The Endurance of Tragedy

In the immediate wake of tragedy, including the recent massacre in Parkland, Florida, we focus much of our attention on the events themselves. We remember the victims. We read about the perpetrators. We condemn the violence. Within hours, the political rhetoric—on both sides of the aisle—is in full swing. “Never again,” we say, until three months later. And after the novelty wears off, after we’ve exhausted our thoughts and prayers and politicians have conveniently shifted priorities, we forget. We forget so many of these tragedies because we’ve become accustomed to them. We’ve grown uncomfortably comfortable with their occurrence. It’s only a matter of time before it happens again.

So why are certain tragedies remembered? Why are school shootings compared to Columbine? Why are the Boston Marathon bombings a salient memory?

There are certain characteristics that make tragedies significant. Qualities that go beyond the number of casualties or the cost of damages. They’re ones that somehow distinguish one tragedy from another, when the situations aren’t all that different.

It’s easy to make a list of tragedies and sort them by the number of deaths. Doing so gives you a recognizable top-5, excluding the attacks of September 11: last year’s shooting in Las Vegas, the Pulse Nightclub massacre, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and the Sutherland Springs shooting. It would seem, at first glance, that there exists a strong correlation between casualties and memorability. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, or even most of it.

Tragedies endure in the public conscience because, fundamentally, they’re stories. It’s the context or narrative that stays with us rather than the gross intrusion of our public sense of security.

That explains why the Isla Vista killings remain a salient memory. Elliot Rodger, the well-to-do son of a Hollywood director, killed 6 people and then himself in May, 2014. In relative terms, the six deaths aren’t an extraordinary statistic. Compare it to the rampage at Umpqua Community College in 2015, where nine individuals were murdered in cold blood by a classmate, Christopher Harper-Mercer.

Both events were tragic. They both reflect broader societal issues of gun violence, terror, and mental health. But Isla Vista stands out. It endures because of Elliot Rodger’s story.  It’s one of affluence, of privilege, and ultimately, of destruction. It’s a story that challenges our preconceptions and shakes our understanding of human psychology. Mental health is the obvious contributing factor--and it’s not wrong to point that out. Any person who commits such atrocities is not mentally stable. But it’s more difficult to grapple with the underlying causes, to wrestle with the idea that someone who should have had it all was able to throw it all away.

The circumstances of the Umpqua tragedy are different. From the outside looking in, Harper-Mercer didn’t have the childhood of Rodger. His father wasn’t a Hollywood director. He wasn’t born with a proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. And yet, in his own words, he was inspired by Rodger. He felt slighted by a society that had made his life “one lonely enterprise.” Rodger and Harper-Mercer really weren’t that different, and yet we remain shocked by Rodger’s act and chalk Harper-Mercer’s up as symptomatic of a larger issue. So that begs a question to which I have no good answer: Is that wrong?

The Umpqua tragedy is not the only one we tend to forget. Ten years ago, five people were killed at Northern Illinois University. In 2013, twelve people were massacred at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. The list goes on. It isn’t that these events are any less tragic than the ones we remember -- it’s that they don’t carry a compelling narrative. The Boston Marathon bombing penetrated our self-imposed security bubble, it made us wary of public events we once thought were safe. Columbine was the impetus for a national conversation about gun violence and mental health. Fort Hood challenged our notions about the military and safety. The Aurora massacre thrust mental illness into the national spotlight. San Bernardino and the Pulse Nightclub shootings ignited contentious debate over Islamic extremism and immigration policy. Las Vegas--and many others--called into question our nation’s gun laws.

We remember the tragedies that divide us. We remember the ones that we could have stopped and the ones that nobody saw coming. Tragedy endures because we are drawn to stories that challenge our ideas and beliefs. It endures because, at its core, tragedy is the final chapter of a story that we reluctantly read. Forgetting tragedies like Umpqua or NIU or so many others doesn’t make us inherently bad, but it is indicative of a larger problem. If we’re drawn to compelling stories, to tragedies that make too much sense or none at all, then we fail to address the underlying issues. We fail to begin meaningful conversations about gun violence and mental health and we fail to prevent future tragedy.

If each incident only reminds us of the last one, if each crisis is just another brick on an infinite path, then the endurance of tragedy means nothing at all.