On June 17, a 21-year-old man shot and killed nine people during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. His website consists of white supremacist diatribes and apparently features a picture in which he is posing with a handgun in front of a Confederate flag. It has been reported that he shouted racial slurs during the attack and that he later told police that his purpose was to start a race war. One account said he almost didn’t go through with the attack because the victims were so nice to him. I couldn’t help but wonder what circumstances in his twenty-one years might have prevented the attack altogether.
If you’ve raised children of your own or been around children for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the look-at-me phenomenon. After “no” and “mine,” I think the next words a child learns are “look at me.” The plea is repeated at a steadily increasing volume until the desired attention is achieved, and then some amazing feat is performed – a six-inch jump, a lop-sided cartwheel, a swoop down the slide, or a splashing belly flop into the kiddie pool. Whatever the act, it is always followed by a tentative grin as the actor waits hopefully for the sought after affirmation that he or she is special and important to you.
In the olden days of stay-at-home moms and dinner around the dining room table every night, one-on-one recognition and acknowledgment of a person’s individuality seemed fairly easy to come by. However, as family structure has changed and screens of all sorts shout for attention, a child may find it harder to find the attention he seeks. Instead of competing with a few siblings, she may be one of ten or twenty children wanting to be noticed by a teacher or child care worker.
This decreasing individual attention along with increased access to media has created a desire for a larger audience. When recent polls asked what teens wanted to be when they grew up, the most common answer was “famous,” and both reality TV and the Internet have made fame a possibility. If a person doesn’t have a prize-winning talent, he can become a star by having the most “likes” of a recent selfie, the most blog views, or the highest body count in the latest video game. It sounds like harmless fun until, tragically, someone in Columbine, Sandy Hook, or Emanuel AME Church takes it to the ultimate level.
Since June 17, there has been a flood of anger, sorrow, and disbelief at the senseless loss of life. There has also been a flurry of activity seeking to remove anything that might have caused, fed, or facilitated the obsession that ended with yet another heartbreaking attack. A Confederate flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse, and the sale of Confederate flags was discontinued by several major retailers. Interest was renewed in a petition to remove the Confederate carvings on Stone Mountain, Georgia, and in a June 24 article in the New York Post by Lou Lumenick suggested that maybe the movie “Gone with the Wind,” along with the Confederate flag, should be “consigned to museums as an ugly symbol of racism.”
It is normal, in the wake of a tragedy like this, to try to explain it, to find causes, to find a way to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. This is an essential part of the healing process. However, it is important that we not center our attention on an emotionally charged meme that we can share on Facebook in order to feel like we have been part of the solution. It is also important that we focus, not only on the symptoms but also on the cause. There is no easy answer to why a person decides to become famous by ending the lives of innocent people, but I can’t help but wonder if somewhere way back when, he wasn’t simply a little boy saying, “Hey, look at me.”
We can’t go back in time and undo what has already been done, but there are children all around us who need attention now. You may have some in your own home who need, not just thirty minutes of quality time now and then, but who need constant reassurance that they matter. If you don’t have children at home, there are countless opportunities to be involved in guiding lives into constructive paths. Churches are begging for volunteers to help with Sunday school, AWANA, Vacation Bible School, Camps, and other children’s and youth activities. Schools and various organizations have students who go without mentors, tutors, big brothers and sisters, and more because too few people are available.
The movie “Avatar” features a race of beings called the Na’vi. When the Na’vi have deep feelings for one another, they don’t say “I love you.” Instead, they look deeply into one another’s eyes and say, “I see you.” I wonder how many tragedies could be averted if we really learned to see each other, especially our children.