Thoughts and prayers and motives

Thoughts and Prayers and Motives

Note: I wrote this essay in early December of 2022, but thought it ill-timed for my readers in the weeks leading up to Christmas. As reported on February 15, 2023, the general situation of violence I consider here has only gotten worse.

Christmas tree decoration from Festival of Trees in Erie, Pennsylvania: a whimsical image for an unorthodox season.

I was throwing together a tuna-noodle casserole while watching the evening news. The lead story concerned Athena Strand, the seven-year-old whose body was discovered on the evening of December 2, 2022, 10 miles from her Texas home. A FedEx driver has confessed to the murder. As if on cue, all voices retreated to the shelter of familiar verbiage.

“A tip led authorities to the suspect,” reported the ABC anchor, “though a motive remains unclear.”

“And now the big question is why, as investigators are continuing to look into the motive,” said a reporter. joined the chorus: “Authorities did not indicate a possible motive and said Horner [the FedEx driver] did not know the family or the child.”

The Associated Press noted that Sheriff Lane Akin “declined to discuss a motive.”

McKenna Oxenden of The New York Times gave that ill-advised M-word the slip in her reporting: “The authorities said that Mr. Horner did not know the family or the girl and that Athena had been taken from near her home.” Bravo, Ms. Oxenden.

“Why would anybody want to kill that little girl?” Athena Strand. (Credit: Texas Dept. of Public Safety)

I’m not sure what’s more frustrating, those who extend thoughts and prayers to victims’ families after mass–or individual–killings or those who wonder with somber brow about the motive of thirty-something Tanner Lynn Horner. All three words are fine, unless they’re misapplied.

Obviously, “the big question is why.” Unfortunately, the question must be rhetorical. There’s no answer. There’s no motive, if by that term you mean a rational thought that leads to an action. The reporter’s why is best screamed from one’s backyard or balcony on a starry night. A transcript of Horner’s interior monologue when he spotted the unfortunate Athena Strand would be more Rorschach nightmare than reasoning. And if sentences could articulate his game plan, who among us would have heart or stomach to read them?

I will hint at the unspeakable, then. Wanting to murder or molest an innocent child isn’t a motive. It’s a pathology wicked beyond human redemption.

Just seems to fit our gloomy theme.

As my casserole went into the oven, the M-word made its next appearance as authorities tried to figure out what was going through the brains(s) responsible for shooting up a power station in North Carolina’s Moore County, thereby depriving 33,000 residents of power in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Overwrought Sheriff Ronnie Fields, in his own words: “It was targeted. It wasn’t random. Coward is what I’d call it, but we don’t have anything, no motivation.”

According to, “The timing and location of the attacks seem to surround a highly controversial ‘Drag Show’ that was scheduled to take place at 7pm at the Sunset Theater in Downtown Southern Pines, NC.” The jury is still out on this explanation; regardless, can responding to an event one finds objectionable by endangering thousands of civilians be rightly considered a motive? Only if those who hijacked airplanes full of innocents on September 11, 2001, acted rationally.

To seek a motive for madness is to domesticate the latter. Distinctions between the two words turn to blather. illustrates this point in its profile of Adam Lanza, who unleashed an AR-15 on Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012: “His motive for these senseless killings was unclear.” Wait. If an act is senseless, its motive is by definition unclear.

“Come on, Coleman,” you might think, “you’re nitpicking.”

Maybe. Or is the nonchalant M-word like a mole that indicates a malignancy? That’s my suspicion. “You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” we say. “The motive for the abduction and murder is unclear,” we say.

There must be a motive in here somewhere. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But what’s the alternative, after all? News anchors have to say something, right? The trouble is, every news cycle teems with red-hot absurdity, and it would hardly do for a broadcast to open with, “This story breaking as we come on the air, ‘Oh, God, why? Why?’” Alas, conventional journalism isn’t equipped to explain the inexplicable.

Listening with the ear of our broken hearts, we long to discern the motives of Osama bin Laden, Timothy McVeigh, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Dylan Roof, Salvador Ramos, Payton S. Gendron and Tanner Lynn Horner. The names blend together, don’t they? Locations, too. Shanksville. Littleton. Newtown. Uvalde. We’re all exasperated, aren’t we?

Kathy spoke for both of us when she looked over my shoulder at Athena Strand’s fresh face on the television screen and shouted, “Why? Why would anybody want to kill that little girl?”

“Yes!” I turned to her. “Why?”

For an instant it felt as though we were fighting, but, of course, we were undone by one outrage after another, each of them making the opposite of sense. All Kathy and I could give each other was loud lamentation, followed by a silence that told the most profound truth. Our savory comfort food had poor power to add or detract.

Man meditating in Philadelphia Starbucks. Photograph taken with subject’s permission. When the news brings red-hot absurdity, the first thing to do, I suppose, is breathe. (Credit: John Coleman)

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