How did we get here?
It’s been difficult trying to navigate how to approach the murders at Covenant Presbyterian because I am close to the situation and the institution. Many of you are as well. I’m close enough that it’s been hard to gather my thoughts on the matter. For the privacy of everyone involved, I’ll just have to leave it there for now. The murder of Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, William Kinney, Katherine Koonce, Cynthia Peak, and Mike Hill was not just some abstract event delivered to me by the news.
Metro Nashville Police officers acted heroically in a time of great need and the school’s preparedness for such an incident prevented the deaths of many others. That Covenant had run, in advance, drills to prepare the students and teachers for this kind of thing says more than words can convey.
For most people, the massacre will remain a distant story, unconnected as they are to what is a small, intimate community. Learning of it through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, it will remain a distant event that happened in a distant place that slowly gets absorbed back into the never-ending news cycle which demands content and seems to thrive and depend on tragedies like this.
But for those of us who recognize the hallways on the security cam footage, know the victims and their families, and understand the Covenant community, all of this is harrowingly real which makes its rapid transformation into a political totem all the more unsettling.
The civic religion of the day demands we process school shootings and distill them down to political terms. There is no other permissible way to grieve than to demand change. If you’ve spent more than a few seconds on any social media platform over the past two days, you know what I am talking about.
Talking points are distributed, graphics and “call to actions” are shared with such rapid succession it appears as if there’s an entire readymade apparatus that undergirds reality and asserts itself at times like these with the cold brutality of a machine. These slogans and policy proposals are transportable and never unique to a particular event. By design, they overshadow the very real victims of what was a senseless act of violence and come nowhere close to grappling with what actually caused it.
Yesterday, I went to the candlelight vigil at Public Square Park. It was a candlelight vigil on paper, but the event was set for 5:30 PM when the sun hadn’t even ducked behind the Capitol. John Cooper got up and gave a weirdly inflected speech that indicated he hadn’t looked at what he was reading beforehand followed by a series of others including Police Chief John Drake and Councilmember Russ Pulley who represents the district that Covenant sits within. Jill Biden stood silently next to the series of speakers, waved when she was introduced, and retired back into the courthouse as the ceremony awkwardly ended and the audience stood in the park unsure of whether or not to leave.
At one point during the ceremony, folk singer Ketch Secor got up and sang a version of ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ to a crowd of mostly silent observers unsure how to react. It’s possible that my proximity to all of this negatively colored my perception of the event, but what I do think is unassailably true is that amongst that group, I did not feel anything like community and none of the leaders offered anything in the way of serious consolation or spirited encouragement.
It was done, as all political functions these days are done, by the book using language so vague and general that you could’ve imported the whole thing to East Palestine, Ohio, or any other event you could define as “tragic”, and not noticed—save the remarks of John Drake whose anguish came across genuinely.
What was lacking was a distinct and shared worldview between all the attendees. You could sense uneasiness in the crowd as no one was sure what the other person really thought. A prior version of the nation would not have struggled as mightily with this as, though its religious factions were divided on theological grounds, they could all come together under the authority of Christ and break bread honoring the same God.
The lack of this shared Christian underpinning stuck out to me even more as I walked back to my car through the Capitol where Andrew Johnson, Andrew Jackson, and James K. Polk are memorialized. On Polk’s memorial it ends with a simple sentence: “The beauty of virtue was illustrated in his life: the excellence of Christianity was exemplified in his death.”
One of Nietzsche’s most cutting critiques of religion in the modern world comes in his book Beyond Good and Evil. “Our modern, noisy, time-consuming industriousness, proud of itself, stupidly proud, educates and prepares people, more than anything else does, precisely for ‘unbelief,’” he writes. Nietzsche forces the reader to consider whether or not a genuinely religious life is possible in a world in which people can rarely rest with good conscience due to various obligations and pressures that push them forward. He wrote that passage in 1886, but it is doubly true today and, despite how many might interpret that passage as a critique of Christianity specifically, it came to mind as I left the city government’s vigil and headed to another vigil at a church nearby Covenant.
A smaller, more intimate gathering for members of the church and their families, the attendees sang hymns and took turns reading verses aloud for all to consider. A passage from Jonah stood out, and I fingered through the book of Job landing on the end of chapter twenty-eight which reads as follows:
Where then does wisdom come from?
Where does understanding dwell?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing,
concealed even from the birds in the sky.
Destruction[a] and Death say,
“Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.”
God understands the way to it
and he alone knows where it dwells,
for he views the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
When he established the force of the wind
and measured out the waters,
when he made a decree for the rain
and a path for the thunderstorm,
then he looked at wisdom and appraised it;
he confirmed it and tested it.
And he said to the human race,
“The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom,
and to shun evil is understanding.”
Now there is some language that can shine light into the darkness of our grief. Hidden away from the “industriousness” of the city, the Covenant community could speak more directly to those in mourning, understanding that all of them worship the same God and are willing to bear the burden with each other.
The direct address of grief at the vigil stood in such stark contrast to the platitudes and legalese of Mayor Cooper’s speech that it struck me that perhaps this very sterile, secular approach to these tragedies is what allows them to reproduce in the first place—language so lacking in spirit, so dead and void of substance, that it can only register with people on a superficial level offering them nothing to directly confront the source of their pain.
This is doubly true of the way corporate media, which uses the same legalistic language, engages these things. Immediately after the news broke, stories and opinions spread like wildfire on policy proposals and the like. Where once Christianity was the civic religion of the nation, it is now, for lack of a better word, liberalism which demands political solutions to problems of the soul.
By dint of its function, the media is not equipped to grapple with difficult questions like what would drive a person to kill three innocent children in cold blood because they felt slighted. The medium is simply not designed for that, nor should we expect it to deliver an answer here. The best it can proffer is studies, surveys, and interviews that approximate a rationalization its readers can digest and consume and feel as if they understand why something happened.
But that doesn’t stop them from trying out of a sense of stupid pride. Keel Hunt, a columnist for the Tennessean used his platform to vilely discuss how a bullet enters the body and the particulars of gun laws. Not once in Keel’s appeal does he mention the name of the victims, condemn the killer, or even comment on the mental state of a person who would do such a thing. Local New York Times contributor Margaret Renkl similarly abused her perch, penning an open letter to Bill Lee making the same omission as Hunt.
In a more religious culture, this would not be a problem as the majority of people could go between the media and their church for how to engage grief. But lacking a church, lacking a clear, unified belief system, many turn to politics. Everyone grieves in their own way, but it’s unique to this particular type of person that their grief attempts to incriminate you for not grieving like them.
Consider for a second that the clinical, impersonal language employed by our leaders and media in confronting painful situations in a culture lacking a shared religious understanding is what contributes to the development of citizens so mentally ill that they take their anger and confusion out on other people’s children. This mode of discourse does not allow space for belief or grief or anything of that variety. It is immediately sucked up into the information vacuum and packaged into a political slogan that offers its adherents the impression that they are doing something. Absent belief in a higher power, this is how they grieve.
The police have yet to release the manifesto of the killer, and thus, we can only speculate about her motives. What we do know to be true, however, is that she spent a lot of time on the internet. This is clear from the way she dressed down to the existence of a profile under her name on a niche internet site called Fur Affinity which proudly boasts of its BLM and trans alliance on its Twitter. The site is a social media hub for “furries”—an extremely online subculture.
It’s then undoubtably true that the news and impressions of things like “trans genocide” came to her through this legalistic jargon disjointed from a more cohesive, meaningful worldview. It is within this limited vocabulary and understanding, that her perception of the world was molded and it is from this cloistered and miniscule language that her anger was given form.
In December of last year, NPR, which is funded by the United States government, ran a piece titled ‘Oregon's LGBTQ community worries that a new law will keep them from obtaining guns’ which showed a pink haired "trans person of color” holding an AR-15. The article advocates against Oregon introducing what amounts to red flag laws for its potential negative effect on the trans-community.
More recently, NPR ran a segment on the radio profiling a group based in New Hampshire called Rainbow Reload which teaches trans people how to acquire and operate firearms. One of the members wears a hat starting ‘Make Fascists Afraid Again’. Consider that the word fascist is a favorite of state and local politicians like Gloria Johnson and Sean Parker and popular progressive activist accounts like Nashville Resist to mark their enemies, and you’ll begin to understand who these groups are targeting. Here you see the ground being seeded for what played out Monday.
In reaction to the murders, the corporate media has erected what amounts to a defense of the killer.
Newsweek released a piece titled ‘Audrey Hale Manifesto Release Raises Major Concerns From LGBTQ+ Groups’. The concern here borders on an admission that the murder of three children was in some way justified. We have not yet received the manifesto from MNPD and so are left to wonder why they are selectively withholding it. We can only speculate at this point.
The Daily Mail released an article titled ‘Nashville mass school shooter Audrey Hale was rejected by her Christian parents who 'couldn't accept' she was gay and trans’. NBC News released their own attempt to soften the blow with an article titled ‘Fear pervades Tennessee's trans community amid focus on Nashville shooter's gender identity’.
Instead of focusing attention on the victims of a senseless and bloody murder, the corporate media have chosen to run cover for the killer. The New York Times and USA Today both released notes clarifying the killer’s pronouns. Here locally, WPLN reporter Paige Pfleger—amidst her stream of narcissistic, self-congratulatory reflection on covering the tragedy and its effects on her—did the same for the killer, but didn’t mention the names of the victims even once.
On the national commentariat level, Cenk Uygur who makes his living chopping up partisan red meat, tweeted, “Right-wing seems to be celebrating that Nashville shooter was trans, as if that vindicates them. Wtf? Doesn't that prove that maybe you guys shouldn't bully people about who they are? If you think the answer is more bullying, you missed the point and are probably a terrible person.” The implication here is that the victims deserved to die.
An even more cruel dimension has been the lazy sloganeering of people who want to appear to care and so throw up a post on social media attached to some gun control messaging. Axios Nashville did this Tuesday. They discussed the murders and people’s response to it while peppering commentary on gun control throughout. Before quoting his condolences, they wrote of Andy Ogles: “U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles was elected last year to represent much of Nashville in Congress. He and his family posed for a Christmas card picture in 2021 holding guns”. Today, the entire thing was about gun control bills.
If the past few days have shown me anything it’s that the dominant political ideology expressed by the corporate media and most politicians, on both sides of the aisle, is completely incapable of dealing with the issues that led to Monday’s massacre. They can pass all the laws they want to try and abstract away the very real, gaping spiritual chasm within the country, but they will never be capable of enduring a dark night of the soul that brings their worldview into question and forces them to realize this—doubly so for the corporate media.
As I’ve said before, the simple fact that a person would go to a school to kill children, not the weapon that they use, should be enough of a condemnation of the political system that created that person to bring it to its knees. The stupid hubris of many leaders, and especially the “esteemed” members of the media, is how we got here.
Should it be surprising that an ideology that can only address human nature from a detached, almost alien perspective and privileges invented identities over reality produces people and a system that so wantonly deals with death? Have we considered that the reason killing schoolchildren is so common here in the United States is because the United States government does the same thing to countries abroad and then talks clinically about it, waving talismans like democracy and equality to justify it? Sound familiar?
The dominant culture broadcast through the media and out the mouths of our politicians—both locally and nationally—is directly downstream of the logic the federal government uses to carry out similar atrocities in foreign lands. It was only a matter of time before the chickens came home to roost.
Pray for Covenant and the victims’ families. If you would like to donate, you can find a list of resources here.