On a little town from my past that had a hole blown in it by a mass shooting. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.
I have to add Alamosa to my list of "Where were you" places.
I was on the playground at Clayton Elementary in Englewood, just south of Denver, when I heard about the Columbine shooting. I was at my grandparents' farm in Indiana when I heard about the Aurora shooting. I was in my office in Roseburg, Oregon when I heard about the Sandy Hook shooting.
I was at Nielsen Library when my dad called and asked if I knew anyone going to Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, where I lived for a couple of winters before coming back to Colorado to finish my writing degree.
I cried when I saw the familiar helicopter shots, gazing down from the viewpoint of angels, on the little college where I once saw a heartbreaking performance of The Glass Menagerie.
Now Roseburg, the gritty little lumber town nestled in the forests of the northwest, where I lived in a trailer and gave up drinking, joins Columbine and Aurora and Sandy Hook in the lexicon of our recurring national nightmare.
The script is growing tiresome. Essayist Tim Kreider gives a good rundown: "The word tragedy would be used, and the word senseless, and, within minutes, politicize, and, after a few days, the phrase come together as a community, and the word healing. Ultimately, nothing at all would be done and we'd forget all about it again, until the next one."
Roseburg, however, has taken the "forgetting" piece to a new level: spurred by Sheriff John Hanlin, the town is determined to never speak the killer's name. It is a noble and understandable notion, as the ubiquity of other killers' mugshots seemed to elevate them to iconic status. Though it's easy to despise the ghoulish voyeurism of 24-hour news, the new mantra runs the danger of normalizing a national shame.
Where does it end? As time goes by, does this mean that not only is talk of the shooter off-limits, but the shooting as well? Glorifying mass murderers may play a role in inspiring copycats, but could ignoring them do the same? Could it turn them into enormous, amorphous boogeymen, imbued with unspeakable reverence?
Much of the armchair quarterbacking of the shooting has centered on the UCC campus being a "gun free zone," saying the massacre could have been halted if guns were allowed, though such presumed hindsight doesn't account for whether a gun-friendly policy would have ensured that anyone in the classroom would have been armed, would have succeeded in disabling the shooter, or if anyone else could have stopped a shooting isolated to one classroom that was over in moments.
Long before the body count was finalized, many were leaping to the defense of the tools of the massacre, chastising anyone who would dare lay blame on the "inanimate object" used to slaughter students (although land mines, vials of anthrax, and pressure cookers loaded with gunpowder are inanimate too).
They added that drugs are illegal , but people still use them, so there's no point to restricting access to guns (although if laws are pointless if people still break them, we might as well abandon laws against theft or rape).
Their arguments may be faulty, but their conclusion may be right. Roseburg is easily among the most heavily-armed places I've ever been.
After the Sandy Hook massacre , a coworker told me I'd better hurry up and get an AR-15 - the gun used the day before to murder first graders - before President Obama outlawed them.
I didn't buy one, and President Obama didn't outlaw them, but they were the hottest seller when I attended the Roseburg Gun Show a few months later, held at the same fairgrounds where families searched busloads of survivors for their loved ones last Thursday.
I briefly met Hanlin at the gun show. He was locally famous then, for vowing to never enforce any new federal firearms regulations.
Guns and the dream of their protective power will likely never fade from Roseburg culture, nor our national culture.
Others were eager to add the Roseburg massacre to the list of supposed "false flag" conspiracies, under the idea that mass shootings are hoaxes perpetrated by a tyrannical government to lay the groundwork to disarm the populace.
Conspiracy theorists cite "clues" like the seemingly calm daze of the survivors in the immediate aftermath. Online, they hurl insults at witnesses, emergency responders, and law enforcement, alleging they're all "in on it." The idea is ludicrous, seeing as each shooting seems to only empower the gun rights crowd, and send firearms flying off store shelves.
There is almost a comforting optimism to the conspiracy theorists' claims. To think of such nightmares as playacting in service of some nefarious plot feels preferable to the reality that the massacres are the manifestation of a deep sea of alienation, hopelessness, and cynicism that perhaps infests us all, at least by association if not directly.
Others call for greater access to mental health care, despite the fact that many shooters have had access to such care and often were prescribed medications that list "homicidal and suicidal ideation" among their side effects. Calls for mental health care feel like a quick fix, the expression of a vague idea that this is a job for professionals, not us; a way to shun introspection. But we have met the shooters, and they are us.
"The pure products of America go crazy," said William Carlos Williams. We like to imagine mass shooters as unknowably deranged, unfathomable monsters. But they seem to come from a vast and familiar pool of lost souls, young men in angry isolation, cut off from a perceived world of success and admiration enjoyed by everyone else. They live in the same world of dark fear as many of us, secretly afraid that we're insufficiently accomplished or sexy, wincing at a media landscape where everyone but us is having fun.
The gun defenders have something in common with the killers: a belief in guns as the greatest tool of power and control a way to assert dominance in a world that seeks to keep them helpless. It is unlikely that mass shootings can be halted by restricting the size of ammunition magazines or by unleashing legions of psychiatrists. The problem is more pervasive: a sickness that cannot be cured with laws or experts.
It is symptomized by social media self-commodification, young people building their personal brand; by young men whose only accessible outlet for masculinity is through the simulacrum of video games; by inescapable marketing that seeks to induce humiliating inadequacy; by the galaxy of chemicals from aspartame to meth that corrupt the delicate organic matter of our minds.
Kurt Vonnegut said, "What should young people do with their lives today? ... The most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured."
There is little doubt that Roseburg will not be our last unconscionable slaughter, nor that Roseburg will be forever scarred by the gaping wound blown in it last Thursday.
But when life next takes me back to that rowdy town that feels more like home than most of the places I've lived, I'll find the salve for that scar, the cure for the great disease it'll come in doses like a bear hug from Patti, a late-night dance-a-thon with Heather, or tinkering with my truck with Tony. I'm excited to go back - Robert promised to take me target shooting.