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. Acts of God, not acts of man.
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? Than the front entrance to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, down on the Mall — an 88-year-old gunman who waited for a security guard to hold open the door before shooting him in the chest?
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.
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.
The shooter’s Facebook page will be found. The alleged shooter, rather — newscasters will correct themselves, because in America we believe in due process; we take personal rights seriously. The alleged shooter’s Facebook page will be found, and if not Facebook, then blog, and if not blog, then university profile. He’ll have some kind of Internet presence, which we’ll scrutinize. It will be chilling or it will be boring, and if it is boring, it will be even more chilling. Either way, we’ll find meaning in it, status updates as tea leaves, as foreshadowing we should have recognized. There might be a YouTube video, showing off weapons, explaining imagined slights and a mangled philosophy. Sometimes there’s that.
Everyone will learn his middle name. It is what is done. We can wonder whether Lee Oswald and James Ray ever included “Harvey” and “Earl” on their official forms before their particular dates with history.
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. It’s always “a tragedy.” The statements all see the horrible deaths as unfortunate arguments for their sides. It wouldn’t have happened if the country had stricter gun-control laws. It wouldn’t have happened if citizens had the right to carry concealed weapons. No one will try to politicize the shooting, but some might accuse others of trying to politicize the shooting. It will be disgusting.
But all of our discussions, even our debates, will be our ways of mourning productively. This is the charitable, merciful way of looking at it. Being productive is what Americans do. We are productive, we are busy, we are solution-based, 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 crazy person will ever again decide that the solution to his problems is to open fire in a crowded public space and kill 12 strangers.
We will cover the funerals.
Already, details are beginning to seep out of the scene inside the Century 16 theater as James Eagan Holmes, 24, walked up an aisle in a flak jacket and a gas mask, and silently began shooting. Allegedly.
A woman named Jennifer Seeger slid onto the floor to avoid a bullet that nearly grazed her head.
A man named Chandler Brannon told his girlfriend to play dead.
Salina Jordan, 19, watched as a teenager next to her was shot in the jaw, and later, as a police officer carried the unmoving body of a small girl, who looked to be about 9.
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. Faces of the fallen.
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.