On Wednesday, a 19-year-old gunman in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people in the deadliest high school shooting in American history. President Trump offered his prayers and condolences in a tweet soon afterward:
In his public statement on Thursday morning, Trump urged Americans to “pray for healing and for peace” in the wake of the tragedy. His response was notable for several reasons, including his vague hand-waving about mental illness and his utter failure to support meaningful gun legislation. But there was one thing made conspicuous by its absence: the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”
The president wasn’t alone in avoiding that specific idiom in the wake of yet another mass shooting. The vast majority of Republican politicians reacting to Wednesday’s deadly event found other ways of expressing the fact that they are not prepared to do anything concrete about gun violence. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has used the phrase often in the past, tweeted that Wednesday was “that terrible day you pray never comes.” Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, another repeat offender, asked Twitter followers to “join me in praying for the victims.” Other politicians sent love, stood with the community, and, over and over, thanked the first responders.
Until recently, offering “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting was the standard response from Republican politicians who had no interest in gun control. But in the wake of the Parkland attack, “thoughts and prayers” was a phrase much more often deployed by those who are fed up with it:
On Twitter, the few politicians who hadn’t gotten the memo were quickly “ratio’d”—deluged with scornful replies that far outnumbered supportive retweets and hearts.
The backlash to the motto has been building for years, particularly in the context of gun violence. “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” President Obama said at a news conference after a campus shooting in Oregon in 2015 (though notably Obama was not able to move gun policy despite that correct sentiment). In 2016, satirists created an online game in which players choose whether to “think” or “pray” as a stream of mass shootings pop up on a map of the United States. In a powerful BoJack Horseman episode last year titled “Thoughts and Prayers,” the phrase becomes a thoughtless mantra murmured over and over by Hollywood executives working on a movie that glamorizes gun violence. Countless think pieces have wrestled over whether the mockery amounts to “prayer-shaming” and Christian-bashing, or whether the backlash represents a justifiable impatience with strategically ineffective public piety.
Either way, the backlash seems to have worked, in the narrowest sense. The public responses to Parkland suggest that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become sufficiently toxic that politicians have learned not to deploy it as part of their public response to tragedy. Of course, the quiet expiration of one specific phrase does not mean Republican lawmakers are doing anything beyond thinking and praying about gun violence. Many of them still offered variations on the promise to pray for victims and the Parkland community. But it does mean they have been successfully shamed into changing one tiny aspect of their behavior. In the dismal context of the American conversation about guns, that just might count as a positive step.
One more thing
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