Remove the captions from the photos and put the images in front of anyone in the United States, and they will know instantly what they are looking at.
The police cruisers and yellow tape tell you that it is a crime scene; other details are the tip-off that it is a uniquely American kind. Often, there will be photographs or footage captured from above, a cue that some terrible event has spurred producers to scramble their live news helicopters. We will see a building in the frame, at first eerily still. Then pours forth a line of shaken workers, or moviegoers, or shoppers, or small children, marched single-file, hands held high or on the shoulders of the person in front of them, scared to death but at the moment focused on showing that they are not the gunman who has just opened fire inside.
Such a scene is particularly familiar to us: We work for a nonprofit news organisation that should not need to exist, one whose sole job is to report on guns and gun violence in the US. Early on — around the seventh of the 25 major active shooter incidents that our site, the Trace, has covered during its two-and-a-half years in operation — it struck us that the events have an almost formal visual language. “Mass shootings are a public health epidemic whose ubiquity has begun to produce its own aesthetic” is how the writer Alice Gregory put it in an essay we published after a husband and wife, armed like paramilitaries, murdered 14 people at an office holiday party in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015.
In the hours afterward, the rote choreography will resume. Politicians will tweet thoughts and prayers. The president of the US will talk about mental illness and avoid mention of firearms or gun laws. He will hint at warning signs missed ...
You can go back 30 years and find examples of the genre that, but for the clothes and the hairstyles, could have been taken this week. There is a photo from the aftermath of the January 1989 massacre in Stockton, California, in which a man wielding an AK-47 sprayed at least 107 rounds on the children and teachers assembled on an elementary school playground. The image could be from Jonesboro, Arkansas, in March 1998 or Marysville, Washington, in October 2014, or Marshall County, Kentucky, last month. Or from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday. The scene is the same: Mothers and fathers hug — clutch — children who’d been feared hurt or dead.
The lockdown lifts. Dusk falls. Photographers snap candids of sobbing pairs and contemplative witnesses standing alone.
There are flickering candles at night-time vigils.
There are hands locked in resolute prayer circles.
The genre expands to fit the times; the newest entry is the shot of the cellphone screen showing text messages that could have been (or were) final words. And it is the familiarity of it all, the creeping normality, the expectedness, that has led the FBI’s former resident expert on the subject to conclude that America “has absolutely become numb to these shootings”, the tiny sliver of our country’s much larger gun violence problem that once seemed to break through but no longer does. As the cycle takes hold again, we hear or read the harrowing experience of yet another survivor, yet another bystander. We watch as nothing seems to change, again. Both lose the power to shock.
But numb is not quite right. People on both sides of the gun issue are deeply saddened by this latest mass shooting. Some gun owners are also angry to feel blamed, and more fiercely protective than ever of the guns they have been convinced could be taken away. Advocates of stricter gun laws are mad that the narrow agenda of the National Rifle Association may again overwhelm the common ground that they have found on the issue with their co-workers, fellow congregants, and friends.
Instead of inured, maybe people are just exhausted. They are worn out and worn down by mass shootings that have by some measures have become more frequent and have indisputably become more deadly, with five of the 10 worst in modern US history occurring during the past 26 months.
If the school shooting in Parkland produces a different outcome, it will be because of the way the teenagers who lived through it enabled the rest of us to get closer to what they endured. The spree that left 17 people dead and another 14 injured brought with it the usual progression of images and news accounts. But on their social media accounts, the Florida students also created a separate record, unmediated and unsanitised by journalism’s conventions.
“THERE ARE GUNSHOTS” 2:24 p.m. February 14, 2018
“I am in a school shooting right now ...” 2:59 p.m.
“oh my god we’re in a closet i can’t believe this is happening” 3:11 p.m. February 14, 2018
“Never been more scared ever in my life. I hope everyone that’s in my school and around my school is okay.” 3:17 February 14, 2018
“THE SWAT EVACUATED US AND LIKE 3 PEOPLE I KNOW WERE SHOT IN OUR BUILDING AND THERE WAS BLOOD EVERYWHERE I CANT BREATH RIGHT NOW BUT IM SAFE” 3:37 p.m. February 14, 2018
“I JUST WANT TO KNOW IF EVERYONE IS SAFE CAUSE IM SHAKING THERE WAS LIKE PEOPLE IVE SEEN BEFORE JUST DEAD IN THE HALLS I CANT CALM DOWN AT ALL THIS WAS THE MOST TERRYFYING THIS IVE EVER SEEN” 3:48 p.m. February 14, 2018
After the school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, a grainy, soundless security camera recording emerged showing the killers stalking the cafeteria. It is chilling viewing. But from Stoneman Douglas, we got high-resolution videos with vivid audio that will steal your breath, and then your sleep.
The videos are graphic and disturbing. Blood and victims are briefly visible in some. They may be most terrifying for what you hear.
On Snapchat, a student cowering with classmates under their desks records as the gunman, unseen, lets off more than a dozen deafening shots from the hallway or the next classroom over. The sound of those blasts stays with you. The screams of the children, even more so. They are in terrible danger. It is way too close.
A separate, minute-long video pans a classroom as police officers wearing purple medical gloves carry away a student who appears to have been injured. Motionless legs splay out from behind a podium. The camera rocks as wailing students, some shoeless, are led into the hallway. They pass broken glass and backpacks flung in panic and at least one body. Their bawling grows louder as they reach the door and exit into the impossible blue sky of a South Florida afternoon.
Another student captured the moment SWAT team members came to his classroom to take them to safety. Officers in riot gear enter, flashlights shining, gun barrels pointing, and ask the teenagers to show their hands. Arms shoot up. Someone whimpers. You watch as one pair of hands shakes uncontrollably, like they may never stop.
In the hours afterward, the rote choreography will resume. Politicians will tweet thoughts and prayers. The president of the United States will talk about mental illness and avoid mention of firearms or gun laws. He will hint at warning signs missed, tweeting that students who attended Stoneman Douglas with the alleged gunman “knew he was a big problem” in a way that seems to imply they should have done more to prevent the slaughter.
Some of those students will not be having any of it.
One boy, a senior who recorded his own footage of his rattled classmates, was interviewed on cable news the day after the shooting. “We’re children,” he says. “You’re, like, adults. Take action, work together, come over your politics, and get something done.”
— Washington Post
James Burnett is the Trace’s editorial director. Elizabeth Van Brocklin is a reporter for the Trace, where she covers shooting survivors.