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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: No easy answers after Freeman school shooting

While hundreds of parents and students were in Freeman High School for a community meeting about the shooting that took place Wednesday, a group of students gathered in front of the school sign to add to the memorial for slain student Sam Strahan Thursday, Sept. 14, 2107. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
While hundreds of parents and students were in Freeman High School for a community meeting about the shooting that took place Wednesday, a group of students gathered in front of the school sign to add to the memorial for slain student Sam Strahan Thursday, Sept. 14, 2107. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Whatever your pet theory regarding school shootings, the events at Freeman High could satisfy it.

Do you blame easy, continual access to guns? Check. Do you blame mental illness and a dearth of caretaking services? Check. Do you blame bullying? Check. Do you blame a violence-saturated culture of play violence? Check. Do you blame media coverage and the potential of a copycat effect? Check. Do you blame – with all the ease and comfort of hindsight – a failure to recognize and act on warning signs?

Check that one, too. Check them all.

Which means what? It means checking none – at least not as the single, simple answer that would be so comforting.

There is a desperation to understand, in the aftermath of any tragedy. A desperation to seize on explanation, rationalization, solution. The more inexplicable and senseless it is, the stronger this desire. The angrier the wish that if only X, if only Y …

But we won’t get an understanding. An X or a Y. Not really. Not ever. Look at the individual case and cause-and-effect narratives break down, erode, weaken. The individual case simply cannot adequately answer for the sheer scope – the enormous social weight – of the huge, historic forces behind it: the cultural jambalaya of violence, real and imagined, of guns and technology and media and childhood.

All of these forces deserve attention and action. They have all deserved our attention and action for quite a long time now. They deserve a level of attention and action – on guns, cultural violence, care-taking for hurting young people, red flags – that is deep and difficult and sincere.

None of it, though, offers us what we’re really looking for here, in this moment: An answer. A fix.

—-

“I always knew you were going to shoot up the school.”

That’s what sophomore Sam Strahan is reported to have said to sophomore Caleb Sharpe, right before Sharpe allegedly shot Strahan to death.

It’s impossible to know the context for the comment, the tone and body language, the level of seriousness, but it stands out: “I always knew.”

A lot of people will parse this “knowing” now. Will speak to the senselessness of the shooting in the language of certainty.

We were shocked, of course. Unbelievable, we told each other. Senseless, we said. And yet it was also known territory, extensively mapped out. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, there have been more than 200 school shootings, according to tracking done by the group Everytown for Gun Safety.

A lot of shootings, about which we’ve done little but talk.

This is now a pattern, a pattern made up of the same forces and factors and causes – all of which look temptingly like explanations. We pick among them, elevate and dismiss, rank and prioritize.

It’s not this, it’s that. It’s not that, it’s this.

—-

First things first: Lots of guns, lots of gunplay, lots of gun glorification. According to the initial reports from police, Sharpe told friends he owned multiple guns and that his father bought him guns.

He had access to his father’s gun safe, for which he knew the combination and from which he “most likely” retrieved the weapons he used to shoot up the school.

Sharpe also made improvised bombs and produced a couple of online videos in which he and a friend acted out narratives that involved a lot of shooting back and forth, a lot of bang-bang – the kind of triumphant brutality that so many of us enjoy in our movies and TV shows and video games.

Of course, similar things are true of many other kids who didn’t shoot up Freeman High School last week. But a boy who could not easily get and haul to school guns could not have produced Wednesday’s mayhem.

No productive, serious discussion about the problem can omit gun policy. And yet it’s hard to imagine what the simple, clear, gun-control fix to this shooting would have been. The thing we can do now to prevent the next one.

So we look elsewhere. Sharpe was suicidal, and recently so. Police reports indicate he’d left a suicide note, and that he’d seen a counselor over suicidal thinking. His mother reportedly told police the suicide note was still out on a counter in the home.

And then there’s bullying. This was mentioned a lot in the aftermath of the shooting, even by Sharpe himself, who told investigators he committed the shooting to “teach everyone a lesson about what happens when you bully others.”

But bullying, in and of itself, is too simple an answer. It may even be deployed as an excuse, a pat cause-and-effect answer learned from our long history with trying to rationalize shootings.

And then there is media and technology, our relentless cultural retellings of other crimes, both journalistic and dramatic. Entertainment media are saturated with violence. Sharpe, according to some students at Freeman, was fascinated with school shootings, of which we’ve had so many and know so much.

Did he admire or imitate other shooters? Would these shootings stop if the news media stopped identifying shooters?

I don’t think so, though I think journalists should avoid focusing heavily on shooters over victims, and be responsible in the images we use and the way we emphasize and focus coverage.

But if you’re looking to check a box, there it is. If you think naming the shooter in sober, straight news reporting causes later shootings, then it happened here. If you think showing images of a young man, head shaved, being led into jail by the police, glorifies him, then yes, it did happen here. And if you expand the scope beyond the press to all forms of media – to TV shows and movies and video games – there is simply no question that shooting-as-entertainment is one of our favorite things.

But how do you unwind that, and apportion it as a cause? Should we lay the blame at the feet of “Grand Theft Auto” or a headline or “Breaking Bad”?

Subtract any one of those, and ask: Does Freeman not happen? Or ask: How in the world do you subtract them all?

Then there are the red flags. The warning signs. Always so clear in the rearview mirror. They seem now, in hindsight, to have been plentiful here. Sharpe’s fellow students saw them. School officials saw them and acted on them. The day he showed up with guns in the hallway was his first day back after a suspension.

“I always knew you were going to shoot up the school.”

Here’s the thing, though: Nobody always knew Caleb Sharpe was going to shoot up the school. It only looks that easy now, in the clarity and horror of hindsight.

Signs of a troubled kid were there, certainly. There may be lessons to be learned about how to respond to them. But none of them gives us what we want now: the one thing. The thing that solves it. The thing that makes it not have happened.

The thing we can do now to prevent the next one.

—-

It’s natural to want an answer, and it’s natural to want a fix. We do ourselves no favors when we identify answers and fixes quickly and glibly.

When, in the heat of grief, we decide that if the shooter’s name was not in the paper, these things wouldn’t happen. When we wonder why someone else didn’t see that this was about to happen and just stop it. When, exhausted by another school shooting, we tell each other that now we will “do something” about gun violence.

You know, just do something. After which, it will be done.

It’s not that there is nothing to be done. It’s that there’s nothing to be done that’s simple or singular. Nothing to be done that satisfies our desire to name it and fix it. The subjects that surround and feed gun violence – and the ones that perhaps we simply believe surround and feed gun violence – are a deep, complicated tangle, and we will not untangle them without deep, complicated, serious effort.

We see that here. Wherever you aim the question Why? – Freeman answers.

And still, somehow, it doesn’t.

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