When something like this happens, what happened in Colorado, the meaningless shooting of a theater full of people there to do the simplest of things—watch a movie, be entertained, things we take for granted we will be safe and relatively comfortable doing for a couple of hours in the dark, among strangers—it's hard to know how to react, on the Internet or off of it. It all feels bleak, and so we start reaching for answers or for some way to feel a little bit less desperate and despairing. We read as much as we can, to find out what we know, but it's a breaking news story so what we know changes from moment to moment as facts are collected and dismissed, as new voices emerge to add to the chorus of information and disinformation.
As people on the Internet and as writers, of course, writers on the Internet especially, we're used to this ... we've seen how these things go. Sometimes we think we've gotten so cynical and jaded that nothing can affect us anymore, nothing can truly shock us. But something always can.
After we search for information and try to clarify the facts, we have to weigh in. There's a twisted thing happening, which involves us scanning and reporting and reiterating the news as a service and also trying to find new "ways in," because this is our job; our job is, in a tragedy as well as in happier times, about getting people to read what we say. That makes us feel a little ill always, but especially now. We justify this by thinking that in the wake of a tragedy—and I'm not sure we should call it that, it's a tragedy, yes, for the families of victims and for the victims, and tragic for the family of James Holmes, the 24-year-old who did the killing. But this was a willful act, not an accident, this was murder, this was a form of terrorism; he terrorized those people and he terrorizes us, too, in the images we see of bloody shirts and cell-phone videos of carnage and in our own imaginations of the horror. So, in the wake of this thing, we also reach for the stories that need to be told.
What "needs" to be told varies drastically in the eye of the beholder.
It might be a story about how we politicize events like this, so quickly, how politicians are keen to turn them to talk about what they want to talk about, to bolster their side. Civilians do this too, of course. Gun control laws should be more stringent. Or, on the converse side, gun control laws should be less so, so that more people can carry guns to (allegedly) protect themselves. Or we talk about how this might impact the movie's bottom line (oof); or about a woman who was killed, a journalist herself, who recently narrowly escaped being involved in another shooting; or about children who die, far too young, about people who simply didn't need to die in this way, not at all. We hurt, so we talk.
Then we turn to matters more practical: security measures in theaters, for instance, how the NYPD is doing this, in fact, for New Yorkers. There's religious and anti-religious talk of varying degrees of decent and horrible. We return to politics and perceived political connections, and early perceptions that, like most early perceptions, turned out to be incorrect. We bring up historical precedents, words like Columbine and Virginia Tech and Jared Loughner, names whose meanings changed forever after the events occurred. We talk about how we should have learned, but didn't, or even, more despairingly, how we're never going to fix this problem we have, that some humans want to kill others, for no apparent reason. We talk about why. Why would someone want to kill someone else, many others, in this brutal fashion? Was it violence he's witnessed, in movies, in video games, in comic books, in real life? Is there a connection to the movie itself? It's not the fault of movies, we say. Of course not, one man did this, a young man. Is it schizophrenia then? Mental illness?
We piece together his life, slowly but surely, trying to make sense of what went wrong, because something clearly went horribly, dreadfully, repulsively wrong. We want to know more about this person, this person who did this; we're fascinated at the same time we blame his family at the same time we grieve for them. And we think about ourselves -- how the simple act of walking into a movie theater has been suddenly, grossly changed. We wait for the president to tell us what to do, what to feel, to help us rally. Then, inevitably, we criticize him for not doing enough or for doing it wrong. Gun control, why are we not talking about gun control? No more attack ads, no more attacks. We talk about how awful it would be to share a name with the shooter. Shooter, what a vile word. On Merriam-Webster, other vile words are trending, shrapnel and terrorism, for instance, we are told. We're briefly surprised. We'd thought it would be tragedy. A tragedy. Everyone's reviews of this movie today were ruined, weren't they, we think, and then we hate ourselves for it.
Ourselves. We consider the story that last night we thought we would write today, a response to a piece about semi-colons—semi-colons! How it seems weak and pointless and silly, how every story we thought we might write today is an abject failure in light of this new darkness. With nothing else to do or say, we lay more blame. On others, for not writing the right thing, for not feeling the right things, for saying something we call wrong or rude or insensitive or callous or cruel or unrelated or oblivious, or for being too excited about their breaking story, about their chance to be a part of this national event. We lay the blame on ourselves, on everything, on humanity or our lack thereof.
But blame only gets us so far. We stop and look at photos of people hugging for a moment.
We always say this, after something like this: We'll do better. We'll try to do better. And then, 6 months later, it's as if we, or most of us, have forgotten completely, only to be reminded when the next awful thing occurs. But still we hope and maybe, if we're religious, we even pray—because if there's a time for ushering up good thoughts to a higher power it's a time like this—that we won't let this one slide from memory like all the rest, into the great void of things we wish never would have happened, that never should have happened.
There will be a day for writing about semi-colons again. It just won't be today.