My congressman, Darin LaHood (R, 18-IL), offered this week his “thoughts and prayers” for the people shot, wounded, killed, frightened, threatened, angered, and traumatized at the recent school shooting in Florida. My first reaction was, “What a clueless idiot.” But that may be uncharitable. So I’d like to explore possible meanings in his use of that phrase.
- He may be sincere.
On Facebook, he reminds us that he has three children. In a loop of empathy, he can see the pain in the grieving parents and imagine the pain he’d feel himself at the sudden loss of one of his own children, and so the horror of that imagining helps him feel and grieve along with the families in Florida. That impulse is one any of us might feel, a reaching out to tell a suffering fellow human, “You are not alone.”
It’s a gesture we can all make when we feel helpless to do anything else. In the face of irretrievable loss (a dead child), sometimes that’s all we can do.
LaHood is not a rich prose stylist. He calls up a cliché because such language is at hand to gesture toward a feeling deeper than he can express.
- He may be miming sympathy.
As a public figure, Rep. LaHood feels a responsibility to respond to significant events. There is an accepted ritual language for moments like this, and he deploys it here in the conventional way. The ceremony of public grief is thus observed. Whether the outward gesture corresponds with any inward mental state matters less than its prompt and exact performance. He has enacted his institutional function.
The words and gestures, as they do for any ritual, have a conventional significance. If others interpret them in some other contexts outside of that convention, that is their business. Heterodox interpretations should not matter to those who wish to live within the convention.
- The words may be a sign to the NRA and the gun fetishists that they can continue to count on his support.
People who advocate reforming gun laws mock politicians who offer their “thoughts and prayers” in response to a massacre. As an expression of helpless empathy, the phrase suggests those politicians can offer nothing in the face of such horrors but words of solidarity. As someone hungry wants not sympathy, but food, and as someone drowning wants not words of encouragement, but a rope to grab, people horrified by violence want not ritual language, but change in the policies that make such horrors so likely to recur.
Expressions of grieving impotence from a legislator reassure the gun manufacturers and their clients that the gun markets will remain open.
- He may be intentionally insulting and provoking those who want to reform gun laws.
The hypocrisy of pretended impotence in “thoughts and prayers” is so obvious that surely he knows people will find it outrageous–an insult to the dead and grieving, an insult to democratic institutions by which citizens can shape their own society. For gun fetishists who will grieve as for a severed limb at any diminishment of their capacity for violence, it can be thrilling to poke an outraged public in its collective eye–especially thrilling because they can righteously deny it. The reformers are clearly the obsessives, seeing provocation in such mild condolence. Bullying can be fun.
I’m pretty sure LaHood is doing the second and third. The fourth–I feel it whether he means it or not. As for the first, I am a parent myself, and I want to believe he feels at least that much, but I cannot know.