Horror feels all too familiar

  • Article by: MONICA HESSE , Washington Post
  • Updated: July 21, 2012 - 10:10 PM

Americans grieve yet another national tragedy, repeating a known ritual.

We know what will happen because we've been here before, too many times.

Initially, there's the shock. By the event, by the location: a movie theater on a warm summer night. The weather had been so dry that wildfires had dominated the news, had lulled Colorado into thinking that nature was the enemy.

We'll feel stunned. We'll feel sick -- we already do. It will be the purest and truest and most overarching emotion.

We'll talk about the surrealness -- the air-conditioned mundanity of this particular setting. The crowd of people who had come to escape reality, suddenly trapped in stadium-seating surround sound, hearing gunfire they first thought had come from the screen.

The horror will feel weirdly familiar. Is this shooting more shocking than a Tucson Safeway on a Saturday morning? Than a Fort Hood Army base or a southwestern Virginia campus? Is it more grotesque than shootings in churches, in high schools, in middle schools? This was supposed to be a safe space, we'll say, as if there are ordinary public places that aren't supposed to be safe, as if massacres are more comprehensible if they occur at a swimming pool or a Jiffy Lube.

No space is safe; maybe that's what's shocking. Or maybe it's just harder to imagine a massacre at a place where they sell popcorn.

It was supposed to be safe

America has gotten very good at being very shocked by mass shootings. Grief rituals, candlelight vigils, the numb nausea of watching too much sadness on too much television. The 24-hour news cycle leaps into action, prepared to unspool itself into familiar threads, guiding citizens down a well-trod path of what must happen when something big and un-navigable has already happened.

Everyone will learn his middle name. Friends and relatives will be contacted. They'll say he was acting normal or strange; we'll want to know how he was acting strange so that we can recognize this particular strangeness in the future. Explain, analyze, research, rationalize. Find a psychiatrist who can tell us about mental illness and what makes people snap.

The president makes a statement. The leader of the other party makes a statement. The anti-gun Brady Campaign and the NRA make statements. The statements all express sorrow and regret and a desire for justice for this tragedy. No one will try to politicize the shooting, but some might accuse others of trying to politicize the shooting.

Grieving, in the abstract

But all of our discussions, even our debates, will be our ways of mourning. This is the charitable, merciful way of looking at it. Being productive is what Americans do. We are productive, we are busy, we are results-oriented. The steps that we go through in cases of mass violence will be couched as less prurient interest and more genuine examples of our empathetic humanity.

We will get reactions from the man-on-the-street.

We will discuss our perpetual culture of violence.

We'll feel sorry for the killer's mother.

We will hold our children closer tonight, making silent promises to love them better. Tomorrow morning we'll yell at them for leaving wet towels on the floor. Not because we forgot our promises, but because Aurora is far away.

One must assume that the reason we have developed these patterns of reaction is because we think that one day we will get it right. One day we will ask the right questions, read the right signs, enact the right policies. One day, we will have conveyed our national grief so thoroughly that no person will ever again decide that the solution to his problems is to open fire in a crowded public space and kill 12 strangers.

Sometimes it is easy for the nation to experience these stories in the abstract. Grieving because it's a national tragedy. Completing the cycle that begins with early-morning news updates and ends a year later with a pictorial retrospective.

It is a national tragedy. But it's a very specific tragedy for the people who went into the Aurora movie theater and didn't come out again or who came out broken. Their families and friends aren't undergoing rituals of grief. They're just grieving.

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