action. In a post on his blog, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee claims that thoughts and prayers are “the only thing that’s ever really going to help.” That is far from the truth.

Think of thoughts and prayers as preparing the body for a shot, and the injection is legislative action. One does not work without the other. Performing a shot too early can harm the patient or diminish the injection’s effectiveness. Not performing a shot leaves the illness to grow. Likewise, ending the discussion at thoughts and prayers does nothing to fix the problem. Thoughts and prayers prepare the solution, but action must be taken to ensure success. 

Now, while it is justified to criticize individuals who do nothing, there is no justification in attacking someone simply for offering their condolences. In fact, instantly politicizing the event and demanding a solution does nothing but devalue the lives lost for political gain. It robs the nation of a chance to mourn for the sake of legislation that likely would not even be submitted for weeks, if at all. 

Judaism offers insight on this topic. In the Jewish tradition, there is an intense mourning period after the loss of a loved one. This involves a series of prayers, actions and guidelines spanning months that must be taken before moving on from the death. The reasoning for this is to provide those mourning solace and the opportunity to reflect on their loved one. Through this process, the mourners feel more refreshed and accepting of the death and can move onto a fulfilling life. 

Just as the Jewish people respect their mourning period, so must America in times of crisis. As a nation, we must certainly address our problems, but there is a time for action and a time for healing.

Blake Ziegler is a freshman at Note Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He hopes his writing encourages others to take an interest in politics and government. For inquiries, he can be reaches at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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