Opinion: It Can’t Happen Here

A student, left, reacts after retrieving her belongings inside Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, on Saturday, May 19, 2018. Students and teachers were allowed to return to parts of the school to gather their belongings. A gunman opened fire inside the school Friday, May 18, killing several people. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Picture this if you will.

A graduation ceremony at a high school gym or football field. “Pomp and Circumstance” is set to begin softly over the PA system, parents are taking their seats, photos are snapping and the air is filled with optimism for what the future holds.

Somewhere out of view, dozens of graduates anxiously await to file in and say goodbye to their high school years.

Now, envision that same scene at Santa Fe High School in Texas this year. At least eight chairs will either be empty or not taken out of storage. At least eight student’s faces will not be among their classmates. At least eight students will not pose for pictures after throwing their graduation caps in the air.

Halfway across the country at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 14 students will never shake their principal’s hand and get their diploma. Three of their mentors will also not be alive to see the dozens of survivors fight through the tragedy to start the next chapter of their lives after high school.

And those are just two of the schools impacted by mass-shooting events … this year.

I’ve covered more graduation ceremonies than I can count in my career, but this year gave me pause at the fragility of each student’s life as the unseen dangers in our nation’s classrooms fester under the surface.

What I believe to be the source of the problem can be found outside of these classrooms. We have become culturally desensitized to the aforementioned scenes, despite a recurring concept that is wholly indicative of the warped American condition.

Nowhere else in the world are these problems as prevalent.

This didn’t happen overnight, though.

Empty chairs at graduations have become a regular occurrence at schools across the country since the infamous Columbine massacre. I still vividly remember that day in April 1999. Parents rushed to my elementary school to check out their students amid fear the violence would be widespread. The violence turned out to be isolated to one small town in Colorado, but the impact had on the American psyche is still being felt today.

In 2018, parents hardly bat an eyelash at breaking news of a school shooting. Parents are busier than ever and tragic events happen so frequently that they are often lost to the ever-changing static peddled by mainstream media.

And in places like the Golden Triangle, where many feel far-removed from big city problems and social issues, the title of Sinclair Lewis’ dystopian novel is often used unintentionally to describe how we view our situation in small town Mississippi … “It Can’t Happen Here.”

I’m sure the students, parents, faculty and community around Santa Fe High School thought the same thing on Friday morning. But to many here, it just makes for fodder to fill a 24-hour breaking news cycle. That kind of stuff just can’t happen here. And until it does, it’s a issue that doesn’t warrant conversation apart from offering thoughts and prayers.

Then it does happen and in its wake, we are often left with more questions than answers, accompanied by millions of useless thoughts and prayers that, up to this point, have failed to stop a single bullet fired by a mass-murderer or offer even the tiniest bit of solace to the victims and their families.

Is there a magic wand to fix this problem? Absolutely not.

What we are seeing now, with a new mass-shooting once a day, has been evolving and manifesting in different incarnations ever since Andrew KeHoe used dynamite to blow up a grade school in Bath, Michigan in 1927 - killing 38 school children and six adults.

The Bath disaster could be considered the first time a multi-fatality event occurred at a school that received worldwide media attention. The rumor mills hummed with speculation and set the stage for media predecessors to adopt a sensational approach when covering similar events.

Am I saying the media is complicit in helping shape the mass-shooter culture? You’d better believe it.

And it’s not just reserved to school shootings. Look at the recent van attack in Toronto that killed 10 pedestrians, or the mass-shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people at a country music festival.

Media consumers became obsessed with knowing details, and their fanaticism bled into the mainstream media by osmosis, resulting in wall-to-wall speculative coverage and sensationalism - all posing nebulous solutions ranging from mental health reform to gun control.

Sadly, the media mantra has now become: “We don’t know all the details … but we are going to speculate until we do.”

In the wake of every shooting, terrorist attack or murder, the victims often take the back seat to our morbid curiosity’s need to know more about the monsters responsible. It’s a uniquely American quality, but one that I believe is responsible for providing fuel and inspiration for future events.

Look no further than the Boston Marathon bombing as an example. On the Aug. 1, 2013 cover of Rolling Stone magazine, a Jim Morrison-like photo of bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was published. If you remove all of the text from the cover, he could easily be mistaken for a folk singer about to debut a new album as opposed to a terrorist facing multiple murder charges.

The same thing seemed to occur with the last two major school shootings, albeit to a less romantic degree.

Within hours of the shooting at Santa Fe High School, the photo of 17-year-old suspect Dimitrios Pagourtzis in an orange jail jumpsuit was plastered across network news shows and on internet forums across the country.

Instead of asking the students about the experience, many media focused on asking survivors what they knew about the shooter.

Ignoring the sheer scope of the tragedy and how it is just the most recent in a disturbing trend, we as consumers go full bore into wanting to know about the killer in the present, then forget about them completely when the next tragedy happens.

It’s not about the victims or a community in mourning. We don’t want to emphasize the hurt. We want a show.

But can media ignore these events? Absolutely not. However, as the gatekeepers of information, we have the power to craft a narrative and must be conscious that we are doing so in a socially-responsible way.

In looking back to the 1970s, 80s and 90s, serial killers dominated the cultural psyche and represented what we believed to be the worst of the human condition, while the widespread obsession also underscored the public’s bloodlust for criminal complexity.

With the advent of forensic DNA and the interconnectedness of the digital age, the days of Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy are quickly fading as the old archetypal monsters die off. As it becomes increasingly difficult to get away with a protracted killing spree, the place in popular culture has now be supplanted by spree killers like Nikolas Crus and mass-casualty incidents like the shooting in Las Vegas.

This is where I believe it is imperative that we as media find a fresh approach to forming a narrative around a tragedy. I don’t have the answer to this problem, but I think it is important to at least begin the dialogue.

So, as media and a community, let’s work to change the culture and our attitudes from one of “It Can’t Happen Here” to “We Can’t Let It Happen Here.”

Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News and Daily Times Leader. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of either newspaper or their staffs.