After each mass shooting in the US come the familiar rituals: the thoughts and prayers, the presidential visits, the flood of media coverage – and a darkly memorable headline from a fake newspaper.
“No way to prevent this, says only nation where this regularly happens.”
The Onion’s reposting of its piece, with a few details localized to the latest shooting, has become an expected part of the cycle, underscoring the horrific toll of national paralysis.
The brief article reports: “Citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place,” with a bleak quote attributed to a different person each time: “This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them.”
This week, however, the site went for the jugular. Normally, the piece appears as the site’s lead story after an attack. But after the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 21, the Onion filled every slot on its homepage with different iterations of the story, making its point all the more grim.
“This was a gut punch,” said Chad Nackers, the Onion’s editor-in-chief. The fact that the elementary-school violence occurred within days of a mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket, allegedly by a white supremacist, “hammered home the repetition of it for us”, he said. That fuelled the layout decision: editors sought to “emphasize this and show it in sort of a meta way”.
The article first appeared in 2014, after the misogynistic Isla Vista killings in California, which left six people dead. Now it has appeared 21 times. “I didn’t recognize the headline for what it would become,” says Jason Roeder, who wrote the original piece. “I was just exhausted by this country’s special station in the mass murder hierarchy and wanted to express that.”
The story serves as a potent example of humor’s ability to cut through political and media-driven noise – an increasingly challenging task in a post-truth era when, as the creators of South Park said in 2017, “satire has become reality”.
The Onion piece is “not a belly-laugh type joke”, Nackers says. Rather, it’s “kind of putting all the pieces together and exposing the truth”.
In meetings, the Onion’s editorial staff looks to make “what we feel like is a unique point,” Nackers says. “We’ve just done countless takes on mass shootings. So the ‘No way to prevent this’ felt like a very unique take that really hit the zeitgeist of everything that’s going on.”
And it has resonated. “The Onion completely nails it. [The article] resonates because they totally got it,” Dave Cullen, a journalist who has long covered mass shootings, told NPR in 2015. The article was popular, he said, because “we look for the people who tell us the truth … who see through the stuff, and don’t just print the same old stuff, or do the same old stuff, or do the safe stuff – the people who call us on our shit.”
On Twitter, readers welcomed the layout. “The Onion just stopped being satire,” wrote one user after Senator Lindsey Graham suggested no law could have stopped the shooting. Responding to the Onion’s series of tweets featuring the piece, the writer Jared Petty posted: “It’s necessary and poignant. It’s also gutting.”
Could that poignancy contribute to the real-world push for change? Roeder isn’t sure. “I am generally down on the real-world power of art,” he says. “Still, sometimes I wonder if it could take on some force, build some sort of gravity at a certain scale. It’s at 21 shootings, I think. What if it reaches 50? 100?”
Roeder is no longer on staff at the Onion, but he found the layout “really powerful, horrifyingly breathtaking”, he says. “I can’t believe this country has gotten to the point where the Onion could insert a variation of the headline in every single article slot.
“Actually, I can. I hate to say it, but I fear that headline will last as long as The Onion itself does.”
It probably won’t change anything, “because we Americans are addicted to the way guns make us feel,” Roeder adds. “But at least there’ll be an artifact of how many chances we let slip away.”
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