More than a week ago it happened again. Ten dead in a high school in Texas. Again grief described as overwhelming. The pain is unbelievable. The astonishing act. The hero who risked his or her life to save many. Again the pit of my stomach turns as I swipe through the headlines on my phone. Reading the same story over and over. Again and again.
After twenty years witnessing the same horror persist I no longer understand when the news anchor describes these moments as unbelievable.
Forty-eight hours of news coverage. Pictures of the people who died. Teachers dead. Students’ life cut short. An exposé on the killer. Now scrambled with fake news with a political bias encouraging more paranoia. Encouraging more division. Rinse and repeat.
I feel numb.
The first mass shooting I remember was none other than Columbine. Back then, it hit close to home. I was only a junior in High School when Columbine happened. The Columbine victims were the same age as myself and my friends. We had the same interests and dislikes. The killers murdered 12 students with 21 additional people injured, paralyzed, handicapped—not to mention those have lived with post-traumatic stress disorder.
From sixteen and through most of my adult life there has been a school mass shooting neary every year. Or a mass shooting somewhere else. Twenty years later things have not improved. Gun lobbyists have their Cthulhu tentacles wrapped around the necks of most serving politicians. Money. Money rules our republic. Our democracy stands on shaky ground.
Not a week after Columbine someone called our high school with a fake bomb threat. The prank was lost on all of us. I remember the teachers along with the school faculty ordered us all to gather outside. They told us to sit on our football stadium bleachers and wait. We waited for the terror to pass us. We waited massed together as a group. As if this would save us. As if this was a safe zone. All assuming no one planted a bomb where we sat. Or that among us the would-be killer was sitting there biding his or her time.
I thought to myself, next time the would-be assailants would know where we might gather. Would we be safe here the next time? What if next time it’s the real thing? Would we be unharmed? Protected?
We waited for what felt like an eternity until the school deemed it was safe. The police dogs smelled no explosive or gunpowder on the premises. Those given the option to go home did so. Some of the girls I was sitting with were deeply disturbed by this prank. They went home.
A girl I had a crush on said, “I don’t feel safe here.” She went home.
From the corner of my eye, I saw some well-known school douchebag giggling. I wondered if they were behind the prank? I was angry. I wanted to go over and punch them in the face. But I didn’t. I did nothing.
I didn’t tell my parents what happened. They found out later when the school contacted all the parents.
Columbine was unbelievably terrifying. But it happened. And yet we hoped this would be the inception of a new topic of conversation. Conversation to help end such acts of violence. Through more openness and understanding we convinced ourselves we could stop the terror. That bullying would finally be addressed. The culture of the intimidator would cease.
A friend of mine, Donnie, found himself suddenly a person of interest. He dressed like a Goth, a subculture of folk who wore mostly black and decorated themselves with macabre themes. He defiantly wore a trench coat to school as our school began to consider the possibility of restricting the wearing of one on school property.
The Columbine murderers were fond of wearing trench coats. They were mistakenly linked to a group of kids at the same high school who wore trench coats and called themselves The Trench Coat Mafia. The Trench Coat Mafia had nothing to do with the massacre.
Suddenly Donnie was wearing his trench coat all the time when he used to hardly wear it. Now he was determined to wear one every day. Especially if our school, like many others at the time, decided to prevent the wearing of trench coats.
I remember the local news came to interview Donnie who thought it was a challenge to his civil rights should our school board pass the new clothing restriction. He seemed caught up in the mania of the moment. He smiled talking into the camera enjoying his five minutes of fame.
I didn’t talk to him much after that. I didn’t want to anymore. It felt like he was juicing the moment to feed his ego and his vanity. Forgetting the most important fact: people had died.
The Stop Bully campaigns began. The media and politicians were all discussing the culture of bullying. How to end bullying. How to prevent bullying. We were entering a new millennium. Hope was on the horizon. According to one study:
“Research by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education involving 37 school shootings, including Columbine, finds that about two-thirds of student shooters felt bullied, harassed, threatened or injured by others.” -American Psychological Association
Several months later word got around the local police was looking for student volunteers to help conduct a school hostage training scenario. I volunteered.
I showed up after school. My job was to confuse the police officers with false information and see if they could figure out I was lying as they tried to find bad guys. I got a little carried away, though. Lost in character. I started screaming about the shooter. At that point, one of the police officers, probably disturbed by my character commitment, stopped pretending himself. He grabbed my shoulder and gently squeezed it:
“Okay kid. That’s enough. We get it. Relax.”
We witnessed even more carnage in the following years. Even more massacres. The Virginia Tech University Shooting in 2007. 37 people killed with 17 wounded. The Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting in 2012. 28 people died. The majority of the victims were ages six and seven. The Charleston Church massacre, where nine people were targeted by a bigot because they were black. The Orlando Pulse Nightclub Massacre. 49 people were murdered in seconds from machine gun spraying bullets. 53 persons were wounded. Not to mention the Las Vegas Massacre with 58 people dead and 851 people injured.
But these have not been the only mass shootings since Columbine. They are merely the bigger ones with higher casualties. More coverage. More media attention. More thoughts. More prayers.
Since Columbine there have been over 26 major fatal active school shootings in America. More than 187,000 students affected by gun violence:
In total, The Post found an average of 10 school shootings per year since Columbine, with a low of five in 2002 and a high of 15 in 2014. Less than three months into 2018, there have been 11 shootings, already making this year among the worst on record.
The United States having the highest number of school shootings.
I attended the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC. I stood in the crowd hearing each the Parkland survivors speak. I heard other survivors of gun violence speak. A young black girl ten years spoke with more eloquence than most people I know double and triple her age. I admired their youthful optimism. I hoped change would happen this time. I wanted to believe everything they said as the screamed their passion into the microphones hitting us with their pain through the speakers.
After the March for Our Lives, my wife and I walked toward the mall surrounded by the Smithsonian museum’s concrete Romanesque buildings. I wondered to myself if any of the museums were open? People of all shapes and sizes were crisscrossing. The trash cans overflowed from the march attendees. We found a sweet spot near one of the museums to lie down for a minute. We had been standing on concrete for several hours. Our feet hurt.
I lied down next to my wife sighing a little. I thought about all their speeches. The devoted following the Parkland survivors had already accrued. Their animated intensity which shook me to my core. I didn’t know what to expect when I first arrived. I admit knowing little about these kids. But they rattled me.
And yet I could not shake the cynicism I felt after twenty years of gun violence. After Columbine twenty years ago. Twenty years later only now some of us are moved to march.
In twenty years I saw no change. I saw it get worse. I saw it increase. I witnessed good people convince themselves gun legislation was not necessary. They ate the propaganda Fox News fed them.
Ten more dead again. More than 214,000 students have already experienced gun violence since 2000. Not including the adults who experienced it along with them. Who will die next? How many will die next? How many more thoughts and how many more prayers until the violence ends? If the winds of change are coming, they are not happening fast enough.