June 14, 2016

I Have Witnessed. I Have Documented.

I wait for the time machine that will transport me back. Sometimes it takes me to the day I committed to Experience Institute last summer (Ei). It has transported me to the first day of Meetup to start Ei. I have found myself in November, on a random rainy day in New York. Now it will take me to my first day in Seattle, where I am starting my final term with Ei.

Each time a mass shooting rockets through the media, I travel back in time.

Some days I wake up and fear checking my phone. What if something happened last night? This time, however, I woke disgruntled about my current living situation. I was having trouble finding a temporary place to live in Seattle. Sunday morning I woke up in a frat house. While it had no affiliation, the house was full of University of Washington bros living in a space far worse than anything I experienced in college.

On this Sunday, I checked my phone without reservation, and immediately saw the headline:

Attack on Orlando Nightclub, 50 Dead.

The time machine kicked in. I was taken back to the feeling of that night, July 20th, 2012, when the Aurora theater shooting rocked my world. A gunman murdered my friend Jessi among others. It was a night that split apart the world around me.

Here’s the thing about a random murder. Your brain can’t make sense of it. How can someone’s life be taken at an elementary school, a midnight premiere or a nightclub? How can someone pull the trigger on strangers? Your brain can’t categorize it—this is loss without explanation. So the thoughts ricochet around your brain until you feel disconnected from the world.

The first time I traveled back to that feeling—the void—was six months after Aurora. I was getting ready to take a college final when reports of Sandy Hook hit my phone. For me, the media part is important. I remember staying up all night watching coverage of the theater shooting before I found out about Jessi. So the pain grows through increased media attention or when it occurs close to home.

It makes me sad to think that I can’t feel every gun death, but how could I? There are thousands a year.

I am rocked every time. I felt despair at the first reports of a shooting at Arapahoe High School that happened when I was near the school in winter of 2013. I felt the pain when a white terrorist shot up the church in Charleston the day I accepted Ei’s offer last summer. I felt the pain as people in my profession, a news reporter and her cameraman, were murdered on-air when I started Ei last fall. I even felt it with the coverage of the terrorist attacks in France in November. There was San Bernandino, Colorado Springs, and Kalamazoo.

So yes, I felt Orlando. I felt like we failed Jessi. We failed the 12 who died in Aurora. We failed the more than 10,000 people who are murdered by guns in this country every year, excluding the astronomical suicide rates.

As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We let the evil win again. We failed all of their memories by not stopping this attack.

I waited to turn off the coverage until President Obama gave his address. He delivered it with a kind of numbness everyone affected by gun violence can relate to. It comes when you feel unable to comprehend why more people don’t care enough about gun violence to stop it.

“This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school or a house of worship or a movie theater or a nightclub,” President Obama said. “We have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. To actively do nothing is a decision as well.”

After his words, I turned off social media for the day. I knew the pain and hurt without reading about it. I knew the anger and futile arguments that would come. I didn’t want to see the hate spewed towards my friends who advocate for gun safety. I didn’t want to read the bigotry directed toward my Muslim and LGBT friends.

So I walked. I walked out of the frat house and down Greek Row to the University of Washington. I walked through parents arriving for graduation and down to the light rail. I rode it to Capitol Hill in Seattle.

I continued to walk. I walked to the Space Needle and Lake Washington and Pike Place Market. I noted the people smiling and playing. I listened to music and an audiobook and didn’t check the media.

Hours later, I took the light rail back to the University of Washington. As I walked through campus, I noticed all of the families posing for different pictures marking graduation day. Their joy was a refreshing reminder. I was so happy that they were taking the time to take these pictures. Even when the process was messy and unorganized, like so many families, I knew someday they would want to look back at these pictures.

I have documented my year in a lot of ways—in pictures and videos and conversations. I’ve documented my year in long walks and great books. I’ve documented this year as a quest to bring light to places that will never fully escape the darkness.

Each new city in my year comes with the same directive. Document the smiles. Witness the laughs. Prepare the time machine.

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