When something awful happens, it is easier not to stare directly at it. Instead, we focus on the things around the edges. What did the neighbors hear? How was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

And these days, those edges always include What Happened On Social Media afterward. What did they tweet? What did they Instagram? Who was the first to say the Awful, Snarky Thing? What were the relevant status updates?

Those pieces are almost but not quite the story, but they are easier to talk about.

Something awful happened at Franklin Regional High School in Pennsylvania Wednesday around 7 a.m. A student with two knives began stabbing and slashing and injured at least 20. Someone pulled the fire alarm. A security officer and assistant principal subdued the stabber. It is over now, but there are still people in critical condition at area hospitals. The student is now in custody.

But for some people — including at this newspaper — that wasn’t the story. The story was that a student, recovering in the hospital, posted a selfie.

And this — somehow THIS was the appalling thing.

“Where to start?” tweeted Amanda Lang.


“In case there are questions about western civilization being in decline.”

“Wow.”

“Oy.”

“SMH.”

“Too soon.”

“No sensitivity to the moment.”

It’s his moment! This happened to him! He just went through this and took a picture. What are you talking about, anyone?

I’ve never seen so much S’ing of H’s over so little.

Someone was stabbed — and dared to take a picture! (Not just any student, according to a what one student told Buzzfeed, but a student who helped protect others and might have pulled the fire alarm to warn people out of the building.)

I can’t believe we need to go over this now. But, briefly, there is nothing intrinsically bad or wrong in the selfie. It is all in how you use it. It is a way of taking a picture. If the founders had had access to cell phones, there’d be an arm in every portrait. The selfie, in itself, is not a sign of narcissism. It can be wielded that way, just as any medium can. Just because a picture is taken by someone else does not mean that it is not the most narcissistic thing possible. Hire someone to paint your portrait in a golden robe in front of your Newport home, holding a luxury dog and the fact that you weren’t the one wielding the brush won’t save you.

Now, given everyone’s cell phone, selfies are as easy as thought. You have a camera at all times. You don’t have 1,000 words to spare. You want to tell people what’s happening. This one says, “I’m okay.” How else do you tell people that?

Social media is embedded in our lives. What do you want him to do instead, telephone his friends at home on their land lines? Telegraph them? Send them a pigeon? For Pete’s sake, this is how we talk now. “He shouldn’t be smiling.” Have you never been a teenager?

Douglas Adams said of technology that “any technology invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.” Selfie has “self” in it. It sounds narcissistic and bad. But it’s all in how you use it. And this is being used to communicate.

As Slade Sohmer wrote at Hypervocal, this is a picture that says, “I’m fine.” (Read his whole take; he gets to use saltier language than I do.) You just went through something terrifying. It happened. You’re okay now. You’re even able to come up with a caption. Chillin’ at Children’s. It’s okay. Don’t worry.

It’s in poor taste? Is it narcissistic?

It happened to him, not to you.

The only sign of a decline of civilization is that someone stabbed his classmates this morning at school, and instead of being upset about that, we’re wasting our indignation on the fact that someone took a selfie afterwards. That’s what I call decline.

It’s easier not to talk about the real things. But this is ridiculous. Thoughts and prayers with everyone still recovering.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.