It’s Monday, April 16, the night of the Blacksburg massacre, and I want you to do something for me. I want you to imagine that you are the as-yet-unidentified Virginia Tech shooter.
So, you’re dead.
Let’s back up.
I’m sitting here on my couch, watching CNN, and it’s approximately nine or 10 hours after you walked into the Norris engineering building on the Virginia Tech campus. Virginia Tech police Chief Wendell Flinchum is conducting a press conference in which he has just revealed that the police have a preliminary identification of your body.
On the TV, Flinchum is tall and tan, and while he seems like someone with a kind demeanor under normal circumstances, he looks uncomfortable in the glare of the camera lights, the outlines of his funeral-black officer’s uniform smothered by a forest of microphones on the podium. The faceless voices belonging to reporters bark out insensitive questions from offscreen, just like in the movies. “How does it feel/Why wasn’t more done/What went wrong?” they bleat, all at once. People will probably say that Flinchum did not show enough emotion during the press conference. To me, however, he seems like he could be in agony, but maybe just in a quiet suffering, not the kind that looks stirring in a video clip. I try to imagine myself in his shoes, and fail.
“I can’t hear,” he murmurs in a passive drawl, eyes down into the microphones, “Everyone is shouting.”
I feel sorry for him, along with everyone else involved. It’s an authentic tragedy. Yet, because all of it’s very dramatic, it goes without saying that the rest of us are drawn to the story. You’re still a mystery, and there will be some time when everyone is going to try and figure you out, what all the motives were, the background, were you not held enough as a child?, whether you kept a diary or left a farewell note. Facets of your story will be discussed at length by the appropriate groups: gun-control advocates will point to this massacre and call for stricter laws, while Second Amendment advocates will say that an armed bystander could have stopped the madness; psychologists will make you a case study and dissect your personality piece-by-piece, as if you were a science project; school administrators will look at the aftermath of Norris Hall and think about all the ways they can make a college campus more like a bank vault, simply because of you.
We’re just beginning to build your profile for posterity. And when it’s over, you will become a concept, a neatly-packaged topic that can be pulled off the shelf like a loaf of bread at a grocery store, and your name will be one that we can point to and say, “Yes, here is a terrible example of [this].”
But to call you “tidy” is inaccurate.
Sometime last week, before all this happened, maybe you picked up a photo off your shelf from when you were 10 years old. “That’s me,” you might have said, holding up the frame. “I looked unhappy even then.” Maybe you were posing with an abusive father, a foster parent, someone who didn’t love you. “That’s from my 10th birthday party, when my brother took my present away from me,” you’d said. “I cried later.” You’d felt a tingling of old emotions coming back from those little memories, and maybe you could see how you got from there to here. You turned off the lights and sat on your bed or you looked out the window for a while and you just found yourself looking back at that picture in the dark, feeling like you could understand everything.
But memory is unreliable; you know this. People forget and reconstruct their pasts all the time—I can barely remember high school, and sometimes there are gaps in my memory that just can’t be realistically plugged unless I get jolted into recollection. So, a week away from mass murder, you were staring at that photo and possibly making up an entire past from little images and fragments to explain how you’ve gotten to where you are now, just like the media will. You’re a collage of storylines, and, what’s even more terrifying than the prospect of us not ever knowing why you did it is that you could have had a normal, happy childhood, and you can’t even remember it. Or choose not to. It’s like someone once said, that remembering was an activity “so much more psychotic than forgetting,” as if it took an act of writing fiction to remember who we were.
We get to make a story about you too. That’s the other half of this bargain. Police will come into your room—hoping it’s not booby-trapped—and they will look at your photo and some caustic officer will say it’s too bad you didn’t kill yourself earlier. To them you become modern-day Satan. That’s a storyline. They’ll flip through your papers and maybe see that you wrote bad poetry or were obsessing over a girl. They’ll start putting you together, trying to create a composite sketch of what human failure looks like. When it’s over, we’ll have you pieced together like a personal-history Frankenstein, a photograph making an elbow here, an awkward encounter with a professor comprising a leg there, an interview with the family completing the torso. No one will give us the directions; we’ll just stitch you together.
You’ll get a name and a character flaw and an article in Wikipedia. Then, when enough time as passed, we’ll close your chapter and call you complete and try to forget you until the next one of you comes along.
That’s how it is.
Someone’s voice sticks out from the others’ in the chorus of needy questioners and asks Flinchum for the gunman’s identity; he declines to answer.
Here’s what scares me—since you’re as yet unidentified, you could have been anyone: an ex-con, an ex-marine, a student, a former student… anyone. What’s more, Virginia Tech is a campus not too unlike dozens of other middle-sized American universities—it even looks like my school—and your victims were taken indiscriminately. They were people no different from my classmates here. And while the media will blare headlines about the record number of dead, the disturbing part of this crime is that it is marked by its indeterminacy as much as it is by its severity: this could have happened anywhere, to anyone, for no reason at all. It was just as likely to happen here, to people I know, to me. There might never be an answer to Blacksburg’s cries of “Why us? Why here?” Because neither of those actually mattered.
That’s not much of a story. We prefer our plots to make sense.
But all of this is a lot of forethought. You’re interesting because you don’t make sense. You’re still a narrative in motion, and there’s still a lot that has to happen yet before the excitement around you is over. As I sit here watching the aftermath on TV I can’t help but think how people who know much about guns (plus your future copycats) will be darkly impressed; for you to kill 32 with a pair of medium-power pistols is a miraculous catastrophe. But what it tells me is that you were calm—it’s hard to orchestrate much of anything when you’re panicked—and the chains on the doors of Norris Hall also say that this wasn’t a spontaneous crime of passion.
I imagine you standing in a classroom doorway, emotionless. Your mind is still, like that of a Zen monk. Detached. You feel nothing but the weight of the pistol in your hand, heavy and recoiling with each thoughtless pull of the trigger. I want you to have a motive, but I can’t dream one up for you. I can only imagine you as empty.
And as I watch the people hashing and rehashing the various fragments of stories on CNN, trying to patch together some kind of semblance of cohesiveness, I see their frustration. Chief Flinchum and university President Charles Steger are already facing criticism for not responding quickly enough, but there was no way to anticipate that a double-homicide would lead to 32 dead. The simple fact is that you, Unidentified Gunman, could have happened anywhere.
Like at my high school. You might have come close, once. I only remember this because, today, you’ve now reminded me.
You—you were a friend of mine, a few years ago. My next door neighbor, a scrawny guy three years my elder. You were dark and funny and wore black trench coats to school, even after Columbine. A few days after those shootings happened—after my parents had sat me down with a newspaper with all the victims’ names and photos and told me they were concerned about the violent videogames I played—I remember sitting outside with you one afternoon, a cloudy day when the grass had just recently turned a deep green, and I was rocking on a swing set I was too big for and listening to you talk about the “tactical mistakes” Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had made. You described in specific detail how you could do it at my high school. Start in the front office.
Your father kept guns in your home.
I didn’t think you were serious—which was the fatal mistake repeated by many others many times over in the history of school and workplace shootings—but you graduated and let me off the hook, managing to make it into the military before you had your mental breakdown. At least you didn’t kill anyone. Outside of duty, that is.
That I know of.
I turn back to the TV.
So, you’re dead, and Virginia is still ready to scour your corpse for a name and a history and a reason why. But I think no reasoning explains away 32 bodies, the “senseless violence,” two words that barely mean anything, a phrase like an anonymous void, like the secret emotions of a 10-year-old who feels private joys and pains too new and too massive and too incomprehensible to have real names yet. You grew up, and, unlike the rest of us, simmered until you boiled and exploded, shattering into a thousand tiny pieces, leaving us to be at a loss for words while try to piece you together again.
“Chief!” a reporter barks. “What is the shooter’s name? His name, Chief!”
Flinchum, a lifelong Blacksburg resident, puts his head down, his badge glittering pointlessly in the glare of the camera lights, and declines to answer.