Blaming pop culture won't prevent another Newtown

In the aftermath of a horrific event, we all feel that something must be done – but banning records or attacking tasteless photographs is not the answer

When tragedy strikes, it is human nature to look around for someone to blame and the killings at Sandy Hook elementary school have prompted a flurry of finger-pointing. The media demands big-picture culprits and the reckless power of the gun lobby or the failure of mental heath services aren't enough. Conservative commentators have dipped into their usual basket of bugbears, including video games, violent movies and godlessness. The Sun, however, has gone boldly off-piste by training its outrage on "brainless" Coronation Street star Helen Flanagan, who on Monday posted a picture of herself pointing a gun at her head, and asking grieving parents for their views on this woman they've never heard of.

It's an absurd yet familiar attempt to erect a cultural cordon sanitaire around a terrible event. For a few days, we must all pretend that run-of-the-mill gun imagery is utterly beyond the pale, an insult to the dead, before resuming normal service. And if, in showing such remarkable empathy for the bereaved, the Sun gets the chance to show a picture of Flanagan in a lacy bra, well that's just a bonus.

These spasms of hypersensitivity and hypocrisy always seem ridiculous in retrospect. Remember Massive Attack abbreviating their name to Massive during the gulf war, Kylie changing her album title from Impossible Princess after Princess Diana's fatal crash, the Strokes dropping the mildly disrespectful New York City Cops from their debut album following the World Trade Centre attacks, or the Proms cutting American composer John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine after both Diana's death and 9/11?

These were panicky decisions based on fear of outrage. They are part of the standard ritual of public grief but that does not make them rational or useful. Although there are extreme cases when bad timing can't be ignored – US radio stations had little choice this week but to stop playing Ke$ha's new single Die Young – censorship is always problematic. After 9/11, US radio giant Clear Channel drew up an informal blacklist of "lyrically questionable" songs, which elided merely unfortunate titles (the Gap Band's You Dropped a Bomb on Me) with politically loaded ones ("all songs by Rage Against the Machine"). In the name of sensitivity, political dissent itself became "questionable".

At least you could argue that 9/11 was truly unprecedented, but last year 8,583 Americans were murdered by guns. Aside from a few well-publicised spree shootings, culture proceeds as normal regardless of the feelings of the bereaved. If posing with a gun is genuinely crass and offensive then it should have been crass and offensive last week and it should be a month from now, but no, it only counts for one news cycle.

When we hear about a horrific event we feel that something must be done, yet we can do next to nothing ourselves. Nobody can reverse what happened at Sandy Hook and only US legislators have any power to keep semi-automatic weapons out of the hands of deeply troubled individuals. In the absence of real power, some take the methadone of synthetic outrage and pretend that, in the face of 26 shocking murders, one tacky photograph matters an iota.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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