Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The "Unharmed"

It was yet another in the endless series of shootings in the United States, notable primarily because it was so close and because it continues to be inexplicable.

This time, it was three dead in a skate shop in a mall in Columbia, Maryland.  The victims: A young man working at the store.  A young woman, the assistant manager, whose name was distinctive enough that I Googled her, which I'll sometimes do when a name is released.  I probably shouldn't, but it's hard not to want to know who a person was.

There she was on FaceBook, just a soft-eyed twenty-something kid.  There were pictures of her getting a large tattoo.  Mostly, there were pictures of her with her toddler son, a tiny little button of a boy.

And then there was the "shooter," a young man of the same age.  He'd shown no signs of any propensity for violence to anyone, not to friends, not to family.  When he'd bought his Mossberg pump-action 12 gauge from a Maryland gun shop, the folks there saw no warning signs at all.  He was genial, inquisitive, and utterly unthreatening.  He didn't seem like a gun-obsessive.  Just a completely average, normal, 19 year old.

But after using his brand new shotgun to kill two young people he did not know, he put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.  Which, I suppose, is why it took so long to ID him.  Home-defense-grade buckshot at point blank range doesn't leave much besides a mess.

Five more people were harmed in the event, all hurt in the process of fleeing.

One detail of this event, dropped almost in passing, has stuck in my mind this week.  There were four people in the skate shop.  There were the two employees.  There was the man with the shotgun.

And there was one other customer.   They haven't been named, of course.  All the articles have said about this person was:

"The other customer was unharmed."

Were they unharmed, though?  I cannot imagine that such an experience would leave a soul untouched.  You are in a small space with three other people.  Suddenly it is filled with thunder and blood, and then there is only you and the young man before you with a wickedly efficient little scattergun.

You have just seen people die.  Your death is imminent, right there about to happen.  You know how this story goes, because it is so familiar.

And then he puts the gun in his mouth.

Would you be "unharmed" by this experience?  If you were a sociopath, perhaps.  But most human beings feel the ripples of violence deep in themselves.  That experience...primal terror, the near-certainty of death, the trauma...would burn a deep groove into you.

This would be a defining moment, and one hard to move past. "Unharmed" seems an inadequate descriptive term, in the same way "uninjured" seems the wrong way to describe a young private who has just watched a IED tear the life from the guy he'd been laughing and gaming with the night before.

I wonder, frankly, if we as a nation are unharmed by these repeated experiences.  They are not immediate for most of us, sure.  But we are aware that pointless, random killings are now a part of our culture.  At any point, anywhere, and at any time, there might be a "shooter."

And so we think about it.  A lot. We are aware of it.  We maintain a patrol mentality, always on alert.  We feel the need to distrust, to be armed just in case.

And we, too, are "unharmed."