Thursday, April 16, 2009

And All That Could Have Been: Two Years Later


Two years ago today, a troubled 23-year-old student at Virginia Tech armed himself with two handguns and methodically stalked the school's campus in Blacksburg, Virginia. When his rampage was over, he had killed 33 people including himself. I was working for CNN at the time and wrote this piece for Deus Ex Malcontent in the days that followed the attack -- the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

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 parroting 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 lens 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 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.

9 comments:

Heather Hansma said...

While your have often moved me in your more serious pieces, this is the first time I have actually cried.

kanye said...

This piece breaks my heart, Chez, for reasons that you'd have no way of knowing...it just does.

Of course, I had to check: Maxine's Myspace page is still active and every January 15th, a woman named Gina wishes Maxine, "Happy Birthday." I wonder if Gina's ever read this. I hope that she has.

Don't ever stop running this.

slouchmonkey said...

Ah, Max. I'll never forget that smile or this post.

Hope all is well!

Nysa said...

Thank you. This was a beautiful and powerful post to read after a long and emotionally complicated day in Blacksburg. This made me cry, something I had managed to resist up to this point in the day.

a.j.g. said...

That was heartbreakingly beautiful.

Cheryl Robbins said...

This was the piece that got me reading your blog in the first place.

Brent said...

I have always thought this is one of your best pieces of writing. This is the stuff that hooked me on your blog. Thanks.

Zeromark said...

I wouldn't have commented, if Jim Henson's "Rainbow Connection" hadn't played while I was reading the article.

The song sent chills down my spine, and like you said, Chez, I suddenly felt for the young woman who's life was stolen.

Lizzie said...

My family was lucky- my brother was two buildings over when everything happened. My mother and I were on a cruise; he called us as soon as he was able, to let us know he was ok. At that time, we had no idea what had happened. We didn't learn about the extent of what went down until much later in the day.

I've only been to Blacksburg myself once or twice since, but the pride and spirit of that whole town is pretty amazing, and palpable.

Anyway, that's just a long and convoluted way of saying: great piece, Chez. Broke my heart all over again.