“We will come back stronger than ever from this . . . although it’s obviously going to be a very hard process.”
As endless updates, questions, videos, statements, and expressions of shock and grief spilled out across the Internet in the wake of last night’s horrific (and horrifically well-documented) Colorado shooting, my thoughts turned to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper ’74, who gave the 2010 Commencement Address when he was Mayor of Denver. Like more recent speaker Senator Michael Bennet ’87, Hickenlooper reps Wesleyan in Centennial State politics. And like Bennet, Hickenlooper has come under criticism from some here at Wes for his political choices.
Governor Hickenlooper has a tough task ahead of him. If anyone knows this, it’s former Governor Bill Owens, who served during the aftermath of the Columbine Massacre. But today the current governor spoke with grace and poise, even as he acknowledged the impossibility of expressing his grief in words. Hickenlooper spoke at a press conference with other Colorado authorities, and his voice cracked as he urged citizens not to “allow people that are aberrations of nature to take away the joys and freedoms that we enjoy”:
Our hearts are broken as we think about the family and friends of the victims of this senseless tragedy. This is the act, apparently, of a very deranged mind. This is a safe city and a safe state and a safe country. And we need to recognize we can’t allow people that are aberrations of nature to take away the joys and freedoms that we enjoy. . . . There’s not one of us—certainly those of use who have children—who does not hear this story and think of that being your child in that movie theater. And that reality makes the pain and the grief too intense for words. We will come back stronger than ever from this, although it’s obviously going to be a very hard process.
The Bill Owens connection (and geographic proximity to Littleton) underscores one revelation: that what is most chilling about the tragedy is not the killer’s combat outfit or his advanced weaponry or booby-trapped apartment or even the on-scene cell phone videos spilling into news reports. Nor is it his family’s inevitable statement of grief or high school classmates’ obligatory interviews or the fact that, yes, there are a bunch of people named James Holmes on Facebook, and they are not all mass murderers. Nor the awful story of victim Jessica Redfield, who escaped a different shooting just last month.
It is how horribly, inevitably familiar the entire thing is. And how many times we have seen it play out before. And how smoothly everything is progressing at the “normal” rate.
I spent much of my workday refreshing The Onion, waiting patiently for it to mock the media circus reeling from Holmes’ attack. (“But that would be tasteless!” Except nothing so horrific is off-limits, because The Onion is not Daniel Tosh—its barbs are too sharp, its punchlines too well-aimed.) Finally, it came in the form of an astute feature-length piece headlined “Sadly, Nation Knows Exactly How Colorado Shooting’s Aftermath Will Play Out,” which points out that American onlookers can by now “pinpoint down to the hour when the first candlelight vigil will be held, roughly how many people will attend, how many times the county sheriff will address the media in the coming weeks, and when the town-wide memorial service will be held.” It goes on to quote everyday Americans, who also happen to be experts on random acts of mass gun violence:
“I hate to say it, but we as Americans are basically experts at this kind of thing by now,” said 45-year-old market analyst Jared Gerson, adding that the number of media images of Aurora, CO citizens crying and looking shocked is “pretty much right in line with where it usually is at this point.” “The calls not to politicize the tragedy should be starting in an hour, but by 1:30 p.m. tomorrow the issue will have been politicized. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if the shooter’s high school classmate is interviewed within 45 minutes.”
These rituals are so easily mockable because they are so familiar, and they are so familiar because we have written about them before—the same debates about gun control vs. concealed carry, about whether entertainment is to blame, and who is exploiting tragedy for political gain—and we have written about them before because this sort of thing happens so alarmingly often, because we want to know why, and because, for most of us who are lucky enough not to be directly affected by the shooting, that’s the question that sets the whole “aftermath” in motion.
Though different in tone, the Onion article is remarkably similar to an excellent Atlantic Wire post by Jen Doll, who, by 12:45 p.m., had already identified the buzzwords and tropes as they unfolded online and flooded your Twitter feed. This, Doll points out, is “what we write about when we can’t write about anything else”; the names and places change, but the discussions are the same:
It might be a story about how we politicize events like this, so quickly, how politicians are keen to turn them to talk about what they want to talk about, to bolster their side. Civilians do this too, of course. Gun control laws should be more stringent. Or, on the converse side, gun control laws should be less so, so that more people can carry guns to (allegedly) protect themselves. Or we talk about how this might impact the movie’s bottom line (oof); or about a woman who was killed, a journalist herself, who recently narrowly escaped being involved in another shooting; or about children who die, far too young, about people who simply didn’t need to die in this way, not at all. We hurt, so we talk.
Then we turn to matters more practical: security measures in theaters, for instance, how the NYPD is doing this, in fact, for New Yorkers. There’s religious and anti-religious talk of varying degrees of decent and horrible. We return to politics and perceived political connections, and early perceptions that, like most early perceptions, turned out to be incorrect. We bring up historical precedents, words like Columbine and Virginia Tech and Jared Loughner, names whose meanings changed forever after the events occurred. We talk about how we should have learned, but didn’t, or even, more despairingly, how we’re never going to fix this problem we have, that some humans want to kill others, for no apparent reason.
Doll’s conclusion isn’t really hopeful, because why would it be? “We always say: We’ll do better,” she writes. “And then, 6 months later, it’s as if we, or most of us, have forgotten completely, only to be reminded when the next awful thing occurs.” We can strive to improve emergency procedures and access to mental health resources on our own insular liberal arts campus (after all, we’ve had our own tragic brush with violence by a deranged individual, and it’s not routine when it happens at home), but we can’t really know why, so keep the discussions and questions and condolences flowing, because that’s the way it has to play out.
Thoughts to the people of Aurora, and best of luck to our own Hickenlooper ’74. A few additional links below:
- The Onion, “Sadly, Nation Knows Exactly How Colorado Shooting’s Aftermath Will Play Out”
- The Atlantic Wire, “What We Write About When We Can’t Write About Anything Else”
- Roger Ebert for New York Times, “We’ve Seen This Movie Before”
- New York Times, “Aurora and a Mother’s Memories of Columbine”