Szuhaj: On Remembrance

by Ben Szuhaj | 10/4/15 6:30pm

On Thursday, Oct. 1, a gunman opened fire at Umpqua Community College — a small school in Roseburg, Oregon — and killed nine people. Counting the shooter, who died by suicide, the death tally totaled 10 by the day’s end. “Let me be very clear, I will not name the shooter,” replied Sheriff John Hanlin, whose force was responsible for answering the shooting spree. “I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.” This was the correct response — in the face of tragedy, we should remember the victims instead of the murderer, and understand how these catastrophes affect us both as a nation and as individual people.

Before I continue, I will pause for those of you who are tired of reading about this kind of tragedy. You are not alone. President Barack Obama, speaking to reporters at the White House late Thursday night, appealed to how seemingly commonplace these tragedies, and in return his responses, have become. “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine,” Obama said. “My response here at this podium ends up being routine, the conversation in the aftermath of it... We have become numb to this.” One can only imagine what it is like to be roused from sleep, interrupted during a meeting or briefed while spending time with his family — with his wife and soon-to-be-college age daughters — that yet another mass shooting has taken place on American soil. At an American college. At a place like Dartmouth.

Before you take the logical jump of ruling out our community from being included with those affected, of drawing a divide between “us” and “them” in order to achieve a sense of safety, consider that this can happen anywhere and to anyone. There is no us or them. “This is so out of character for this whole area,” military analyst Rick Francona said to CNN. The same article described the college as a small school “that sits on a hill,” a description which should sound hauntingly familiar.

It is common in the face of such tragedy for one to try to make sense out of the senseless. This is difficult — if not impossible — but in the case of the UCC shooting, we have the answer to “why” the gunman committed the crime. On Aug. 31, he wrote in an online blog about the power of “spill[ing] a little blood.” He went on to elaborate that “a man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.” It sounds like a simple transaction, a numbers game that, if played right, will lead to fame — or infamy, although I do not think that this distinction matters to the killer. The problem with the way we conceptualize tragedy in the age of mass social media is that we reduce it to cold numbers. We take away the humanity and report a death toll before reciting a name which that will be remembered by history.

This kind of reporting is part of the problem. It is not until you read deeper into the story that you realize in 2014, the average age of a student at Umpqua Community College was 38 — that of the nine people murdered on Thursday, whose ages ranged from 18 to 67, most of them likely had families. The people who were senselessly gunned down were husbands and wives, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers and friends. They had people who loved them who will never see them again, because one man with many guns decided they should die.

According to Gun Violence Archive, there have been 265 mass shootings in America this year alone. I do not care how much you value your right to bear arms, whether it is for sport or for show — there is nothing honorable about owning an assault rifle. You do not need incendiary bullets to hunt deer. You do not need armor-piercing shells to defend yourself. If you wish to own a musket, go ahead. A man with a musket cannot kill 20 first-graders.

Until we do something meaningful as a nation to staunch the biweekly flow of blood from our schools, we can respond only with ever-more desolate sympathy to the news of yet another tragedy — almost robotically, as the rest of the world watches our inaction become something grotesque.