Like many, I’m not sure how to process the events of this week. I returned to Oregon from a trip away to learn about the mass shooting in Roseburg. A classroom full of beautiful people. A writing class, no less. Everyone has their sacred places. Ranking high among mine are elementary schools, churches, movie theaters and college classrooms. I can’t quite grasp why they are the sorts of places that become settings for so many of these mass shootings. There is a new term in emergency planning for such locations. They are, more and more frequently, referred to as “target-rich environments.” This is the world we have made.
For me me, among the most special of such “target-rich” venues are classrooms like the one in Roseburg, full of people learning how to do one of the most essential human activities that defines us as a species: how to write. I had the chance to visit my old college in Chicago this past week. I met with students in writing classes. In many of them I could see what I felt twenty years ago, brimming with hope, wonder and fear for what the rest of our lives might bring us. It was an amazing experience. But now, when I hear about Roseburg, it is their faces that I see.
Some suggest the answer to all of this lies in combat training and weapons for everyone from elementary school teachers and adjunct English professors to preachers and theater ushers. Some say pumping more guns into the hands of citizens in the crowds is the answer, essentially treating every conceivable gathering, from a writing class to a prayer meeting, like a potential OK Corral. Those don’t sound like solutions to me.
More sensible options on a societal level might include an investment in more armed guards at schools, a greatly expanded system to address public mental health and some licensing and safety training for weapons designed for mass slaughter that is not much different from what we need to go through to drive a car. All of these things would cost money. Only money. But they’re so very do-able. Maybe they’d work. Maybe not. But what’s the excuse not to try?
Violence in entertainment could also be treated with much greater cultural aversion than we show about the largely harmless (and often quite wonderful) phenomenon of full frontal nudity. How can violence in entertainment be less offensive, regulated and censored than a ‘wardrobe malfunction’? It’s baffling.
So politicians do nothing. “Stuff happens,” they say. Better licensing and safety around the issuing of weapons would somehow would harm us more than hurt us. Armed guards or widespread public mental health programs are expensive, and we must keep taxes low. Somehow regulation of guns and violence in the media is an affront to freedom (but the freedom to not carry a weapon or live in constant fear is apparently no kind of right at all). The massive lobbying organization designed to fetishize weapons specifically to expand their manufacture and sale is powerful and relentless. Good folks do nothing. Evil triumphs. We offer prayers. We offer sorrow and despair. None of these things requires taxation or political capital. Our prayers and sorrow are cheap to the politicians. Though there is an unimaginable cost to us, and to those communities like Roseburg who bear the brunt of the unimaginable pain.
But while politicians do nothing, we’ll continue. On our campus, students are developing a self-initiatied education campaign on how to react in active shooter situations. It’s part of college life now, like camping our for football tickets, caffeinating for a last-minute studying session or ordering pizza at midnight. Maybe someday lessons will include how to handle your standard-issue personal firearm, and how to discern a fellow student or faculty member from a homicidal combatant. In Roseburg on Thursday, there were many acts of heroism and bravery by similar students during the course of the shootings. Perhaps lives were saved because of a better understanding of how to react in such situations. But think again…this is the world we have made for them. All of us. The politicians we choose do nothing. We offer merely prayers and sorrow. We shake our heads. Maybe we send a check. And a few ordinary folks and kids do what they can, they train one another to be prepared, they rush the door when the moment arrives, they fight back. They mostly fail. We mourn. And somehow everyone must learn to move on.
The Roseburg community continues to struggle with this. The local bank has set up a fund so that we can offer, at the very least, something more than our sorrow.
Umpqua Community College will cancel classes for a week. Maybe longer. But eventually classes will resume. The writing class will meet with a new instructor and maybe some of the same students whose world was dismantled in their last class. Assignments will be given. Words will be read. And there is, at least, hope in that.