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What we know — not what we don’t — should drive reaction to school shooting
Apr. 2, 2023 6:00 am
I have a personal policy where I wait at least a week before saying anything on my social media accounts after a tragedy caused by violence, especially one involving children. By the time that week has passed, social media is so saturated with opinions and lamentations that anything I would contribute seems more like adding to the noise than providing a valuable perspective. After that one week’s “buffer” has passed, I end up not sharing anything at all. And I prefer to keep it that way.
Ironically, my primary career now is to present my perspective to tens of thousands of subscribers and other readers. As soon as I post this article to my social media accounts today, I’ll be in violation of my own policy, for a week has not yet passed since the horrific shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, where three adults and three nine-year-old students were killed minutes after a shooter broke into the school and went on a rampage before being neutralized by police. (“Neutralized” is a more delicate term for “killed her before she could kill anyone else.”)
In this line of work, I know better than to swear off writing about any particular subject. But I hope that this is the only time I delve into the topic of a recent school shooting. Mine is but one of myriad perspectives on the issue.
Much of that saturation is the doing of the press. This industry tends to want to leave no stone unturned or angle uncovered, and it’s been that way for decades now. In the documentary “We Are Columbine,” survivors of the April 20, 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado recall the news media frenzy during and after the shooting. “Trucks that camped out the whole time … interview requests everywhere you went,” said Zach Martin, who was a freshman in April 1999. “They would go to places where students would congregate … they would try to get stories from kids. And it was disturbing,” added Frank DeAngelis, who was principal at the time.
But I have a hard time placing blame on the media for doing what they are propelled to do by consumers who desire that coverage so intently. Journalists report the facts because we want to know. They cover peoples’ reactions because we want to process. They offer commentary because we want to discuss. We crave print and media coverage as we comb through our shock and grief. We can’t ignore or avoid it, because we demand it.
Columbine was the school shooting tragedy of my generation. I was a freshman at Linn-Mar — the same age as the students who participated in “We Are Columbine” — and remember where I was when the school principal announced over the intercom that a shooting had occurred at a school in Colorado. It was exceeded only by the September 11th, 2001 attack in terms of significant national events during my teenage years. We watched national news live on bulky TVs while students ran from the building with their hands in the air. We watched another student, partially paralyzed from gunshot wounds, slide out of a broken window and fall into the waiting arms of SWAT officers.
It took time for authorities to piece together what had happened and determine how two teenagers planned and performed such depraved acts. (Had their plans gone accordingly, the death toll would have been in the hundreds.) But even before smartphones and social media, we craved information immediately. Facts were not something one could easily wait for, and if one could not confirm, one speculated. The gunmen numbed to atrocities by the violent video games they played. Student-athletes bullies tormented the meek and fomented their rage. The gunmen were members of the “Trenchcoat Mafia,” a group of sullen outcasts who wore black trench coats and were dangerous. None of that was true, but the rumors spread like wildfire.
Today, rumors and opinions still pervade after a tragedy. But thanks to social media, they’re shared much differently than the rumors and opinions of the late 90s and early aughts, which largely relied on news magazines, agenda-driven documentaries, and email forwards. Today, rumors on social media can get squashed or at least marked by platforms that ban posts they deem “misinformation” and tag others with fact-checks or “additional context.” Had Facebook, Twitter and YouTube existed in 1999, perhaps the Trenchcoat Mafia rumors would have been swiftly extinguished.
But while a new way exists to mitigate rumors, opinions spread with more fervor than ever before. Anyone with an internet connection can post an opinion. Anyone with a smartphone can act as an expert commentator. We take to our social media to opine if and how a tragedy could’ve been prevented or what must done to make sure it never happens again. We insist that warning signs should have been spotted and acted upon. We roll out our same arguments of “common sense gun reform” or “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Some balk at what’s legal, others balk at what’s not. We do so before the investigations are even off the ground, and by the time ample information is available, we’ve already taken firm positions.
Instead of focusing on what we should and shouldn’t do, we should focus on what we know, and what we don’t know. As of the deadline for this column, among what we know about last Monday’s shooting is that the shooter was once a student at the school where she went on a killing spree. We don’t know if she harbored any grudges over any experience she may have had as a student, or why she targeted the school for her despicable acts.
We know that she was emotionally disturbed and expressed suicidal intent to a friend, while also claiming that “something bad is about to happen.” We know the friend immediately reached out for help. We don’t know if the friend or the authorities could have done anything differently that would have prevented of the killing spree. We’ll never know that.
We know that the shooter reportedly recently claimed on social media that she was transgender. We don’t know if her gender identity issues contributed to her emotional disorder. We also don’t know if her emotional disorder contributed to her gender identity issues. We’ll never know that.
We know that the shooter purchased her weapons legally, without the knowledge of her parents, with whom she lived. We don’t know if stricter laws would have prevented her from obtaining them, or if she would have found a way to get them illegally like the Columbine shooters did. We’ll never know that.
We know what we already know. We don’t know what we don’t. Yet we demand solutions as if we do, based on opinions formed as if we have all the information we need. We shouldn’t. It’s a weird concept — an opinion writer opining that people form opinions too quickly — one that feels a little wrong. But then again, when the subject is kids getting killed, nothing ever feels right.
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