Thursday, December 20, 2012

3 Kids, a Spouse Who Teaches, and Another School Massacre: How I Spent Last Friday

I guess trigger warnings are appropriate.

Last Friday I was making lunch while my eldest child did her homeschool lessons, the younger children took a videogame break, and we all waited for their father to come home for the Christmas break.  Public radio was on but I wasn't really listening to it when I heard mention of a school shooting in New England.  Children were dead.

Lots of children were dead.

Smoothly, in less time than it takes to blink, my PTSD took over and I was in Survival Mode.

There's something you need to know about my family and school shootings; we are two degrees removed from the first school shooting.   The Pearl High School shooting happened the month after my husband started teaching high school while I was pregnant with our first child who died shortly after birth.  It took place in a school just a few hours away from where we lived. I knew PHS; as a teenager my high school and PHS had been rivals for the title of top public high school in Mississippi, a rivalry fought out in every possible form of school competition. The superintendent of the school my husband taught at was the former principal of Pearl High School who had permanently expelled Luke Woodham. After he left PHS and took his current job, Woodham's mom convinced the new (white) principal that Eddie Prather was a mean black man who hated her sweet white son for being white; that's the only reason Woodham was allowed back in that school.  School shootings hit me hard.

As the numbness of Survival Mode hit me, my first priority was safety.  My children were safe, my husband was at the end-of-semester Christmas party on all all-but-deserted campus -- not a prime target for mass shooters eager for the headlines that come with killing lots of students.  Too few "soft targets".  First priority secured.

My second priority was information.  I needed to know more, not out of voyeurism or morbid curiosity but to satisfy the demands of Survival Mode.  This was the first time I'd had a hooked-up TV during a school shooting.  I shooed the children off the video game and turned on CBS.  The children were surprised; I don't watch TV during the day or on a commercial network.   This was no ordinary day.

My husband came home.  The children piled on the sofa.  I threw the lunch fixings in a soup pot and hurried back to the TV.

The girls are 13 and 11, and when they wanted to know what was going on I told them.  The 13yo wanted to know more, so I told her.  She had been too young to notice when I did this in front of a computer.

"What are they doing?"

"Opening an investigation and dealing with the survivors.  At this point look at the firsthand accounts by witnesses and the basic facts the cops release.  Most of the information that comes out about the shooter this early is going to be false.  See, they can't even get the guy's name right.  Cops handle facts like a starving man handles a drumstick; they don't let go until they've stripped all the meat off.  They'll start releasing information about the shooter around three days out."

The anchorwoman is clearly holding herself together through sheer willpower.  I remind myself not to get annoyed.  I can't feel anything at this point -- or more precisely I feel a deep rumbling in the buried core where my potentially debilitating emotions live, but Survival Mode has sealed off my direct access to them.  It would take all my concentration to pull them up right now, and I have other things to do.

But I'm not normal.  The 4year old has hidden himself in the sofa throw.  It's time to hug him, turn the TV off, and have lunch.

The 13 wants to understand why.  I tell her I don't know about this individual, but I can give her the general background.  I gave her a quick rundown of the history of mass shootings in this country from the early 1970s onward and the Brevik shooting in Norway.  It never occurred to me to lie to her and tell her we don't know why this happened; we know why in general if not yet in particular.  The sociological profile of mass shooters is one of the most consistent criminal profiles on record.

It also never occurred to me to tell her the other lie people hide behind in these situations, that we can't understand the killer, or that if we could there would be something wrong with us.  Hogwash.  The killer is a human being, an especially petty and vindictive member of the breed to be sure, but as human as the rest of us.  He has no emotions inside him we don't share; on the contrary he lacks something we possess.  I fully expect to understand where the little shit came from before it's over without descending to his level.  I am bigger on the inside than him.

"You remember the Japanese saying about when a Japanese man gets to the end of his rope he closes a window and shoots himself, but an American man gets to the end of his rope he opens a window and shoots other people?"

She rolled her eyes.  "Yeah, so?"

"You remember me telling you about the post-World War II economic boom and the cultural norm that grew out of that time that every white male who wanted one could find a job, and if he couldn't there was something wrong with him personally, and how this started breaking down in the economic collapse of the early 70s, which caused many white men who were no longer guaranteed jobs by their status and the economic conditions to take offense at the rising civil rights of people who weren't white men?"

She stared at me.  "What, that AGAIN?  That was 40 years ago!  This guy wasn't even born then.  How could he believe that junk?"

"Because a lot of young white men are still being told it's true," her father replied.

62 of 63 mass shooters were male.  Most were white with a smattering of Asians and Hispanics, no African-Americans so far.  All were middle class to lower upper class.  All were reared in conservative, authoritarian households.  Most were brought up in right-wing Christian churches.  Most were Republican, if not something more conservative than Republican.  Many of the shootings involve racism, almost all involve misogyny.  Not all of the killers suffered from mental illness, but all suffered from a clash of cultural expectations.  For some reason they felt unable to live up to the cultural and economic expectations of their class, and they blamed that failure on others whose social status was rising, usually women.  The term that's been coined to describe this condition is "aggrieved entitlement".

We tell her about the workplace and college shootings by laid-off workers and disgruntled students of the 70s and 80s, and how their driving sentiments blended with the survivalist movement and morphed into Oklahoma City.  We tell her how the cops noted at the time that the perpetrators would begin going after "softer targets" from then on.  Then the perpetrators got younger and schools became the target.

I got to Columbine and froze, unable to speak any more.  The horror was too near the surface.

I tell her they are temper tantrums thrown by bratty white males eager for the notoriety such a crime will bring them while hoping to die in the bloodbath so they don't have to pay the consequences for their crimes.  I tell her what the cops said after the mall shooting in Oregon the week before:  Go up against a kid who's robbed a liquor store and you've got a fight on your hands because the kid is stealing money to live, but mass shooters are pushovers who usually save you the trouble of arresting them by taking their own lives before the cops even get there.  They're just in it for the attention.

I haven't told her what happens to the ones who go to prison, how after a few years the wretched little attention-seekers approach right-wing Christian pastors and exploit their notoriety to became celebrities in the Christian sin-and-redemption narrative which fuels conservative Christian churches, while the same pastors exploit the killers to achieve greater status within their own community.  She's too young and innocent for that degree of cynical manipulation.

A few days later I turn away from pictures of the victims who look too much like my 4 year-old.  That night I search Daryl Cagle's editorial cartoon collection looking for visual metaphors of the shooting with a strong right hook.  I look for the ones that hurt, the ones that pack enough punch to break through the congealed numbness that envelopes my heart until I can finally feel again.

And then I weep.

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