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Copyright © 1999 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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the bed that will never have that body in it again
september 18, 1999
Our TV went out.
Picture, but no sound. Until that happens, you don't realize how primitive TV is. It's still radio. If you can't hear it, no matter how many images it flashes, it doesn't make a lot of sense. TV without sound is silence in a way paintings never are.
We bought a new one. Brought it home, hoisted it up onto the surprisingly dusty TV table. 32 inches. Turned it on.
Channel 4 had an overhead, helicopter shot of dark buildings below, strobing blue and red cop car lights blipping a hundred feet way down there in the parking lot. We pressed the arrowed pad on our remote to get channels 5, 8 and 11. Same God's-eye view of humanity which always, on TV, means disaster and death.
Larry Gene Ashbrook (beware anyone with three names) opened the doors of the Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, right next door to us, where teens were meeting for a "prayer gathering", and pulled a gun out of his clothes.
After it was all over, after the covered stretchers came out and the contemptible "instant analysis" by psychologists who never met the gunman went out, the FBI broke into his home. They found letters he wrote to the Fort Worth Telegram, in which he complained he was being monitored by the CIA, etc. as a serial killer. His house itself was completely trashed. He had banged holes into the walls, smashed furniture, and poured cement into the toilet and sink in his bathroom. He obviously never intended to return.
Ashbrook lived with his parents all his life. He was in his late forties. His mother died several years ago, his father just recently.
He burst through the doors of the church while the prayer meeting was underway, swearing, shouting out condemnations of religion, raising his pistol. Survivors emphasized, and two videotapes taken at the time show, he was very deliberate in choosing who to kill. No uncontrolled sprays of bullets around the church; he walked up and down the main aisle between the rows of pews, taking his time selecting each victim, shooting at them until they fell. After his clip was empty, he made everyone wait while he reloaded.
When he first started shooting, the teens applauded, cheering and laughing.
The church frequently put on "real life" skits. Most people in the church thought Ashbrook was simply another actor playing a part.
One teenage girl said she only realized he was real when he sat down in the pew farthest in back, maneuvered one of the guns in his mouth, and puffed his brains across the wall behind him.
The media immediately converged on the little church in their top-heavy vans and artificial peach faces.
We're asked, as a nation, to grieve too much.
TV news has reduced its coverage of the world to two topics: death and weather. If there's a train wreck in India or Indiana, it's what we wake up to the next morning, it's what we see when we finally get home at night. "If it bleeds, it leads."
A while back, students in trenchcoats shot down some of their schoolmates in Columbine. That's tragic, it truly is, but it's a local tragedy. It's an event most of us should never have heard of, or else heard of only once, that first day, very briefly. Instead, Columbine has been projected by the media onto the "national consciousness", so that all of us, as a nation, are expected to have our days dominated by the sadness of what occurred. Does what happened in Columbine matter? To those who knew the victims, of course. To the rest of us? Other than in the abstract, no.
Seven kids were killed at Wedgwood Baptist Church. For the next several days the airwaves that belong to us were dominated by specials providing at most thirty seconds of new news amid fifty-nine minutes and thirty seconds of rehash, larded with the usual cheerful commercials. How many times do we have to see the same shots of blonde girls and snub-nosed boys relate their same recollections over and over and over and over again to the cameras?
Three white racists drag an African-American man behind their pick-up in chains, until his head comes off. A middle-aged man "opens fire" in a room full of young Jews, to start a religious war. These tragedies have nothing to do with gun control, movies or songs. They are not a warning about where our nation is going; they are not a trend. But the media appear to love these events, because it allows them to get down on their expensive knees and suck us for market share. The biggest story about John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane going down was that there was no story, just a bunch of carefully-coifed reporters standing up from their lawn chairs when the satellite link came through to somberly tell us everything was unchanged from the last time they bothered to stand up for us.
Should the media be controlled? Of course not. But by their instant specials, by their live coverage, by their precious little montages of young faces melting into coffin tops, by their endlessly-repeated sound bites from kids still in shock, lips trembling, chins jerking, they perform the worse disservice, the greatest injustice, of all. They transform a truly horrific event (children died) into something dismissable because it's repeated so often. They transform tragedy-- true, heart-breaking tragedy, the bed that will never have that body in it again-- into the typical TV product.