Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Common Atrocity

When the teenage demons killed so many of their classmates at Columbine, the very planet quivered. Network news crews invaded the small Colorado town, draped the unthinkable in exquisite lighting and cued up their theme music’s most plaintive cut. Images of kids running from their classrooms with hands raised overhead burned their way into the collective consciousness as the universe grieved in glimmering hi-def.

Less than twenty years later, such an unthinkable act has become commonplace. The fleeing students, panicking parents and crouched cops are all part of a new palette, just another template for broadcasters to tweak. These days, when news of a classroom mass-killing breaks, the globe shrugs. Numbed citizens reach for their phones to offer ‘thoughts and prayers’ while politicians run for cover. Gun-control advocates and their well-armed foes tussle over who’s to blame and TV preachers crawl out from under their rocks to pass the plate. Back at home, most of us wish it would all just go away so we could get back to bingeing our favorite guilty pleasure.

You probably have strong opinions as to why these kind of mass shootings keep happening. I certainly have mine. But it’s not access to pistols or prayers that I’m focused on tonight. It’s passport to tragedy. I was at Virginia Tech in the hours and days that followed that senseless killing and the hollowed expressions worn by the folks I found there will never leave me. Losing a loved one in such a way is punishment enough. Being goaded by a hungry press for a bite-sized reaction is, sadly, something I’ve learned to stomach. Of course, in 2018, you don’t need a news crew to gorge on calamity. Smart phones are everywhere (and everything) these days. Before the madman’s muzzle even stopped recoiling, the sights and sounds of his evil acts are already streaming for the world to see.

I don’t pretend to have any answers. You should be wary of those who do. I just know that I never want to rush to the scene of a massacre again. I don’t want to stick my lens into any more shell-shocked faces, don’t want to pry details from people who’ve yet to process abomination, don’t want to profile grieving parents or question breathless bystanders ever again. Chances are, though, I’ll have to, and without a doubt, you’ll watch. In fact, you’ll lean into your screen and witness more than you really want to. It’s human nature, after all. But at what point do we put aside our voyeuristic vices and start asking the hard questions that may one day quell this uniquely American monstrosity?

I guess now is still not the time…