Algebra

If there is one thing that most people agree on, it is that the loss of life is tragic. Matters get complicated when it comes to questions of capital punishment for perpetrators of heinous crimes or situations where people bent on violence suffer what some might deem to be their “just deserts” (as when the terrorist Zarquawi was killed last spring). In general, though, can’t we assume that there is a broad consensus that the loss of “innocent life” is always lamentable? That seems like a simple claim, but recent events make me wonder.

As the summer of 2006 came to an end, the cable news networks inundated us with wall-to-wall coverage about the murder case of Jon Benet Ramsey, the dolled-up, Lolita-eque six-year-old beauty queen found strangled and blugeoned in her family home in 1996. Surely her death counts as its own tragedy. That tragedy also became a confounding (and, just so, an intriguing) murder mystery. So when a disturbed man was arrested in Thailand as a suspect in the case, it was unsurprising that this story interested just about everybody at least a little. But as the coverage came to dominate the news shows on each cable network–and as this went on for days and weeks–the spectacle surely gave pause to anyone vaguely aware of what else was going on in the world at this same time.

Aside from the fact that the suspect never was indicted, we can still wonder how the death of one child a decade ago can be of greater interest than the fact that throughout 2006, the country of Iraq suffered the terrorist equivalent of one 9/11 per month. On 9/11 this nation lost just over 3,000 of its citizens. We filled our churches that Tuesday evening and for many weeks to come to mourn and lament those deaths. Even six months later when my wife and I visited Ground Zero in New York, we both dissolved into tears when we saw the fence onto which so many orphans of 9/11 had affixed farewell notes and crayon drawings to their murdered mothers and fathers.

But in the summer of 2006, Iraq lost over 3,000 innocent men, women, and children each month from suicide bombers, roadside bombs, and individual 1:1 sectarian murders. Reports of these various killings were in the news, of course, but often as no more than a 15-second mention of the violence as part of the “And now this …” structure of network and cable news summaries of the day. When mentioning the spiraling carnage in Iraq, leaders of both parties in the U.S. tended to describe the situation as “difficult,” “frustrating,” and “disappointing.” But one wonders how we would have reacted on September 12, 2001, if people from other countries could have done no better in summarizing our national grief than to say it was “disappointing” and “frustrating.”

Yet somehow we have become accustomed to such lackluster terms when it comes to a monthly situation in Iraq that is, by all rights, no less lethal, tragic, and horrible. Larry King and Chris Matthews and Sean Hannity might be able to sustain a one-hour show about such carnage (and probably have done so somewhere along the line). But it is diffi- cult to imagine Larry King devoting an entire week’s worth of shows to Iraq’s monthly repetition of 9/11-levels of carnage. Yet somehow the re-igniting of interest in the Ramsey murder was deemed interesting enough so as to generate more than an entire week of shows for not only Mr. King but for all his cable competitors.

As is often the case, it took a fake news show like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show to skewer the loopy choices made by the real news networks. Commenting on the avalanche of Jon Benet Ramsey coverage, Stewart wryly detailed what he called the weird “algebra” of cable news. In terms of viewer interest and the consequent decisions made by network news producers, the algebra goes like this: Massive Loss of Life in Iraq + Significant Loss of Life in Israel/Lebanon is less than Murder of One Child Ten Years Ago.

Of course, we all have to admit it’s only natural to feel more of a connection to someone whose face and name we know than to anonymous people on the other side of the world. Unless the situation has changed drastically since I wrote this, the odds are dismally good that a six-year-old little girl died from terrorist violence somewhere in Iraq within the last week of your reading this article. But we will never see her face or learn her name nor will we see her mother or father weeping before a bank of microphones as reporters jostle to get their story. But perhaps precisely this is the most troublesome aspect to consider: the media now dictates to us how and when we feel grief and compassion.

Maybe it started the day when Walter Cronkite had to take off his glasses even as his voice broke when he announced the confirmed news that President Kennedy had died in Dallas. Similarly, after 9/11, all three network news anchors (Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw) had moments when the sadness of it all caught up with them and they had an on-air catch in their voices. Even David Letterman, on his first return to the air after 9/11, skipped his show’s normal musical opening so as to have the camera zoom in on him sitting silent and grim-faced behind his desk. (Letterman’s only guest that night was CBS anchor Dan Rather, who wept uncontrollably during his interview.) More than we know, we take our emotional cues from these media figures. If they can report on the death of 100 people in a Baghdad marketplace but can take only a few seconds to do so (and if they can remain dry-eyed even as they then chirpily swivel to a story about an Iowa boy’s prize bullfrog), then through a kind of media semaphore, the rest of us receive the message that although sad things happen in this world, this particular piece of sadness need not detain us.

As Christians, however, we can ask more serious questions, including ones that deal with the content of our prayers. Is our prayer agenda sometimes set by what network and cable news agencies convey to us as important? Do we allow our Christ-like compassion (or lack of it) to emerge only when properly cued by Katie Couric or Larry King?

These are difficult questions. But perhaps in pondering this we can ask another question: as Iraq suffered a monthly 9/11 throughout the shank of 2006, how many of us heard our pastors on Sunday lament this in their pastoral prayers even as they earnestly begged God to bring an end to the violence and to console shattered Iraqi parents and families? And if we did not hear any prayers along these lines, did we note their absence? Or does the media’s odd algebra now determine even the shape of our corporate prayer life?

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and co-editor of Perspectives.