It’s hard to imagine now, but when two students shot to death 12 of their peers and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado, it was a stop-everything, remember-where-you-were moment.
It was April 20, 1999, and everyone froze in front of televisions and watched the news pour in all day, just as they did when the Challenger exploded.
On Wednesday, a 19-year-old suspect killed 17 people with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
It’s a casualty count that surpasses Columbine, but — and here’s the sad part everyone knows — it doesn’t even register near the emotional impact Columbine forced upon us.
Almost 20 years later, we’re all used to it.
We hate it. We wish it would stop. But we’ve worked into our daily lives the understanding that these things happen here frequently and it’s just the way it is. Has the word culture ever sounded so ugly?
When these senseless acts occur, our initial reactions are sharp, loud but also routine.
We feel helpless, outraged and demand change. But that dialogue — though it dips and weaves in degrees of nuance — doesn’t change, either. We call for stricter gun laws. No, we declare there’s no need to impede freedoms and punish law-abiding citizens. We must have more law enforcement; we are not a police state. More resources for mental help; we’re trillions in debt, what would you like to cut? It’s the NRA’s fault — Congress wouldn’t be corrupt if they weren’t in lobbyists’ pockets. Those are the rules; if you don’t like it, vote them out.
It’s exhausting. We’ve listened all week. It will quiet down in the days to come, but after the next slaughter, it will pick back up for another week. Nothing changes. Trust us, we know how callous this sounds.
And for the record, we support much stronger gun control and more resources to mental health providers as a source of prevention. But does it matter?
So let us look at what we can we change. Political will hasn’t done anything in 20 years so why assume it will now? What action can we take where we don’t have ask permission from Washington?
Let’s stop covering them.
The killers, that is. Let’s stop treating them like they’re fascinating characters. They’re not, and they shouldn’t be viewed as such.
In fact, let’s stop naming them completely. Florida’s shooting suspect is a 19-year-old with a reportedly troubled past and mental instability. Done. That’s all he’s worth in the public sphere.
That’s all we need to know when the country writes about the victims and all the haunting emotions that will plague the families and communities forever.
This is coming from a media outlet that cherishes the fundamentals of reporting and information sharing with the public. But in the sake of school shooters — or other mass shootings — their lives, backgrounds, and romances are examined in the media as though they are worth our curiosity. Their pictures are front and center.
Study them, yes. But reserve the trove of information for medical and police files. And keep those files on the shelves of experts in the affected fields from which they can learn and teach. Lessons of their makeup can well be shared publicly, but not with names of the perpetrators. They’ve surrendered the privilege of having their names recognized.
The mass shooters are often mentally unstable, yes. Again, resources for mental health should be paramount, we feel.
But we suspect some fame seeking is at play, too. We suspect there’s a trait between a fair portion of them that they’re cognizant of the fact they’re failing at everything and the only sure way to get their name in lights is to tap into their anger in the ultimate public way.
So what if we don’t give that sliver to them?
It’s a pipe dream, like changing Washington — everyone agreeing on something. And it’s already too late in this paper. We named the Florida shooting suspect in the next-day story just like everyone else.
But we won’t anymore.
It’ll be one small change we can make in a 20-year conversation that’s been only been echo chambers bouncing back and forth.