With mass shootings a near daily occurrence in the US, for those events with lower body counts—the single death at the Colorado STEM School earlier this month for example, or the two killed at University of North Carolina-Charlotte on April 30—media coverage tends to be perfunctory. Reports document the murders, sure, but they don’t dwell, and invariably a ‘sage’ point is made about just how inured we’ve all become whilst demonstrating exactly how inured we’ve become by sandwiching the story between talk of two Trump tweets.
CNN’s Chris Cuomo is my favourite news anchor. (And, incidentally, I’ve almost forgiven him for hosting his show on Ash Wednesday with a cross thumbed onto his forehead). In the aftermath of the Colorado STEM School shooting, he interviewed the parents of Kendrick Castillo, the 18-year-old who was murdered while tackling the gunman.
I’ve written previously about my problems with how networks like CNN—but most of them are guilty—doing round the clock grief coverage, and asking the same questions to witnesses over and over again until they get their pint of despair. The Colorado STEM School and UNC-Charlotte stories weren’t newsworthy enough to get back-to-back interrupted-programming coverage— afterall, we can’t allow a mere couple of deaths to derail deep dives into Trump’s Twitter diarrhea—but Mr and Mrs Castillo nonetheless appeared on Cuomo Prime Time in all their too-fresh shock and horror. And it was predictably bloody awful, and after the interview Cuomo, seemingly anticipating my extreme upset, gave a to-camera justification for invading their pain by claiming that they wanted to tell Kendrick’s story.
Maybe John and Mario Castillo did want to put their wonderful son in the minds of the Cuomo Prime Time audience. Perhaps they knew too well the necessary grief rituals that occur after each school shooting in the US. Maybe Mr and Mrs Castillo understood—even in their devastation—that interviews with distraught families are as fundamental to our consumption of the School Shooting Experience as the candlelight vigils and the social media grief that lasts just until the news ticker alerts us to another one. This doesn’t excuse the interview but it helps to put it in context.
The ethics of interviewing people in the midst of grief aside, I’m interested in the narrative of Kendrick Castillo as a hero. Of Castillo sacrificing his life to save his classmates. Like Riley Howell, who did something similar in the UNC-Charlotte shooting. The scant media coverage of both stories played up the fact that these two men died saving their classmates.
The word ‘hero’ is bandied about with liberal lyricalness and rarely do such acts come anywhere close to Kendrick Castillo and Riley Howell’s bravery. If there’s ever a worthy use of the word it’s here. And it’s here where my concerns lie.
Speaking of these young men as heroes makes their deaths seem like they were for something. That they weren’t slain in vain. And absolutely, dying to save your classmates is something. But how on earth have we gotten to a point where this becomes your moment of courage? How does yet another campus carnage story get to benefit from any crack of sunlight? How does a situation of pure, unimaginable terror get recast as one of heroism and relief because it could have been worse? How does USA Today get to question why certain people will take bullets for others, as opposed to using every single column inch to ask how the hell has the US gotten itself into this position in the first place?
How is it normal that children get training on what to do if a man with a gun walks into their classroom? How have we normalized 12-year-old kids talking about ‘going down fighting’? How is going to school now conceptualized as akin to the battlefield? Why do I get more than 3 million search results for bulletproof backpacks? How does a graduation day meme—with mortarboards and Kevlar vests thrown in the air in celebration—come to ring so bloody true?
Finding a hero in these horrific tales seems to be yet another all-too American way of finding meaning in this madness. Of allowing hope to be pinned on the brave, on the ‘good man with a gun’, on the superhero, as opposed to recognition that, alas, there’s poison in the well.
Other countries have guns and don’t use them the way Americans do. Other countries also have men and toxic masculinity, disenfranchised youth, violent video games and moral relativism yet aren’t—in American-style numbers—walking into classrooms wielding weapons. Something is wrong there. And this isn’t just a matter of a disproportionately powerful gun lobby group or lackluster legislation. This is a country with more guns than people. This is a country where 1,000 firearms got seized in a suburban earlier this month. This is a country where people are stockpiling weapons and ammunition.
In a country that in some ways has never fully shaken off the shackles of its Wild West past and who contributes disproportionately to the pool of cultural artefacts glorifying violence, there needs to be a pause for thought that in reporting on these shootings and reporting on the heroes, the idea of campuses as an inevitable site for violence becomes normalised.
I’ve taught at two American universities. Come the Fall semester this year and I’ll be teaching at another. In fact, I’ll be in Connecticut, a state where in 2012 a man walked into an elementary school and slaughtered a classful of children. And if bullet-ridden little kids isn’t enough to change a culture beyond permanently scaring and scarring it, I’m pretty sure nothing is.
There’s an unquestionable need to recognise heroes. But there’s also a necessity to acknowledge the severe downside of continuing to accept a nightmare as destiny. Accepting each ‘new normal’ has gotten the US into the lamentable position it finds itself in today.
Searching for heroes in acts of sheer barbarity is yet another example of the framing of these stories not as acts of real trauma and tragedy but as though they’re just another episode of American Horror Story. Consumed by audiences grateful that for that moment they dodged the bullet. Consumed by audiences hopeful that they can be saved when their classroom is put in the firing line. Consumed by audiences who have now resigned themselves that this is America now.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and from June will be a Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University. Her tenth book Sex and Sexuality in Modern Screen Remakes will be published later in 2019.