In the wake of two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, it seems the only right response is action. Twenty-two died in a Walmart at the hands of a 21-year-old white supremacist; hours later, nine died on a bustling street. “Do Something!” the people chant at Ohio governor Mike DeWine’s press conference, and post as hashtags on social media. The cry encapsulates the voice of a people desperate for basic gun regulations: background checks, red-flag laws, bans on assault-style weapons. Thoughts and prayers, meanwhile, are called cop-outs: meaningless, indifferent, even sinful condolences that express anguish without being willing to end it. Or at least, thoughts and prayers are seen as tepid, without action—a politician can share sorrow, but also must sponsor the bill.
I’ve been thinking about the thoughts-and-prayers backlash, I think in part because of my connection to El Paso. My husband is from the border city; my in-laws and other friends and relatives live there. (All are safe.) I’ve felt overwhelmed by the details—the “mangled” injured, the parents who died shielding their baby, Trump’s thumbs-up near an orphaned infant, the shooter’s manifesto and confession (he came to kill Mexicans)—because it’s all unspeakably awful, but also because I love the place. It’s ripe with counterfactuals. What if my mother-in-law had gone to that mall to buy a new lamp that day, as she’d planned? Meanwhile, the web swirls with conspiracies, some shared by my relations in El Paso.
I feel helpless; the ways I can “Do Something!” are attenuated. That’s democracy. I can write letters to my Connecticut congressmen, but they already agree with me (we were the first state to pass a red-flag law, in 1999). I can march in a protest, if it’s happening nearby. But is that helpful, or performative? I can tweet, but I hate tweeting. (Perhaps a bad excuse, but true.) I can vote, but not until November, and only in my own blue state. I can not own an assault-style weapon. But that’s no great sacrifice for me.
Thoughts and prayers seem to be all I have. For me at least, they don’t feel like a cop-out, because critical thinking is taxing, and praying is really hard. Stillness, meditation, time “wasted” on the intangible—I struggle with prayer. I’m ashamed of that.