I moved to Hartford with my husband almost a year ago, and one of the unexpected by-products of that move is an almost constant awareness and communcation of my southerness. I’m aware of it always. I process experiences here in connection to it. I started cooking just to learn hwo to make a good gumbo, a good bread pudding, a good jamabalaya. The weather here is always an experience in relation to where I’m from: “Ohmygod, winter is awful for this Cajun boy!” “The heat doesn’t bother me much; I’m from Louisiana.”
I love where I’m from. I miss it.
John Russell Houser stood up in a movie theatre in my hometown last week and shot 10 people, killing two. In the aftermath, I’ve watched as my friends and their friends (thanks to the social web of Facebook and Twitter) process this thing in its immediacy. They knew Jillian Johnson or Mayci Breaux or one of the people injured or one of the people who escaped the theatre unharmed. They’d just talked to them. They’d seen them the week before. This thing happened in the immediate circle of their lives. They’re there.
And they’ve been incredible. I loved seeing the community gather to make prayer flags or mourn together at Jillian’s funeral or support local businesses that are donating proceeds to the victims’ families from the sale of Lafayette pride items. My hometown has been pretty amazing.
I’m proud to be from a town that is handling tragedy with such grace and resilience. It’s inspiring. Even from here, over a thousand miles away, I feel that powerful sense of community that I’d feel when I lived there. It’s palpable to me.
But I don’t think it’s a particularly unique expression. Resilience in the face of tragedy is a broadly human characteristic, and the kindness and generosity and empathy that’s come pouring out of Lafayette in the last week isn’t substantially different than the kind that poured out of Sandy Hook or Columbine or Aurora or any of the other dozens of cities where mass shootings have occurred. Profound expression of human kindness and compassion were on display there, too, in those disparate communities. People grieved and came together in inspiring ways there, too. That beautiful resilience isn’t born from a community’s cultural heritage. It’s born out of the fact that all those communities are made up of human beings.
Even the violence isn’t unique. I know for my friends at home, this event feels blsiteringly unique. “How could this sort of thing happen here?” “We aren’t the kind of city where this thing happens.” And I even saw, once it was revealed that Houser was from Alabama, people saying, “Well, of course he couldn’t be from here. Our people would never do a thing like this.” I understand why it’s necessary. I understand how this helps process a complicated and messy experience. But it’s magical thinking. Every city is the kind of city where this kind of thing can happen. And “our people” are of course capable of something like this. Geography doesn’t dictate this kind of action. Other infinitely more complicated circumstances dictate this kind of action.
And so I worry for my hometown. When the shield of uniqueness has served its purpose and there’s a container for this grief, when our community has figured out how they’re going to “get back to normal” as best they can, when this doesn’t feel so immediate and so horrible and so unimaginable, what happens next?
Nothing about this event lives outside a continuum that contains many other events like it. And as much as we don’t want to admit that the intensely felt things that are happening to us aren’t individual and unheard of and new, they aren’t. When we’re through this part, will we believe the magical thinking that got us there and simply move on to the next thing?
I have the benefit of distance. I know this. And this isn’t an indictment of the natural and expected ways a community processes these kinds of events. (Isn’t there a kind of horror in the fact that we know how communities process mass shootings? We have guideposts because it happens so often?). It’s just a worry.
I saw someone on social media share that they hated that Lafayette was now going to be synonymous with a mass move theatre shooting. I agree. I’m with you, there. But even in that, we aren’t unique. Columbine. Aurora. Sandy Hook. And all the others.
I posted this on FB the day after the shootings:
People are learning the name of my hometown like I learned the names of Sandy Hook and Aurora and Columbine. My town is their town is all of our towns.
A place doesn’t determine where this kind of horror happens. It’s all the things we don’t want to talk about, that make us uncomfortable, that we consider the problems of other places, other towns.
And until we deal with those things, until we accept our responsibility to care for and work for the safety and well-being of everyone in every town, we will keep learning the names of towns that “didn’t think this sort of thing could happen here.”
My hometown is a very special place. I’ll continue to share it – often unasked for — here in Northeast. But every town is special. And I worry, what town will be the next town to go through this? What names of incredible, beautiful people will I hear about who are “gone too soon?” What will the next community have to do to make sense out of the senseless?
And what will we have done — all of us in this American community, together — in the meantime to prevent it?