In Rememberance

First off, thanks to everyone who responded, in public and private, to my previous post. Clearly it hit a chord with folks– a somewhat scary and disturbing chord, perhaps, but a chord nonetheless. I hope it didn’t come off like I was trying to excuse or justify the killer’s actions, or even his feelings. There’s a difference between being able to understand how feelings might arise, and agreeing with or trying to justify them. My goal was to articulate a toxic culture– one that desperately needs to change– because of its potential to give rise to very hateful people.

But if you want to comment on that line of thought further, please do so on the previous post, or if you wish, feel free to contact me privately via any method in the Contact tab above. I’m writing this post because I want to focus on another aspect of the tragedy– and indeed, of all mass shootings, that bothers me a lot.

This was inspired by this Tumblr post and this WSJ article. The short version is that one of the motivations for mass killers is they want to be famous. They want to be remembered. They want society to recoil in horror from them, and they want their name to live in infamy. In doing so, they become far more famous and well-known than if they hadn’t killed anyone.

Well, fuck that noise. You’ll notice that in my posts and tweets, I haven’t mentioned the name of the killer, or linked directly to his words, one goddamn time, and I’m going to keep it that way. The mass shooters in places like Isla Vista, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine, etc. don’t deserve to be remembered. They deserve to fade into the cesspool of history with hundreds of other faceless monsters and mass murderers. And in time they will– I just don’t think it happens fast enough.

I don’t want to remember the killers, but I do want to remember the victims. These people– who were very much like us, with families and loved ones and dreams and stories to tell and goals and hopes and aspirations far better and nobler than “mass murder”– these are the people that deserve to be memorialized and remembered. We should remember their names, then we should do what we can to ensure that the list of victims does not get any longer.

I hate that I can easily remember the name of the Sandy Hook shooter, but can barely remember the name of one victim, no matter how hard I try to remind myself, because the shooter’s name was repeated ad nauseum but the victims’ names blurred into a long list. There’s no too much that can be done about that now, particularly the latter part.

But here’s my challenge: I’ve listed the names of victims from some of the most well-known mass shootings in modern American history; ones in which you may know the killer’s names, but probably not the victims’. Pick just a few of these names, and try to commit them to memory. Try and make those one or two names be what you remember when you think of those tragedies– not the perpetrators, but the victims. Remember the victims. There’s a lot of them, but if each of us can remember a few, maybe the names and identities of the victims might outlast the killers in our individual and collective memories.

In each case, I’ve linked to a source with more information on each victim, if you’d like to read about their stories. I encourage you to do so– it will help you remember the names that you pick.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of shootings. It simply can’t be. But if there’s one you’d like to add to the list, if can add a link in the comments to a compilation of information of the victims, I will add it.

Isla Vista, California
May 23, 2014

Katherine Breann Cooper

Cheng Yuan Hong

George Chen

Weihan Wang

Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez

Veronika Elizabeth Weiss

 

Newtown, Connecticut
December 14, 2012

Charlotte Bacon

Daniel Barden

Rachel D’Avino

Olivia Engel

Josephine Gay

Dylan Hockley

Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung

Madeleine F. Hsu

Catherine V. Hubbard

Chase Kowalski

Nancy Lanza

Jesse Lewis

Ana Marquez-Greene

James Mattioli

Grace McDonnell

Anne Marie Murphy

Emilie Parker

Jack Pinto

Noah Pozner

Caroline Previdi

Jessica Rekos

Avielle Richman

Lauren Rousseau

Mary Sherlach

Victoria Soto

Benjamin Wheeler

Allison N. Wyatt

 

Oak Creek, Wisconsin
August 5, 2012

Suveg Singh Khattra

Satwant Singh Kaleka

Ranjit Singh

Sita Singh

Paramjit Kaur

Prakash Singh

 

Aurora, Colorado
July 20, 2012

Jonathan Blunk

Alexander J. Boik

Jesse Childress

Gordon Cowden

Jessica Ghawi

John Larimer

Matt McQuinn

Micayla Medek

Veronica Moser-Sullivan

Alex Sullivan

Alexander C. Teves

Rebecca Wingo

 

Blacksburg, Virginia
April 16, 2007

Ross A. Alameddine

Christopher James Bishop

Brian R. Bluhm

Ryan Christopher Clark

Austin Michelle Cloyd

Jocelyne Couture-Nowak

Kevin P. Granata

Matthew Gregory Gwaltney

Caitlin Millar Hammaren

Jeremy Michael Herbstritt

Rachael Elizabeth Hill

Emily Jane Hilscher

Jarrett Lee Lane

Matthew Joseph La Porte

Henry J. Lee

Liviu Librescu

G.V. Loganathan

Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan

Lauren Ashley McCain

Daniel Patrick O’Neil

Juan Ramon Ortiz-Ortiz

Minal Hiralal Panchal

Daniel Alejandro Perez Cueva

Erin Nicole Peterson

Michael Steven Pohle, Jr.

Julia Kathleen Pryde

Mary Karen Read

Reema Joseph Samaha

Waleed Mohamed Shaalan

Leslie Geraldine Sherman

Maxine Shelly Turner

Nicole Regina White

 

Jefferson County, Colorado
April 20, 1999

Cassie Bernall

Steve Curnow

Corey DePooter

Kelly Fleming

Matt Kechter

Daniel Mauser

Daniel Rohrbaugh

Dave Saunders

Rachel Scott

Isaiah Shoel

John Tomlin

Lauren Townsend

Kyle Velasquez

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Newtown Reflections, II: An American God

Part I here.

When I wrote a story for Eric J. Guignard’s Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations anthology, I selected the ancient city of Hatra as my subject, specifically one of the goddesses they worshipped, named Atargatis (aka Atar’atha). As I researched, I followed the stories of Atar’atha across cultures, from Ishtar of the Babylonians, to Astarte of the Phoenicians, to Aphrodite of the Greeks and Venus of the Romans, perhaps even the Egyptian goddess Isis. Not all of these are explicitly the same deity, but even when they aren’t, it seems clear that their legends and stories influenced each other. In a sense, the goddess changed forms, adapting to new cultures across the centuries and millennia.

If Eric J. Guignard ever compiles a sequel to Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, I will write a story of the god Moloch.

Here’s what the Bible has to say about Moloch (rendered here as Molek), in Leviticus Chapter 20:

The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him. 3 I myself will set my face against him and will cut him off from his people; for by sacrificing his children to Molek, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. 4 If the members of the community close their eyes when that man sacrifices one of his children to Molek and if they fail to put him to death, 5 I myself will set my face against him and his family and will cut them off from their people together with all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molek.

Okay, now Leviticus is not exactly the most up-to-date of Biblical texts, as anyone who’s been involved in the fight for gay rights knows quite well. But in this case it would seem Leviticus has a point. Child sacrifice? That, if anything, is surely worthy of such punishment.

The sacrifice of living children, particularly through fire, as depicted above, was Moloch’s calling card. It was practiced in many ancient cultures, from Canaan to Carthage. In fact, when the Romans destroyed Carthage, one of their justifications was the brutal child sacrifice that happened there, sometimes, according to history, dozens or even hundreds of children at a time.

But has Moloch stayed with us over the centuries? Like Atar’atha, has he adapted forms, changed guise and name as civilizations rise and fall?

Today, a friend sent me this article from the New York Review, which points out some fairly obvious parallels between Moloch and gun culture in modern-day America. I won’t recap the entire article; it argues its point better than I could, so please go read it for yourself. But its gist is this: the deaths in Sandy Hook; the deaths in Aurora; in Clackamas; at Cafe Racer in Seattle; at Virginia Tech and Fort Hood and Columbine; on the streets of Chicago and New York and D.C. and every other city where gun-fueled urban violence proliferates; they are our sacrifices to this modern-day Moloch. The Second Amendment, originally meant to allow for the maintenance of a militia, has been warped and twisted, used much like fundamentalists use the Bible: as a way to shut down any discussion or debate of their religion. Do not question the Word, for it is infallible.

Here in America, we desperately need to have a conversation on stemming gun violence. For a moment, in the wake of Newtown, it seemed that such a moment might have finally arrived. Over the past few days, I’ve engaged both friends and strangers across social media, trying to discuss some of the ways we could combat gun control. But in the course of things, I’ve found myself arguing points that are so distanced from the problem, or points that are so utterly, blatantly self-obvious, that I begin to realize: even in the wake of twenty dead children and six dead teachers, rational discussion is impossible. I am arguing with zealots, who will not cede the slightest bit of ground, for fear that someone will knock on the door and take away their godsguns. For example:

  • A couple days ago, someone on Twitter refused to concede that a soldier with an M-16 is more deadly than a soldier with a wooden spear.
  • Today, I was mocked for stating that people should not have to carry concealed lethal weapons everywhere they go in order to feel safe.
  • When I suggested technological innovations (better non-lethal self-defense weapons, for example), the discussion degenerated into a debate on minutiae about Tasers.
  • When I suggested more focus on trigger locks and secured storage of assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns (offering revolvers as a concession for emergency defense), the discussion degenerated into a debate on revolver speedloaders. Again, thoughts of saving lives? Lost in minutiae.

Over and over again, across multiple people, I’ve seen this pattern. A refusal to acknowledge the obvious, and to pick fights over details for the sake of picking fights. A determination that if they can poke a single hole in your argument, find a single loophole that might exist, then it’s useless. It’s so maddeningly similar to the pattern I see with religious fundamentalists: if science can’t explain everything, then clearly God is a better answer! Except for gun fundamentalists, the argument is that if gun control isn’t perfect, or if there’s one conceivable way that a bad guy could still get a gun, then the only potential fix is more guns.

Guns are the new American religion.

Seriously, go read that New York Review article. Tell me they don’t have a point. Reassure me that despite my own experience, a rational discussion focused on plausible solutions and improvements is possible.

Because when I read, for example, this article by Megan McArdle, which ends with her suggesting as an actual fix that we train kids to rush shooters in the hopes that they can overwhelm him, I kind of lose hope. If we have to debate why training kids to bum rush school shooters is a bad idea, how are we ever going to have a serious discussion on effective gun control?

Okay, so you want a starting point for actual solutions, rather than just whining?

  • A strengthened version of the assault weapons ban, one that focuses more on purpose, ammo caliber, and potential rate of fire than cosmetics– in other words, an improved version of the 1994 law. (Gun advocates will often point to the failure of a particular gun control law and cite that as a failure of all gun control laws. We can, and must do better.)
  • Strengthened laws governing the storage of guns, particularly semiautomatic weapons of all kinds.
  • Banning of high-capacity magazines.
  • Closing of the federal gun show loophole.
  • Require registration and background checks for all firearms, and mandatory safety/training courses, much like we do for issuing drivers’ licenses today.
  • Take a page from Australia’s extremely effective gun control, and do background checks on folks who reside with the potential gun owner.
  • Government grants for technology research: for example, if we can put biometric locks and electronic codes on cell phones, we should be able to put them on guns.
  • In the same vein, come up with improved non-lethal defense weapons to reduce the need for guns. Don’t tell me it’s impossible because current technology sucks; we could totally come up with better technologies.
  • Restrictions on gun advertisements. Gun culture needs to change, and the first step is regulating how the gun industry markets itself, much like we already do with the cigarette industry. The screenshot below is from a campaign run by Bushmaster, manufacturer of the Newtown shooter’s AR-15. I wonder if he saw it.

That’s just a few starting points, most of them fairly independent of each other, which I’ve seen discussed (to very little positive reception) over the past several days. Now, do I really think that discussions on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs will be the catalyst for long-term change in American gun policy? Not really, but maybe. Maybe if enough people chime in, things will start to shift, and we’ll be able to save lives.

As I mentioned in my first Newtown blog post, there’s other fixes that need to be made, too. Our nation’s mental health care system is shattered, and it needs to be rebuilt. But the political willpower for that sort of spending seems even more unlikely. Health care, spending, and taxes are governed by their own sort of religion in America.

The last few days have made me pretty discouraged. It’s been less than a week since the shooting, but already the old lines are hardening. Names like Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, and Grace McDonnell, having been mourned by the country for an appropriate period of time, are already being less mentioned as the status quo reasserts with a vengeance, and the debate gets lost in hypotheticals and little details. School shootings are tragic, but make changes? Even if we could save thousands of lives, or just make some noticeable dent in the 30,000+ Americans killed by firearms every year? Impossible! Unthinkable!

All hail Moloch.

Rage, Depression, and Action: a Post-Newtown Discussion

Over the past twenty-four hours, I’ve scattered my thoughts across Facebook, Twitter, and e-mails. But for my own sake, as much as anyone else, I wanted to consolidate them here, and come up some cohesive thoughts on the topic so I can continue to function. I’m a writer. I think better with my fingers than with my brain.

My soul hurts today. It’s that deep, aching hurt that seems to penetrate every limb, that feels like an ulcer in your gut, that leaves your entire body tense and leaves your tear ducts permanently on the edge of pouring open. I haven’t felt this in pain from the news since 9/11.

But at least with 9/11 there was the cathartic knowledge (as raw and barbaric as it is) that we would have our revenge, that we would take our planes and aircraft carriers and cruise missiles and bomb the ever-living shit out of the folks who made it possible. It wouldn’t bring back our murdered friends and family. But it would be an act of revenge, a healing process for the nation.

I suppose that sounds pretty bad, that we went to war to find healing. And in the process we created a lot more hurt. Was it worth it? I don’t know. That’s a topic for another time.

See, in a mass shooting like we witnessed in Newtown yesterday, there is no revenge to be had. Even if the gunman had survived, there is no act we could inflict that would make us feel better, except maybe the sort of excruciating personal torture that always makes us feel a bit uncomfortable when it’s lived out in fantasy on a movie screen.

And even that wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t honor or respect the victims, and it wouldn’t provide the sort of needed change in the world to prevent such acts in the future.

There is only possible thing we can do in response to this– hug our families, tell our friends how much we love them, and then have a reasonable, adult discussion about how to prevent these sort of atrocities from occurring again. And in today’s political climate– amid polarization and pundits and a media that thrives on short-term conflict– that sort of thing is far harder to start than a war.

But the debate on gun control is already raging, and for once, I agree that it should be. Even after the shooting in Aurora, I was reluctant to “politicize tragedy.” But here’s the thing: politics are how we, as a society, set standards and rules for behavior (i.e. “laws”). It’s the forum in which we discuss, via our elected representatives, how to solve society-wide problems.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Our political system is pretty dysfunctional. But if discussing concrete actions on how to prevent mass shootings is “politicizing tragedy,” then so be it. Because simply grieving is no longer enough, just like it wasn’t enough after 9/11. Then, we went to war. Now? Now we have no choice but to turn to politics.

I think when having this debate, it’s important to realize one thing: we can’t truly prevent these tragedies, in the sense of guaranteeing that they will never happen again. Every policy is flawed. But if we can reduce the probability of one of these events, or reduce their potential severity, isn’t that worth pursuing? Just because we can’t do everything, doesn’t mean we should do nothing.

My intention in this post isn’t to have a comprehensive debate on gun control. That would take a whole other blog. But as an example, let’s consider tighter restrictions on semi-automatic handguns and assault weapons, which are responsible for the vast majority of shootings in America. Well, we could register and track every sale (more on this in a moment). On an easier note, I’d suggest requiring they be kept in a gun safe, or locked down in some manner when stored.

“But people won’t necessarily follow those rules!” I hear you say. Maybe not, but maybe they will. And maybe the next school shooter will live in a house where their law-abiding parent does follow the law, and lives will be saved. Reduce the chances. That’s all I’m asking. And as for emergency “under the pillow” sort of home defense, you could still use a revolver.

My intention here isn’t to resolve every argument. It’s more just to demonstrate the sort of discussion we need to have. Could someone still shoot up a school with a revolver? Yes, but if it happened, the death toll would probably be less. Reduce the probability. Reduce the catatostrophe. We can’t prevent. All we can do is reduce.

If we tracked the sale and ownership of semi-automatic weapons, we could potentially build a national database which could be used– much like counter-terrorism efforts already do– to correlate data and identify potential problems. Like, if a guidance counselor received reports of a deeply troubled kid, they could use a database to determine if that child’s parents had a 9 mm Browning at home. Please understand, I do not like making these arguments. It strikes hugely of a “Big Brother” sort of government playing an overly paternalistic role, and that drives me crazy.

But here’s the thing: in the Declaration of Independence– the very founding document of our country, arguably more so than the Constitution– there is the following text:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Yesterday in Newtown, 27 elementary school children were deprived of their right to be alive. On Tuesday, it was two people in a mall in Oregon. This summer, it was twelve people in a theater in Colorado. In May, it was five people in a coffee shop in my own city, Seattle. In fact, fuck it, here’s a list. How many of those do you actually remember? And that’s just from this year! And that’s just mass shootings. It doesn’t even consider individual crimes and gang-related violence.

So as much as I don’t want to talk about restricting freedom– as much as I don’t want to see government take on more of a Big Brother role– everything needs to be on the table now. If we need to apply counterterrorism-type efforts to domestic weapons, then maybe we should, because as much as it sucks to restrict freedom, the alternative is more and more deaths from gun violence.

Here’s an example from my personal life. I could own a gun– in fact, I’d kind of like to. There’s a raw, emotional appeal to them, and in their mechanisms and variety, guns are an interesting topic. It’d be fun to take up shooting as a hobby.

But over the past few years, I’ve battled with depression: heavy, clinical depression. It’s only recently that I’ve even realized it, or at least come to accept it. I’m getting treatment– taking Sertraline, if you must know– and it’s helping quite a lot.

If I had owned a gun, in the time since I was eighteen, I am pretty sure– and this utterly terrifies me to admit– that there would probably have been at least once where I would have turned it on myself. Even now, I would be too frightened to have a gun in my house, because I simply don’t trust myself with one. I have made the personal decision that I should not own a firearm.

That is my personal choice. It’s not one forced on me by anybody else; it’s a realistic acknowledgement of my own restrictions. It’s a decision to limit my freedom for the sake of my life and my safety. Now, it’s time for us to have that same discussion, but on a society-wide level. We– as a country– have proven, consistently, that we cannot be trusted with firearms laws as they stand.

I am very, very angry; I feel like my temper is a molecule-thin string. I read Mike Huckabee’s thoughts on the massacre, and got so mad I wanted to burst. (For the record, if your God is dependent on government sponsorship to enter schools, you need to get a new God.)

But I’m holding onto that anger, because the alternative is depression. Anger can be channeled into positive and productive motivation; depression, clinical depression, cannot.

I think my project over Christmas is going to be to write a letter I can send by postal mail to Barack Obama, and to every incoming Senator and Congressman– yes, every single one— asking them to take part in this discussion, motivated not by lobbyists or political agendas but by moral imperative. We need to do something. And for the record, it’s not just gun control that we need to discuss. It’s the rebuilding of our broken and shattered mental health care system; it’s adequate funding for our schools. It’s investing and encouraging technological solutions, like the development of better nonlethal defensive weapons, or biometric IDs for firearms.

I kind of feel like if we can’t have this discussion, if we can’t take some sort of concrete action on this, then America is fundamentally broken. I’m just one person, and I know it probably won’t do shit, but writing letters still strikes me as something concrete that I can do– I’m a writer, after all. If you’re in the Seattle area, and you want to join me for a letter-folding and envelope-sealing party, let me know. I’d welcome donations to pay for postage, but I am willing to pay for 536 stamps myself if I have to. So that’s my plan. I hope our country can come up with one.

For now, I’ll hold onto my anger because as long as I do, I can still be optimistic, about my country, and about humanity. As long as I’m angry, I still have hope. Depression is the lack of hope. And I can’t do that anymore.