Thursday, August 27, 2015

When nightmares become a reality

Five minutes after turning on my computer today, my Twitter started to get ominously mysterious. A news station tweeting two portraits, with the caption, "We love you." Poynter referencing broken hearts. I knew it was bad before I knew what it was.

What it was was two journalists basically executed during a live broadcast. One of those journalists was engaged to the producer of the morning show. The other was dating another reporter in their newsroom. They were both several years younger than me. One wanted to get out of journalism because he'd seen too much tragedy. The other was loving the pieces she was doing and itching for more.

While this shooting is no more tragic than the dozens of other shootings our country has experienced in these many years, it felt bigger to me because these are my people. It is very easy to put myself into the shoes of the journalists or their newsrooms because I've been a journalist on assignment and I've been in newsrooms. I have never, thank goodness, experienced anything remotely close to this.

The shootings sparked a wave of social media discussion ranging from gun control to fact-checking to how much, if any, of the station's video to show (overall feeling: not so much right now, at least not once the shooting began), and how much if any, of the shooter's sickening footage that he posted on Twitter during the police chase before he shot himself in the head (none. He doesn't deserve fame.)

If you, like me, count journalists of some sort as about two-thirds of the people you follow on Twitter, this was your day. After the news conference in the afternoon I had to walk away because it had all become too much. Other news started coming through, all of which seemed insignificant (sex rehab, a sentence of life plus 3,300 years, the Mormons and the Boy Scouts staying tight), I thought of the book club I went to last night, in which we started out discussing a book about gun rights and gun control and ended up discussing the sorry state of society in which there were no good answers.

We, a room of liberal women, all agreed that guns are not the sole or even the primary problem, that if a liberal genie made all guns in this country disappear that the underlying issues of violence, rage and antisocial behaviors would not magically disappear along with the guns. Granted, I'd rather take on a maniacal would-be killer who has a knife, but the real solution isn't putting less deadly weapons into killers' hands. It's to somehow derail a man's plans to kill other humans before he actually makes a plan and gets a weapon. Unfortunately, we had no good solutions for that.

We also agreed that there is something wrong in a person's mind -- not mental illness necessarily, but something -- when said person goes from angry about texting in a movie theater, loud music or getting fired to pulling out a gun and shooting someone. We all get angry. Many of us have thought about using violence when angry. I have wanted to punch people in the face before, I'll own up to that. That action would clearly have been an overreaction, but I've had thoughts of violence during a conflict.

But I've never acted on it, and I suspect that's true of most of us. Also, I didn't have a gun, so even if I did get so irrationally angry that I wanted to kill someone during a conflict, I couldn't have. That is where fewer guns could make a difference in this conversation. If this shooter, the rap music shooter in Florida, George Zimmerman, the movie theater shooter who shot a guy who was texting in front of him, if all of these men didn't have guns on them, the altercations likely would have ended with some punches thrown, a broken nose and an assault charge. There would still be a need for anger management, but no one would have died.

And yes, I have used man and men on purpose. Violence on a mass public scale is perpetrated almost entirely by men and boys. Please don't misunderstand me; I'm not saying all men are to blame or that men are solely to blame. As a society we seem to be failing some boys -- they're not maturing, they're not going to college as much as they used to, they're not getting jobs or getting married or getting out of the house or even progressing. They're not getting help for mental illness. They're not emotionally and mentally mature enough to handle the difficulties that are part of every human life. What happened? What needs to change?

Mental health may have been an issue in the shooting. Former employers said he was deeply unhappy, angry and looking for reasons to be offended. While the getaway, the camera, the police chase and the tweeting don't indicate someone who was typically "out of it," mental illness takes on a variety of forms. Regardless, the way this country handles mental health should be changed. It should not be easier to get a gun than it is to get treatment for mental illness, but as it stands today, it's not even close.

Which leads me to one more guess at one issue we need to address head-on. In a 23-page manifesto, the Virginia shooter said he was inspired by the church shooting in Charleston earlier this summer, a shooting that, as far as I can tell, was motivated by hate and willful ignorance. We have a serious problem in this country, as evidenced by the overwhelming support the Republican frontrunner for president has garnered by saying hateful and offensive things about non-whites, particularly Hispanics. His rhetoric is meant to speak to the basest emotions and instincts in human -- mistrust, dislike and fear of strangers. Whatever snapped in the Virginia shooter's head no doubt included hate and a sense of being wronged by these specific people, yes, but also a larger group. Life had not been easy for him, it sounded like, at least in part because he was difficult to work with. He may have blamed those poor experiences on others instead of seeing his own culpability.

The shooting also inspired a wave of social media conversation on fact-checking, how to cover a story when you're part of the story and where to draw the line at sharing video. In the morning, the station's footage, that started with Alison Parker on camera during an interview and ended with gunshots, screaming and the camera falling to the ground, catching a fuzzy image of a man pointing a gun, was everywhere. (General feeling: OK to show, but do so with discretion and for good reason, not to get clicks.) By mid-morning it was difficult to find. At about the same time, a video from the shooter that showed him walking up, pointing and firing, hit social media. I did not watch it. I understand it was horrifying. How could it not be? (Unanimous: There is no value to this video. Do not show it. Do not watch it.)

I hope we can somehow become a stronger nation after yet another tragedy. It is never too soon to talk about better gun laws and better application of current gun laws, but if that is all we do, which in and of itself would be a miracle, that cannot be enough. We have to look at mental health, we have to look at disparities in education and professional opportunities, we have to consider why a small but increasingly public group of boys and men are going off the rails. And we have to remember the Virginia shooter had family who lost someone they loved in a violent and horrifying way this week. It is very difficult to grieve for a man who brought so much grief and pain to innocent people, but his family likely loved him in spite of his many issues. They are hurting today too, in the same and yet very different ways as the Parker and Ward families, and yet they cannot make their grief public. We should pray for them too.

And after this long day and long screed, I need a happy smiling face.

Yup, that'll work. Here are a couple more just for fun.


  1. great post. it really is such a difficult issue and gun violence seems to be accelerating at a rate that really scares me.

  2. Heidi - as usual, you have thoughtfully handled a news story with common sense and respect. And great photography.