Should We Be Laughing?

During the Waco siege, the Branch Davidians became the butt of many jokes. But when Mt. Carmel burned down on April 19, 1993, claiming the lives of 76 men, women, and children, decency did not put a pause to this humor. Instead, the event itself became grist for another round of derisive humor.

Not only is a tragedy a grotesque source for humor, some of those jokes were SPECIFICALLY about the children who died. They also played on religious bigotry and dehumanized their subjects.

Is there a defense for such humor? Probably the most cogent case was made by the book, Mad Man in Waco. After relating some of the jokes that were circulating right after the fire, Brad Bailey wrote, "These jokes are perhaps not as inhumane as they appear. Rather than serving as further evidence of inhumanity to man, humor usually marks the first efforts at dealing with such inhumanity. Turning such dark horrors into sources of humor provides temporary emotional distance, a buffer zone, time to absorb. Laughter helps to dissipate the emotional charge."

I think Mad Man is one of the best books on Waco, and I've recommended it. But even so, I thought it was taking an overly benign view of these jokes; too often they seemed to be told with more relish, and malice, than it suggested. But I couldn't put my finger on the problem, until Oklahoma City.

Bailey had written that humor provided a way of "dealing with such inhumanity," but I noticed that I wasn't hearing any jokes about the victims in the Murrah building, even though people surely could have used ways of "dealing with such inhumanity." Nor were there calls to find ways to "dissipate the emotional charge" or advocating "emotional distance," temporary or not; anyone doing so would have been condemned in the name of the children, for feeling the full horror of Oklahoma City was considered a human duty.

And here precisely was the problem. The deaths of so many people at Waco SHOULD have packed an "emotional charge." But for many Americans, it didn't. While Bailey thought that "humor provides temporary emotional distance," for many it was not temporary. Such dehumanizing humor was a way of setting up a permanent "buffer zone" between themselves and the Davidians' humanity. These jokes helped "dissipate" that "emotional charge" all too well.

True, many of those who originally felt the Davidians "got what they deserved" have, upon "time to absorb," become more reflective. But did that humor facilitate that transition? In a negative sense, some people may have come to realize how sick those jokes were, but otherwise, I doubt it. The aim of such humor was to objectify, not plant seeds of future sympathy.

That is not to say that I judge all who told or laughed at those jokes equally harshly. Many of them now see that they were wrong to cheer the demise of the Davidians. There are even those who were disturbed at the time that they found humor in such a massive tragedy. Those who have come out from behind their "buffer zone" and connected with the humanity of the Davidians, I welcome as prodigals.

However, I am not so generous with those who are still laughing. Anyone who is still, six years later, getting their jollies from such a great tragedy, one that took the lives of many children, clearly did not use humor merely to decompress from the shock.

To them, I say, if you find the deaths of scores of men, women, and CHILDREN funny, where are your jokes about Oklahoma City?

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