In December of 2004, a man walked into the Alrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio and opened fire. He killed the lead singer of the band, and several others, before a police officer came in through a side door and fatally shot him. He still had several dozen rounds on him when he died, and no reason to believe he would stop shooting.
Hundreds of miles away in Kansas the next morning, I awoke to the news, thinking of it as a passing tragedy, maybe considering the sad state of affairs in gun culture and offering a quick thought for the families. I really don't remember. Until I opened up my LiveJournal and saw the questions begin.
"Hey, wasn't that the band Mayhem worked for?"
"Wasn't Mayhem doing security for those guys?"
"The police are reporting a member of their security team was killed. Does anyone know who it was?"
Then, over and over for hours:
"Has anyone talked to or heard from Mayhem today?"
No, no one had and no one would. Jeff "Mayhem" Thompson, head of security for the band Damageplan, had been shot trying to tackle the shooter while the band ran offstage to safety. He had not survived.
Jeff was also a longtime performer at the Scarborough Renaissance Festival, and had come many times to fight and play and perform at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival over the years I'd been part of that community. I cannot claim I knew him well but I respected him immensely. He had been kind to me at every meeting, and many of my close friends looked upon him as a friend and brother. Our festival family was devastated.
Grief is a very private thing. We all experience it in our own way, and usually we're allowed to deal with that loss on our own terms and at our own discretion. But when the person you're grieving is part of a public tragedy, you're not allowed that space or that privacy, because everyone else wants to own a piece of your grief.
At first, this was deeply comforting. We would see pictures of candles and flowers left for our friend, and think, "He's gone, but his passing and his life are being honored by thousands." There is a comfort in seeing that people in other states, other countries, acknowledge and honor someone who mattered to you.
But then, as is the way of this nation, pain becomes pawn in a terrible game of political chess. From every side it came, the assertions that 'someone in that club with a gun could have saved those lives' balanced by strident insistence that somehow a law could have been written to restrict gun ownership just enough to prevent it entirely.
For weeks I could not open a web browser without being assaulted by people using my community's very real pain as a justification for their personal politics. When I tried to say, "That was my friend, please have a little respect for those who mourn him," I got, "Well, then, don't you wish more people had agreed with me so your friend wouldn't be dead?"
He wasn't a political symbol, and should not have become one. He was the reason I carried one kind of no-chocolate cookies in my cookie basket every weekend of festival. He was the man whose chest I ran full-tilt into, crying so badly I could not see, on a very bad day indeed. He said nothing, just looked down, furrowed his brow, and enveloped me in a massive hug until the sobs subsided, then let me go on my way. No words, just kindness and unconditional comfort.
He was a real person, beloved by many, many people who could not even grieve him privately without some talking head pontificating on an inescapable news channel about whose fault his death really was, the right-wing gun nuts or the left-wing gun control nuts.
His death was the fault of the man who pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger, the man who for whatever reason decided large-scale violence was the answer to his pain. No one else, ultimately, is to blame.
Thursday night's tragedy brought a great deal of this back to me, and if I've been sharp with you in the intervening time understand that this is why. People are dead. Real people. People who were loved and cared for, people who were central to their communities, people who left behind unspoken words and unfinished deeds. And in their wake, families pray for loved ones to recover, for the death toll not to rise, for a child to walk again or a sister to breathe without the ventilator. They do not care about your politics, but in the coming weeks, they will not be able to escape them.
It had not even been hours before people I had thought better of began to take sides, squaring off in smug justification of their personal politics. "No one needs to own that gun." "This is clear evidence it should be banned." "If there had been someone there with a gun, they could have saved all those lives." "This is the fault of Americans and their rabid gun culture. Those people are savages." "This is what happens when you disarm the innocent people and not the guilty ones."
If you see your own words here, it's because they cut me to the bone.
The shooter was a person. His victims were people. Their families, and his family, are people. It becomes incredibly easy to lose sight, when we have an agenda bit between our teeth, of the fact that we may be speaking to someone struggling to hide a private grief, someone who would rather hear words of compassion and comfort than the ones we are speaking.
It takes only a second to snicker smugly and post that captioned picture on a Facebook. It takes only a moment to cut and paste an advocacy status that turns someone else's desperate grief to our own service. But it takes years for those hurt by those words and images to reconcile private grief and public behaviour.
So as you speak in the coming days, remember that you can't know who your words are reaching, and how badly they wound. Remember that for many people this is not an abstract exercise in political theory. Remember that your words have incredible power, that they can wound and they can heal, and choose wisely what you will do with them.