It’s the ordinariness of it that hurts the most, like finding something poisonous crawling in soft flower petals. We drop off our children at school with quick kisses and chiding reminders to go directly home after the bell rings. As we drive away, we don’t think much of their backwards waves or cheerful farewells; after all, we’ll see them again in the evening. But given recent circumstances, I think we’re all feeling that granite sense of security shake and crack under our feet in a way that it hasn’t since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999.
It’s taken me awhile to put pen to paper about this. A school shooting isn’t like hurricane or a tornado, and no amount of sturdy wood or brick can rebuild what was lost at Parkland. In a way, we can accept a natural disaster as just that: natural, devastating, and – to some degree – predictable. But we can’t see the sheer brutality of a school shooting coming, or do anything to stave off the helplessness we feel when we hear the news. School shootings are human-caused tragedies, and are so much more painful for the fact. Human action can theoretically be stopped. In the days, weeks, and months to follow, we bind ourselves to retrospection and horror, thinking:
“The signs were all there. How could this happen if the signs were all there?”
But no amount of would-have, could-have can ever erase the fact that on February 14, 2018, seventeen students and teachers were ripped from their families in an act of senseless violence. Their absence leaves a shocked kind of hollowness in its wake, an empty space where there should be warmth. There’s this paralyzing sense that it could be our children, our friends, our neighbors – gone. It’s a shock to the system that’s difficult to process that directly – so we turn to blame.
Blame, doubt, fear. If you turn on the television or flip open the newspaper, you’ll find it. Embracing anger and vitriol is easier than dealing with our own feelings of helplessness and giving the families of those who were lost time to mourn. We scream out against the armed school officer who froze outside of the freshman building rather than running inside; our efforts are rewarded when he resigns. Advocacy groups leap on the tragedy as a means to make a point: one group in Los Vegas even alters a billboard advertising a gun range from “Shoot a .50 Caliber Only $29” to “Shoot A School Kid Only $29.”
But what does this really accomplish? To me, these actions feel like impulsive and selfish measures; ways to recast the helplessness we felt as bystanders in the moment as meaningful action in the aftermath. But what does pouring vitriol on that officer do, besides redirect pain onto an easy target? What does a shocking billboard display do, other than incite more rage and frighten more families? If we think empathetically, how can we say with such surety that we, too, wouldn’t freeze in the face of deadly risk? It’s easy enough to cast stones from behind the safety of a computer monitor or in the security of a vandal’s mask.
We need more kindness, calm, and empathy. Not just now, in the acid of the aftermath, but in the uneasy peace of the months to come. As parents, teachers, friends, and community members, we need to put a greater focus on fostering connectedness and social empathy in our children at an early age. We need to address our flawed systems by building protocols that are better equipped to handle mental health crises. If the past few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that the schoolyard assurance we take for granted is fundamentally flawed. If we can stop the pointless shouting and the misdirected grief and finally funnel our shared mourning into something productive, maybe we can pave over the cracks. I hope there’s never another Parkland, another Sandy Hook, another Columbine, another nightmare. But if we keep raging at each other without searching together for a solution, I worry that there might be.