My heart breaks for Charleston

A burning candle isolated on black background

I don’t want to comment on the shooting in Charleston. Or to put it another way, I don’t want there to have been a shooting in Charleston.

I traded text messages with a friend this afternoon as I was trying to process the news. I said it was “horrible.” He said it was “unbelievable,” and I realized his word was more accurate; I actually cannot believe it. I can’t believe we’re back here, talking about another shooting spree. How do we keep getting back to this place?

We’ve seen this play so many times now that we all know our parts. We played these roles for Sandy Hook. We played them for the Safeway in Tucson. We played them for the theater in Aurora. And now we’ll play them for Charleston:

Talking heads will recite the familiar rhetoric. Depending on who you listen to, maybe they’ll call it terrorism, maybe they’ll call it a hate crime, maybe it will be an attack on Christianity, or maybe the shooter will be mentally ill. Every network will have an interpretation, long before we have the facts.

Politicians will come on the screen to offer condolences and then they’ll dredge up the conversation about gun rights. Experts will come on to revisit the dialogue about what we do or don’t do about mental illness. Some contrarian voices will murmur, This conversation is stigmatizing the mentally ill. Others will say, You’re only saying mental illness because the shooter is white. 

Images of the shooter will begin to surface. He’ll look menacing, up to no good — an obvious social outcast. Maybe someone in his life will admit to having suspected that something was wrong; something seemed off recently. We’ll learn who paid for the weapon(s) and when. We won’t be able to stop looking at the shooter’s face, but then again, we won’t stop seeing it, either, because it will be all over the news. We’ll want want to find this person ourselves and shake him: Why did you do this?

The immediate community will unite in prayer and solidarity. Candles will be lit and vigils will be held. Fundraisers will be organized to help with funerals and burials. There will be flowers, photos, stuffed animals. Mostly, the community will ask God to ease the suffering. Some will pray for the families. Some will dig really deep and think compassionately about the shooter. This young man must have really been suffering, they’ll say. It’ll be hard for almost anyone to hear that.

Around the country, religious leaders will attempt to offer comfort in their own prayer meetings. Places of worship will be overflowing with grief for the next few days. And in this particular instance, they’ll be electric, charged with a lethal voltage of fear and anger, too. Where is it safe to pray now?

The victims’ families will grieve and grieve. They had to stop what they were doing to return urgent phone calls, and they emerged from conversations they’ll never be able to forget. Now they’ll gather together, they’ll pray, and they’ll hold each other. Some of them will go through the motions to keep things together; they’ll make arrangements for funerals, short-term child care, and flights for out-of-state relatives. The families will try to comfort each other, but it will be hard because no one will be able to escape the grief; no one will truly feel strong enough to comfort anyone else. They’ll try not to dwell on it, but they’ll keep thinking about what their loved ones’ final moments must have been like, how terrifying it must have been when he pulled the gun out. They won’t believe it happened to their grandmother, their sister.

The victims’ families will be overtaken by insufferable, overflowing love for the people they’ve lost. What they would say if they could just have one more conversation now, they’ll think. What they would give to be able to go back and be in that church, to throw themselves in front of the gunman and spare their beloved family members, they’ll say. What they would do for a chance to go back and ask mom to stay home from that prayer meeting, just this one time. The grief will be suffocating. It will feel like it may never let up.

News media will scramble to assemble heartfelt portraits of the victims. They’ll tell us that the people inside the church were mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sons, husbands, nieces, nephews, fathers, and uncles. The stories will reveal that these people were good students, loyal employees, admired business leaders. That they had passions, hobbies, and endearing quirks. That they coached high school sports teams and they sang in their church choirs. We’ll learn, painfully, that the victims had offered kind words to people who needed to hear them, and had baked casseroles for people who needed to eat something. We’ll learn that they’d made gestures that had revealed their fundamentally good character. We’ll read that they led lives that mattered to the people who knew them. One message embedded in each of their biographies will be the same: They didn’t deserve for this to happen. And it will be true.

I know my own part in this play, too. First, I’ll spend the day commenting on this awful event to everyone I see. I’ll hope for anyone to admit in public that they’re rattled, that they’re in shock, that this affects them deeply, the way I think it should affect all of us. But I’ll know that we just don’t connect with one another that way in public, not even in the face of nine senseless, merciless deaths. And then late at night, I’ll sit down in front of my laptop to read the victims’ stories, once they start to appear online. I’ll re-read them several times, studying the images closely and wondering if the people in those pictures have any idea of what’s coming. I’ll think about my own family and I’ll think of the utter horror I’d feel if I were reading their life stories online, in the aftermath of some hate-fueled shooting spree. The task of honoring their memories should be left to those who knew them and loved them, only, I’ll think — not to some reporter, and not to some stranger from across the country, sitting on her laptop, so far away that she can’t possibly understand the loss. My heart will break at the thought of how we invade one-another’s privacy in these most delicate and dark hours. And yet, there I will be, doing it again. I’ll ask myself, Why can’t we just leave them be? I’ll sob for hours, resisting the urge to call my own family, only because it’s so late at night.

As a populace, our role in this too-familiar play will be to allow ourselves to be distracted by sensationalism and politicization. It’s an event that won’t need sensationalizing, though; it will already hurt enough. We won’t need to keep watching the footage. And it’s an event that won’t need politics, either, because the will to protect our loved ones is fundamentally human and rests so deeply within each of us that we won’t need to explain it to one another. But we’ll want to find someone who will have something to say that will help. And so we’ll listen to people who get paid to talk, and we’ll lose sight of the more basic truths we already know.

On a national scale, our collective role in this play will be to let it happen again. Sure, we’ll talk, we’ll get angry, we’ll get sad, we’ll reason, we’ll explain, and we’ll bury the dead. But then we’ll change the channel and forget. And nothing will change. In time, we’ll repeat this story line, in a play by another name. Another town, another setting where the victims will be unarmed again. Another set of circumstances but still the same basic plot. Our role is to start a dialogue we won’t finish, to propose solutions that won’t help, to refuse to talk about the root causes of these unspeakable acts of aggression. Our role is the apathetic onlooker in a story that would have been ours to rewrite. Maybe for a few days after this shooting, we’ll all be a little bit kinder to one another. It might be the one thing we could do immediately that would actually matter next time. But before long, we’ll forget to do it, and we’ll forget why it had become so important. And soon, we’ll just be waiting for the next show to start.

I hesitate to make a list of all the times we’ve appeared in the plays that have followed this basic story line, out of fear that I will forget one of them and dishonor the victims. There have been so many, even in just the past few years. What a tragedy it is that these shootings are so numerous that it’s conceivable that we could forget even one of them and all the lives it took.

I hate that this script has become so familiar. I hate that when it happens, we know what words to tell ourselves to find a way to dismiss it. I hate that even though we know how the story goes, we don’t band together and insist on rewriting it.

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