At this very moment, reporters are swarming the town of Blacksburg, Va., driving and flying in from all over the country and world. At the same time, crews are traveling to the towns where the victims are from so they will be on hand to record the expressions of shock and grief on the faces of their family members while their pain is still fresh and alive.
This follows hours, sometimes days, of limbo, while families and friends wait for their grief to be confirmed. They wait for the police to release the names of the dead, or to see the bodies of the fallen, which, due to their status as “evidence in a crime scene,” have been stripped of their human dignity and left on the floor in pools of their own blood as investigators take photographs and encase their once-vibrant forms in outlines of paint and chalk. During this time, a sliver of hope remains that a mistake has been made, but everyone knows it’s not so.
While the waiting and agonizing and grieving goes on, the phones of these families ring off the hook. The press knows their names, even if the police haven’t released them, and they incessantly harass the families in hopes of soliciting a headline-making interview. The more insidious reporters eschew the phone entirely and come directly to the door, interrupting the grieving process of a family that, in the midst of planning a graduation celebration, is now confronted with funeral arrangements instead.
There is no solace to be had here, and any efforts of the victimized to protect their privacy will prove fruitless in the end. No one rests easy near ground zero, not even those who were spared. The area is now under siege by the media, plagued by the humming generators of TV trucks and the incessant thrumming of helicopter engines as they circle the school, area hospitals and the police station – circling tirelessly, like so many harbingers and scavengers of death, around any locale that might provide vivid footage of people in pain.
We see the resulting images in the news and we dutifully watch the video clips. We read every interview and scrap of information that comes forth in the belief that somehow as Americans we too own this story, own this grief and have a responsibility to bear witness to the horror as it unfolds.
The media is skilled at masking the presence of the media, and most of us never realize how invasive the collection of these stories truly is. Reporters are merciless and tactless. Helicopters are deafening and their constant presence only enhances the sensation of living in a battle zone on the bleeding edge of reality, where reason and safety, freedom and justice, hope and life have all ceased to exist in the time it takes to load the next round.
Eventually even the condolences that come pouring in from well-meaning strangers become something of a burden and an object of resentment. Not because their concern is insincere, but because their investment in the pain is fleeting. Soon they will have the option of forgetting and moving on. For those affected by this tragedy, moving on will be difficult, and forgetting, an impossibility.
To lose a loved one to a random act of violence is an unbearable experience. To have that experience co-opted and sensationalized by the media is a violation. One day, even the people who truly wanted their stories told will find themselves watching helplessly as the media and the world loses interest and forgets, until finally all people will recall is the name of the school and the face of the shooter, while the names of the victims are all but forgotten.
In spite of the fickleness of the media and the forgetfulness of the public, the memories of the victims will be carried on by the people who loved them. Nevertheless, while we as spectators remain focused on those affected by this attack, we owe it to them to be respectful of their privacy, to pray for their healing, and to take the time to acknowledge, if not commit to memory, the names of those who were lost.
My cousin, Mikael Erik Nickolausons was born Dec. 26, 1981. He was shot to death at Thurston High School on May 21, 1998. The world has forgotten him, his family never will.