Thursday, April 19, 2007

And All That Could Have Been

There were maybe five of us, gathered around a television, watching a woman die.

I had only been in television news for a few months and hadn't yet developed the rough and thickened callus on my soul; that unavoidable consequence of a life lived knee-deep in day-to-day tragedy; the natural armor required to sustain such an existence. I was still learning to crawl among those who had long since evolved into wearied and indifferent creatures for whom another dead body was another dead body was another dead body. They already knew something which I would eventually have to learn -- that sometimes, you have to suppress your gag reflex, bury your humanity and willingly allow the more mechanized aspects of your personality to roll over your emotions like a tank. You needed to do this to get the job done -- and to keep yourself from going insane.

I didn't yet have the luxury of such peaceful detachment though, and so as I stood there -- watching the live feed from Jackson Memorial Hospital in Downtown Miami -- I found that I could barely keep at bay the myriad unnerving thoughts clawing at the inside of my skull.

The pictures we were watching, live and in brutally vivid color, showed the Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue chopper setting down on the hospital's rooftop helipad and the subsequent whirlwind of controlled chaos as the young woman on board was quickly transferred onto a stretcher and whisked inside. In plain view the entire time -- the desperate and seemingly hopeless fight to save her life. I simply stared as one of the doctors jumped onto the stretcher and straddled the woman's naked upper-body, pumping away at her failing heart, his palms flat against her skin. I closed my eyes for an instant to avoid the sight of the bag breathing air into her faltering lungs. I opened them just before the stretcher slammed through the double-doors leading into the hospital -- just in time to catch a glimpse of the massive head wound she'd received less than a half-hour earlier, when someone had fired a 9mm round through her driver's-side window while trying to carjack her in broad daylight, in the middle of tony Coral Gables.

And while those around me cracked jokes, or discussed lunch, or waited to rush the tape of what we were watching into editing -- I silently demanded answers of myself. I wanted to know what gave me the right to watch this woman's final moments of life. I wanted to know who I thought I was that I should be privy to such tragic vulnerability -- to witness the dying breath of a complete stranger. I was a twenty-one-year-old who knew nothing of this person -- nothing of her life, her loves, her hopes and dreams -- yet through nothing more noble than the technology which made such macabre voyeurism possible, I was allowed to be there for her death.

I remember finally turning my head. "I'm so sorry," was all I could whisper as I cast my eyes downward in shame and walked quickly away.

Since that moment, my skin has grown considerably thicker and more bristly. What used to be soft has calcified under the fifteen-year steady drip of daily disaster; what was once overly sincere naivete has given way to the kind of gallows humor that can turn even the most heartbreaking tragedy into a ghastly joke -- one which always ends with a smirk and the cynical admission that only hell can await such crass insensitivity.

This is the necessary defense mechanism -- and this is what was instinctively exploited in the hours that followed the worst shooting rampage in American history.

As the details of what had unfolded on the Virginia Tech campus poured in, I found myself at first engaging in verbal gymnastics.

T.S. Eliot once said something about April being the cruelest month; that was in a poem known fittingly as "The Burial of the Dead," which was the first part of "The Waste Land;" The Who once sang about a "Teenage Wasteland," which is what Virginia Tech has now become.

Then, as the hours and hours passed and the body count skyrocketed -- the sheer enormity of the violence finally becoming clear -- I moved on to logical analysis, followed by a kind of rational righteous indignation. I shook my head at what I knew would surely be the knee-jerk reaction to come: the hand-wringing and political posturing over what might have been done to prevent what was, in reality, a devastating human anomaly -- one that may have been anticipated, but likely couldn't have been stopped by anything short of locking up a troubled and dangerous kid who, until Monday morning, hadn't technically broken the law. I swallowed outrage at the vile opportunism of Scientologists, who were quick to claim that psychiatry was behind the gunman's brutal impulses, and Jack Thompson, who wasn't even aware of the killer's identity and yet was already pointing the finger of blame at the time-honored boogeymen of video games and pop culture. I clenched my fists, closed my eyes and exhaled my fury at one television news anchor agreeing with a local pastor's unforgivably trite nostrum that God sometimes works in mysterious ways. I worried about the possibility that a substantial portion of creative, dark, shy or otherwise unusual kids might now find themselves eyed with suspicion and apprehension -- simply because of one twisted bastard with delusions of martyrdom and the weaponry to bring his furious fantasies to life. I wondered if someone might demand to know why it's as easy to buy a Glock 19 in this country as it is to buy a Happy Meal -- and finally do something about it.

By yesterday morning, I had shut out the ridiculous calls by some for sirens on all American college campuses, and moved on to the curious spectacle of the collegiate mourning process and the round-the-clock coverage of it. I stared quizzically at my monitor as students gathered to loudly proclaim their "Hokie Spirit" -- admitting quietly to myself that truer words were never spoken. I wondered, were I a male Virginia Tech student, if I would pull an Otter-esque line about not wanting to be alone during such a traumatic time in an effort to get CNN's Brianna Keilar to come back to my dorm room. I even sang Team America's I'm So Ronery to myself everytime the image of the gunman -- finally identified as South Korean-born Cho Seung-Hui -- flashed across the screen.

Mostly though, I concerned myself with the question of why every news correspondent in the country had descended on the tiny town of Blacksburg, Virginia -- like locusts desperate to devour the bumper crop of suffering until there was simply nothing left. All the more disconcerting, the millions of television viewers eager to have that pain regurgitated back into their own hungry mouths.

There was, and still is, something grotesquely orgiastic about the whole thing.

Over the past twenty-four hours, the names and faces of the victims have surfaced, a few at a time. As has become ritual, the various news organizations are parrotting every possible detail they can gather as to who these young people were in an admittedly genuine effort to both humanize and memorialize them. The ages of the victims always come first -- simply because there's no other single characteristic about each person that can better convey the overwhelming nature of what was lost in this senseless act. The ages are usually followed by majors, extracurricular activities, then one or two prosaic platitudes about their smiles or infectious personalities or optimistic outlook on life -- this final trait taking on a sad irony given the situation which led to the need for disclosure of such information in the first place. Unfortunately however, no matter how noble the intentions or how powerful the tribute, it's impossible not to feel that so much is missing.

The reason is because each person's unique life is still being filtered through an intermediary -- told second-hand via the one relaying it.

For the first time though, there's another way to learn about the victims of this kind of atrocity -- a way which excises the middle-man, and lets them tell their own life stories in their own words.

As incomprehensible as it would have seemed in life, MySpace has provided each victim his or her own epitaph in death.

Even a cursory scan of their pages reveals the true heartbreaking depths of this loss.

I'm not sure what led me to search MySpace for profiles of some of the dead; I'd like to believe that it was an honest desire to find out who these kids really were -- what they loved and hated, what they wanted for themselves and their futures before it was all ripped away from them by someone who had a plan for their lives they weren't even aware of, nor could they stop.

For some reason, the first name I searched was the victim whom the least was known about at the time.

Her name was Maxine Turner.

She was a twenty-two-year-old chemical engineering student.

Her MySpace address contains the words "Super Sneaky Ninja," which -- despite not knowing the meaning behind it -- brought a sad smile to my face when I first saw it.

Maxine, as expected, went by the nickname Max.

Her site, although rather unremarkable, lists her as single, from Vienna, Virginia, 5'1" and slim -- no doubt the result of Tae Kwon Do classes, which she took regularly. She didn't smoke, but she did drink.

She hoped to have children someday.

The song posted on her profile, which plays automatically, is, strangely, one of my favorites from my own youth -- Men At Work's Overkill, sung by the band's lead singer Colin Hay. I listened to it as I moved beyond the basic information into the tiny singularities of Max's life. There's a blue box which sits directly under the "About Me" headline; it reads "Your Superhero Profile." Apparently, her superhero name was "The Hour Dog"; her special power was biotechnology; her only weakness was -- ironically, devastatingly -- blood; her mode of transportation was a pogo stick.

She wanted to meet Shakespeare, Christian Bale and John Cusack.

Her final blog entry is entitled "For the Ladies," and has her mood listed as "Mischievous." It's an extended and oddly sweet dissertation on the right and wrong way to measure yourself to ensure that a bra is the correct size for your body.

Of all the little details on her main MySpace page though, none proves so haunting as the timeline of comments -- concerned friends at first begging over and over again for a simple phone call, then on Tuesday morning, those same friends' comments abruptly changing to messages of sorrow and loss.

But those are just words.

It's what's inside Max Turner's "pics" page, that leaves you utterly heartbroken.

One photo shows her seated on a stone wall, facing away from the camera -- staring out over a vast valley covered in deep green.

Another shows her sitting on an empty beach, under a wide sky filled with high, white clouds. The caption simply reads "Sand Castle!"

There's a slightly blurry image of a little gray nose and large black eyes, just inches from the lense of the camera that captured it. The caption: "Say hi to Jujubee, my pretty hamster."

In one she's holding a snake, in another she's practicing Tae Kwon Do.

Beneath each picture are dozens and dozens of comments from friends and strangers alike, commemorating her life and expressing regret for her untimely death.

I never met Max Turner, and I never will; I have no doubt that this is my own loss to mourn. I know only as much about her as she herself was willing to disclose, and yet what I've seen leads me to believe that the world is an infinitely lesser place without her in it. The same can surely be said for Ross Almeddine, and Reema Samaha, and Emily Hilscher, and Ryan Clark, and Daniel Perez Cueva, and Mary Read and the more than two dozen other victims of this incomprehensible tragedy.

I'll go to my own grave grappling with the question of how someone, anyone, can be so consumed by rage that he can look at the face of Max Turner and decide that she has to die.

Like fifteen years ago, I have nothing to offer except an apology -- this time not out of shame, but out of genuine sorrow and an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

I'm sorry that humanity failed you, Max.

I'm so sorry.


Robert said...

I can't add anything more than thanks for writing this.

Shane said...

For some reason, this tragedy has hit me much harder than previous similar tragedies. In a day and age where I've become accustomed to shrugging my shoulders and saying "Gosh, that's awful," for some reason, this time it just doesn't feel like enough.

This one will stick with me for a while. Until the next time, of course, because as much as I want to believe in and hope for the triumph of the human spirit, there will always be a next time.

It's hard being a human sometimes when you're surrounded by others who take life so lightly.


Jacque said...

Well said, Chez. Well said.

Nancy said...

Thanks, friend. When tragedy struck an Amish schoolhouse not terribly far from Near Philadelphia, I was almost frozen with the sadness, the horror, the absolute awfulness of it. I wrote, I donated, I prayed.

When Virginia Tech happened earlier this week, I was appalled more at my own reaction than at the event itself: I had no feelings at all. I said to myself something like, "Oh, another school shooting." All week this has bothered me -- my lack of humanity. Last night I had the courage to mention it to my sister, who confessed to the same response.

Neither of us liked to think that we had become inured to the absolute shit that some people are capable of doling out.

And so I sit here at my desk this morning, reading your post, so beautifully done, with the tears rolling down the cheeks, amidst a potpourri of feelings: profound sadness at the loss of this lovely young life with all of its potential, thankfulness to you for your gifted writing, and relief that indeed, I've not become dull to pain and horror but rather that there is so much of it that it takes time to process it.

Jayne said...

I love you for writing this, baby. I really do.

UneFemmePlusCourageuse said...

I was only eleven when Columbine happened, and my parents kept me from learning too much about it. I'm nineteen now-- same age as many of the victims, and it hurts to think that people at the same stage in life that I am were killed for no reason at all. I've been crying off and on since Tuesday.

QueBarbara said...

Thanks for writing this. The events of 9/11 took such an emotional toll that since then I've been trying to keep my feelings of sadness, anger, and helplessness at bay when tragedies like this occur. But you've made me see that ignoring these feelings is a disservice to the victims, and a dishonor to their lives, and their deaths. They deserve to be mourned, even by perfect strangers.

Mike said...

Chez once again you seem to have this ability to cut to the heart of the matter with a few choice words. I have been honestly bored with the coverage and not even sure why when such an awful thing had happened.

I agree with Nancy I thought I honestly was unaffected by the shootings, however after reading your post I know thats not the case, I was not unaffected I just was unable to process.

The Firefaery said...

Thank you. You always seem to put into words what I feel but can't express so eloquently. I was on Fark right after the shootings happened, and it was a terrible thing to read comments from other users, keeping the rest of us updated as they tried to reach their friends on campus. Some never did.

Dean said...

Just wanted to say, this is an amazing article. I hate the fact that MySpace now has another thing going for it, but, for reasons you've mentioned, I'm glad it's there.

Anonymous said...

I had the privledge of meeting her once in a grave situation. For reasons unknown we were brought together for a moment. In the moment of confusion, wondering and heartbreak we found a bond. It is only after her grotesque death that I learnt we had so much in common. Now I am left with the if only's. In a world wehre there are a limited number of great people who can be great friends I had the possiblity of making a great friend and didn't even see it. Now I realize it is only limited if you don't open your eyes, your mind and your heart. If this has taught me anything it has taught me this:
One day is all it take to make a friend; to make history for the better; and to make a heart cry. Today I will make this day better! Thank you for your kind words of a truely unbelievable wonderful woman.

Chez said...

I don't know who you are -- but thank you.

Thank you so much.

namron said...

I've become a reader of this site only recently. I thought the "news business" had taken you from detached criticism to soul-sapping cynicism. I had recently questioned whether you should move on. However, as I read this post, I know that your soul, your spirit, or whatever you choose to call it, is in good shape. Stay in the news business. We'll be better off if you do.

Emily Blake said...

That was beautiful.

It makes you think about how you'll be remembered when you die. She may not have been alive long, but she was obviously a happy person.

That jackass who killed her was miserable.

She's still the lucky one by comparison.

Owen said...

I had the same experience; of following a link from a news story to Maxine's page. Within seconds of seeing the picture of her looking into the valley, and hearing the song play, I was overwhelmed with sadness. I'll never hear that song the same way again.

lakelady said...

once again your words touched me. thank you and keep going.

Anonymous said...

Chez –

My name is Tracy. I’m a 20 year old student from Chicago, studying in Madison, WI.

I read Max’s small biography on Looking back, I can’t say what it is that compelled me to search for her name on Myspace. I always joke that profiles on these networking websites cut out at least three months of get-to-know-you conversation. With Myspace, there are no longer strangers - but constant acquaintances. Reading over this beautiful girl’s page, I know her favorite song, her friends, her sexual orientation, her hobbies, her ex boyfriend.

After reading Paul’s comment pleading to contact the parents of his dead high school sweetheart, I migrated to his page, and then to his blog, and to the comments on his blog – one of which was yours.

Thank you for writing this. These three sentence biographies quote parents or classmates, because you just can’t quote a person talking about how her own life ended too fast.

Though I still don’t know what it is that compels me to get to know these people, I know that I’m not alone. I know that I will never be able to understand what happened, and I know that their beautiful lives will never justify their death. In the meantime, this is the way I mourn for strangers.

Anonymous said...

Someone would often say to you.... before you present a point of view do your homework and be sure you have the credentials to back up your position.

I will never say that to you again!


Anne said...

Wow. Thank you for saying so much of what I'm feeling - probably what so many of us are feeling. I'm a VT alumni, now a teacher. I've not let my students talk about it this week. I've just told them that I can't. But tomorrow is orange & maroon day, and I will wear my VT sweatshirt to school and I will remember the lives and the potential lost. I will remember the friends I made at VT, both fellow students and instructors, and I will pray that we all will celebrate our lives and our talents and our family and friends. Maybe I'll even find the Hokey Pokey and dance.

Amusing Bunni said...

Chez, what a beautiful story, I'm going to look at her profile now. One of my good myspace pals' daughter was there that very weekend, checking out the school, staying in the SAME DORM as the first murders. She got ill and her parents drove 4 hours to bring her home. They live in VA. Her mom, my good friend, is very devestated & still can't write me much, thinking about what might have been if he decided rampage on sat. instead of monday.

Thanks for this beautiful story....I always knew you weren't such a cynical bastard, despite what you sometimes want us to believe ;-)

Zoe said...

Thank you Chez. On Tuesday morning I read the blog God Bless Virginia Tech, which consists of a post of the dead. When I read it, people were still asking if Max (and others) was alive. Some names kept popping up. As I scrolled down, there were more and more frantic questions, pleas, numbers. It was heartwrenching in the absolutely worst way. All I could do was cry and close the browser, escape the horror. Thank you for looking this horror in the face and posting honestly.

Anonymous said...

Chez, on Tuesday 9-11-01, like most other human beings, I was riveted and could not move from my seat in front of the television for the first three hours of coverage up until the North Tower fell. Admittedly, I was absurdly galvanized by the media sensationalism (whether intentional or not – the hold CNN had on me while watching the plane go into the South Tower fifteen times in fifteen minutes.) I was completely enamored. The appreciation of the loss of life which of course is and should be the central theme of any tragedy, was absent from my emotions. In fact, the morning of 9-11 I made an absurd, mindless chuckle to my boss: “well, Scott, kiss goodbye to Thacher Profitt & Wood” (a decent size law firm that I was considered for a position 7 years earlier.) I exhibited callous disregard of this human tragedy, but saying things on the fly that really wasn’t thought out properly. Was it mere passive shock? Was I trying to display some needed levity?

About two weeks from that dreaded day, driving home from work one night thinking about everything BUT 9-11, thinking whether I wanted to hit the Boom Boom Room in my hometown of Laguna Beach later that evening, shoot some pool, or go to dinner at then, Marks, I walked into my house reached the top step of the stairway that led into my bedroom, and with no immediate exterior manifestation of what immediately triggered my emotion, I just started to weep. I finally let it out. I started to cry and I felt nauseous. But I felt human too. I became upset in the most oddly unexpected fashion at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night. My emotions caught up to me after two weeks of devastation.

I felt the victims of this tragedy as they were my own mother, sister, or brother. I did what they did. Worked hard, schelped into New York on that wretched Long Island Railroad every morning, walked to my office in unbearable humidity, just to put my time in as a responsible working-adult. These young kids who just started at Cantor Fitzgerald or Marsh McClennan and graduated college four months earlier obviously did not deserve this grueling fate. New York fireman, equally, I felt and understood, as a thankless job, underpaid and over-worked. Ironically, with the negative attributes that which we don’t ordinarily aspire to, was also a job that ran in the family. Thus, brothers and father-sons were victims too. How do you reconcile this? How many children now are without their father but will continue to be fire-fighters out of tradition, spirit and in memory to their dad. These are the touching results of 9/11. 9/11 meant something because although I was three thousand miles away, as a former NYer, everything about it I understood, more so, then any other typical Californian.

I can’t relate to Blacksburg, Virginia. And most likely I will not weep over Max like I did over fire-fighter George Cain, at least I am pretty sure of it. Am I selfish? Perhaps. We see lives get wasted everyday. We ought to continue on, because human beings can’t heed irrational human tragedies from occurring again such as what occurred in Blacksburg. But if we broadcast our appreciation for those victims like Max Turner I tend to think that is a healthy resolve to a reprehensible act without trying to bang our heads against the wall trying to understand the root cause of lunacy. Thank you Chez for this opportunity. Maybe that’s all we can do.

Julie said...


That was very powerful and a much better tribute to the victims than any news program I've seen. We can't expect to know how all the students and families are feeling - luckily we can only imagine. Thanks for bringing this back to a human issue.

Cristy said...

I haven't cried until I read your blog. You made it real for me. The tragedy was so far away and involved people I never knew, but you introduced them and my heart broke. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see that someone hasn't given in to the "sho-biz news" fed anger and finger pointing stupid question festival that I've had to endure for the past week. I truly find the network anchor's sense of their own place in history, as it relates to tragedy, vile beyond words.

Sadly, people will do anything to avoid the difficult task of saying goodbye - even if it means continuing the same cycle of paranoia and oversensitivity that feeds into even more grotesque neurosis.

"Between the swinging hammer and the rigid anvil; 'Tis a terrible thing that we forge."

Carrie-Anne said...

I am in Australia so i admit that what happened at Virginia Tech didnt hit me too hard but reading your blog did.

There is something wrong with humanity, there is something wrong when things like this keep happening without anybody noticing the warning signals.

All we can do is hope that this time something sunk in and we wont see tragedy like this happen again...but unfortunately i dont think we'll be so lucky.

I am also glad that myspace has given the victims the opportunity to reach out to strangers after their deaths. Make them think.

Thank you Chez

Mel said...

Dear Chez,

May I just say that you are a beautifully inspirational writer and your words touched me deeply, much more so than the parrotted highlights on all of the "news" channels. There is so much sadness in the world. It amazes me that things like this don't happen everyday. People need to wake up and learn to recognize the warning signs of troubled individuals and learn to reach out to them in a way that would help them to deal with their feelings in a positive manner. It's selfish enough to kill yourself, to give up hoping that one day your life will be better, but to take innocent victims with you when you die is just deplorable.
Thank you for writing this tribute. And as hard as it is to do I am off to visit Max's page on MySpace.



girl with curious hair said...

As I started reading this post, I remembered the days I was providing web support to our newsroom at a Phoenix station. The motto of "it bleeds, it reads" ruled our work, and I couldn't develop thicker skin. Working there was a nerve wrecking experience because of this. Thank goodness you still feel these things, as painful as it is.

I read this yesterday, as I sat in my brother's philosophy class. Your words, and Max's tragedy made me cry (and confused the hell out of everyone around me). I cried for what you so beautifully wrote, for Max's life that was cut short and for those she leaves behind. But to tell you the truth, I'm just as sad for those nameless, faceless innocents that are killed every day by madmen. People so insignifcant no one learns their names, no one knows their dreams and no one cares to count them. I'm sickened by the brutallity of what we do to ourselves.

At least there are still people like you out there, intelligent and compassionate.

Thank you.

xthecritic said...

Are you upset that NBC News decided to release the Cho videos? If so, join our petition and boycott

Vikingwench said...

All the victims were precious to someone. Now they are precious to us all.

Jeff said...

you have a gift in words--a talent I wish I had. I feel it, not so good at the verbalizing thing.

Enjoy your writing--keep at it.

Paul said...

Chez -

Kudos on a wonderful, beautiful, and heartfelt piece of work. At the same time it is freaky beyond words...let me explain...this blog is as if i were reading my own thoughts, to a tee.

I can't explain why, and I appear not to be the only one, but the tragedy at Va. Tech has seemed to haunt myself far more than anything of the like has in the past. I still find myself pouring over bios and thoughts of the victims, laughing at the jokes and happy memories, feeling somewhat inadequate in thought and deed compared to what these victims accomplished in their short time on this rock, still shedding tears of mourning eventhough I knew none of the victims.

Maxine Turner, without fail, is the unfortunate victim that always comes to the forefront of my thoughts and I honestly couldn't express them better than you have done, so I will not attempt to do so. There seems to be a part of my soul feeling the need to be a better person in order to make up for what was lost on that fateful Monday morning. Part of me repeatedly asks why is this one victim always in my thoughts, as if I have lost someone near and dear.

Perhaps that is the only way we can truly mourn these victims, by using their memory, however distant we are/were from them, and channel it into something good.

John said...

I found your blog through Technorati, and was deeply moved.

Maxine and I were very close. Although you did not know her, your empathy and comprehension make it seem to me almost as if you did; you seem to "get it" more than 99.9% of the people to whom I've spoken.

Thank you for writing this, first of all. It means a lot to me.

If you ever want to know more about Max, you can find me on my journal. I could talk about her for hours (and have, since April).

Jim said...

"I wondered if someone might demand to know why it's as easy to buy a Glock 19 in this country as it is to buy a Happy Meal -- and finally do something about it."

This is factually untrue. I wonder if someone might demand to know why media professionals such as yourself continue to put forth such untruths.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written, Chez. Your style is finely honed and eloquent.

"I wondered if someone might demand to know why it's as easy to buy a Glock 19 in this country as it is to buy a Happy Meal -- and finally do something about it."

This is a reasonable thing to say in response to a gun-related tragedy. However, you have to realize that by restricting gun ownership, you ensure that only the people willing to break the law get the guns.

All it would've taken was one good and brave samaritan with a firearm on the Virginia Tech campus that day to prevent many people from dying.

In Switzerland, every citizen owns a hi-tech fully automatic assault rifle. Do you think someone is very likely to mug you or burglarize you in such a place?

Gun prohibition increases violent crime by increasing the number of defenseless victims for criminals to take advantage of. After all, if someone *really* wants to grab a handgun and go shoot a bunch of people, they're going to be able to do it whether handguns are legal or not.

Just my respectful opinion! Thanks!