Extermination Alone

by S.T. VanAirsdale

The dust was everywhere. It nestled into crevices of wood and fabric, into the plush fur of bears and tigers and dogs and rabbits and indeterminate species of stuffed toys. It settled over dried flowers: Red roses burnt black, white carnations leavened into dusky repose. Candles, curved faces flush with saints and saviors, towered in ashy, extinct clusters. Gusts coughed up low, dirty clouds through which visitors shuffled, trance-like. A town of prairie dogs peeked up and around from their burrows of the stuff, surveying the shrines and memorials, eye-level with the human feet and ankles and shoes and sandals and boots. Buses, climbing an adjacent grade, wheezed into chalky orange-blue air. Everything was a hot, dry, dismal whisper in the open sanctuary, broached only by traffic and the voices of curious children whose parents urge them to not touch, to leave alone, to know better. The children looked through the dust at the paeans of faith and the spectral farms of pinwheels and stalks of crosses.

The busiest time was usually around 6 p.m., though the mornings brought a smaller, steadier trickle of viewers. They mostly entered from the north or south on South Sable Boulevard, making the turn east on East Centrepoint Drive. At its peak, as cars lined the street, the pockmarked wasteland of rodents became a mecca. A sign on the corner that once promised “RETAIL COMING SOON” now implored “R.I.P.” by means of a spray-painted, hastily hung banner. In hand-painted blue and red on its reverse, someone insisted: “AURORA STILL STANDS.” Further back from the street, a 60-foot banner with blocky black letters claimed that “ANGELS WALK AMONG THOSE WHO GRIEVE.”

Between these emblazonments, a row of 12 wooden crosses stood on the plateau. A man delivered them from Aurora, Illinois, just as he had delivered 15 others to a site near a school a few miles away in 1999. As late summer came on, volumes of tributes enveloped the crosses: Flowers at their sturdy bases, names written lengthwise across their horizontal beams, photographs sheathed and anchored at the lumber’s intersections.

The dust and blue and light turned dark in the shadow across South Sable Boulevard. The yellow multiplex steeple was all lit up, its pink neon and soft red-black letters calling to Aurora: CENTURY 16.

By 1858, the earliest settlers had heard about the discoveries in western Kansas Territory. In particular they had heard about the bounties of the lands abutting the Rocky Mountains: The gold strikes in the settlements along Cherry Creek, the pockets of the town that would soon carry the name of territorial governor James Denver.

The news had tempted thousands of speculators, prospectors and frontiersmen to pursue the riches at this end of the infamous Smoky Hill Trail. They had heard the route was easily the most direct — shorter than the northern Platte route and the southern Arkansas route by some hundred miles. They had heard, too, about the trail’s ruthless terrain and the mythological suffering: Most parties only made it to Denver after beating the starvation that claimed dozens of their antecedents on the trail. One especially notorious figure, Daniel Blue, reportedly arrived after cannibalizing his two brothers and a traveling companion with whom he had embarked on the journey from Leavenworth. Three years after that misfortune, they had heard about the surveyor commissioned to chart the most hospitable trail route (or any trail route at all, for that matter), along which ideal campsites and water sources were noted and workers fixed mounds of dirt for use as landmarks. They heard the troubling news that buffalo on the plains had taken to stampeding, kicking and ultimately destroying these mounds erected in the middle of their habitats.

Mostly, though, they heard about the violence. Indian attacks became the principal danger along the fraught 592-mile artery, which cut through the Plains tribes’ prime hunting grounds and streams in the Smoky Hill Valley. Somehow the first surveyors hadn’t fully disclosed this obstacle, and it was only as word of these ambushes, shootings, scalpings and worse drifted back to Kansas that the trail’s newer, graver threat truly seemed to stoke and captivate the pioneers’ imagination. One postcard of the time — perhaps circulated by early-adopting settlers as a deterrent to would-be competitors — features a wild-eyed frontiersman leading a party of three men to a hilltop where, beneath a stone-gray sky imprinted with black vultures, a shirtless, lifeless pilgrim lies decapitated on the ground. The men’s reactions vary from abject shock to disbelief to wry curiosity; one traveler peers over the distraught man’s left shoulder, as though keeping a clear distance for a better chance of calculating his own odds of survival. At their feet, a dog unflappably, maybe rabidly, noses forward.

Federal interest in the region proceeded unabated, including the 1861 presidential act that established Colorado Territory, after the proposed Jefferson Territory did not come to exist. Combined with the Civil War, the ensuing Colorado War exacerbated bloody Plains sagas that only unsettled the Smoky Hill Trail further. Union troops repelled the Confederacy as far south as New Mexico’s Glorieta Pass before refocusing, with single-minded depravity, on the people who actually inhabited the territory’s eastern border region. The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 left as many as 160 members of the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes — including, by all accounts, scores of woman and children — butchered to death by Army Colonel John Chivington and hundreds of Union horsemen.

The incident and its subsequent cover-up scandalized the Western military leadership and resulted in an investigation and Congressional hearings the following year. It also galvanized the various and distinct groups of Native people, some of whom had undertaken retaliation along the northern and southern routes and whose continued offensives along the Smoky Hill Trail would soon prove to be more than a match for the three fledgling forts along the route.

The risky passage fell further out of favor. Determined to stabilize (and monetize) the trail at war’s end, Atchison, Kansas businessman David Butterfield organized another surveying expedition that sought to tame it once and for all. In June of 1865, with demand building for stage and freight operations from the Missouri River, the Butterfield Overland Despatch helped pioneer another distinctly corporate-American arrangement: He sought support from Washington.

Having privately invested the resources and labor needed to establish a passable route, the road’s namesake turned to the government to shore up defenses against the Natives over whose land the B.O.D. coaches would travel for hundreds of miles. Accompanied by military escorts, Butterfield’s associates spent the summer preparing stations along a route that would offer round-trip service between Denver and Atchison. Butterfield himself was the service’s first passenger on Sept. 11, 1865, as the stage pulled out of Atchison. He arrived at the B.O.D.’s western terminus, visibly none the worse for wear, 12 days later.

Still, Butterfield’s successors on the Smoky Hill Trail told of unrelenting Indian interference in their journeys. The Civil War artist Theodore R. Davis, who illustrated Sherman’s March to the Sea (among numerous other Northern campaigns) for Harper’s Weekly and who made it to Denver in November 1865 after a 15-day trip along the Smoky Hill Trail, provided the most indelible of these accounts. Published in 1867, the story is noteworthy for its lilting innocence, its extraordinary detail of Plains travel, and its prodigious bloodshed:

When within two hundred yards of the adobe we glanced back to see the country over which we had passed, and discovered, within sixty yards of the coach, a band of nearly a hundred mounted Indians, charging directly toward us. The sight, frightful as it was, seemed grand. “Here they come!” and the crack of a rifle was responded to by a yell, followed by the singing whiz of arrows and the whistle of revolver bullets. The first shot dropped an Indian. Next a pony stopped, trembled, and fell. The driver crouched as the arrows drove his mules steadily on toward the station. The deadly fire poured from the coach-windows kept a majority of the Indians behind the coach. Some, however, braver than the rest, rushed past on their ponies, sending a perfect stream of arrows into the coach as they sped along. We were by this time in front of the station. The cavalrymen opened with their revolvers, and the Indians changed their tactics from close fighting to a circle. One, more daring than the rest, was intent on securing the scalp of a stock-herder whom he had wounded. He lost his own in so doing.

Along the way, Davis encountered another party of B.O.D. travelers with whom he would witness and confront various clusters of Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux warriors patrolling the Plains. Among this party was L.K. Perrin, another correspondent from the East whose own record of the “depredations” observed in Kansas was published in The New York Times in two parts in December, 1865. Perrin’s record corroborates the scalpings, shoot-outs, torture, arsons and other carnage and treachery that Davis later reported from the Smoky Hill Trail. Yet no details linger with more acid pungency than their shared conclusions as to how to deal with the people of the frontier: “The late raid of the Indians will prove to the government how useless it is to make treaties and supply arms and material to parties that take every opportunity to murder and rob citizens,” Perrin wrote.

This sentiment foreshadowed Davis’s even more bracing assessment, two years later: “It is, to be sure, a hard thing to say, but there is safety in extermination alone.”

Two words signified the promise of cataclysmic violence that reinforced Davis’s perception — his very consciousness — of America as an idea. “Extermination alone,” the resolution necessary to uphold the idea. “Extermination alone,” such a “hard thing to say” that nevertheless will be said as some rational outgrowth of experience. The irony is even more inseparable: “Extermination alone,” so as to peaceably subdue the Great Plains. “Extermination alone,” so as to hurry the territories into the more respectable, civilized, white-man’s dystopia plaguing the postwar East.

His genocidal candor coexists with quips about troublesome winds and the campfire efficacy of buffalo chips. (“That a doubt arose, as the smoke curled up from the newly-lighted pile, as to the judiciousness of depositing a juicy venison steak on those coals, it is useless to deny.”) “Extermination alone” was the optimal endgame of decades of brutal relocation efforts to the reservations, the often far-off lands where U.S. policymakers and military leaders sought to confine their nemeses — thus, as Davis estimated, confining the violence, upheaval and the terror that jeopardized the very mission of America. “It is perfectly useless,” he wrote, “as they regard this as an evidence that the white man is afraid of them. They are right. He most undoubtedly is, and will suffer loss of property and bodily injury to avoid any conflict.” It was a solution that would lead a new nation’s way onward to prosperous modernity. Its ambition, its cold and intoxicating severity, accompanied Davis and his party five days from Camp Pond Creek (near the eventual Fort Wallace) at the border of Kansas Territory down the home stretch of the Smoky Hill Trail. At last, their coach trundled unimpeded through squeaking prairie dog towns and over the dusty despondency east of Denver: The shacks, ranches and way stations occupying the area that would later become Aurora.

Shortly after the mass shooting on July 20 last year, Aurora residents struggled to reconcile their region’s watersheds of modern violence — Columbine and Century 16 — with the 13 years of otherwise ordinary life in between. Violent crime was actually down slightly in Colorado in 2012, and most people I spoke with then around town expressed dismay at the idea that the massacres, fewer than 20 miles apart, signified anything more than awful coincidences that could have happened anywhere.

“It’s always been there,” said Gini, who, with her husband Dave, visited the memorial for the first time on August 20th, the one-month anniversary of the massacre. “If you study history, it’s always been there. I don’t think things are worse than they used to be — just that we didn’t live back then. All we have are historical records, and we just don’t take them seriously. It’s always been with us and it always will be.”

Dave nodded at this. “People need to be more aware of their surroundings, I think, and they will be for a little while,” he said. “But it’ll settle down and go away. But if you see anything that’s a little out of the ordinary, it’ll make you more questioning for a while. But after a while it’ll go away. That’s just the way life is.”

“Life goes on, and you forget about the tragedies,” Gini said.

This phenomenon was distinctly apparent at The Movie Tavern, a multiplex across town from the Century 16 theaters. The massacre four weeks earlier had triggered a major downturn in attendance, but a Movie Tavern manager told me that business was finally improving. The mood at the place remained subdued, however, in part because of the theater’s own connection to the Century 16 attacks: Alex Sullivan, one of The Movie Tavern’s employees, was among the 12 killed. Sullivan had gone to see The Dark Knight Rises as part of the long tradition for which he went to the movies on his birthday. He turned 27 as the lights came down. A handmade sign featuring photos of Sullivan and his wife of one year now greeted patrons at the box office: “RIP ALEX SULLIVAN” it read, the first name tumbling diagonally over a patch of smaller words to the left: “WE WILL MISS YOU.”

Beside the sign, a couple bought tickets to see The Expendables 2. At the bar in the lobby, another sign enticed viewers to take advantage of the Expendables-themed “Mercenary Menu.” Options included: The Platter of Mass Destruction, the Combat Wings, and the Full Artillery Pizza.

Meanwhile, over at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, a performance venue converted from a modest 40s-era movie house, a local theater organization mounted a run of the musical Spring Awakening. The Fox flanks Colfax Avenue, a main drag that feeds directly into downtown Denver and overlays what used to announce the western terminus of the Smoky Hill Trail.

Inside the theater, the audience looked on as the character of Moritz, riven with heartbreak and alienation, brandishes the pistol with which he will eventually commit suicide. The implications of placing an armed young man at the front of a theater in Aurora were not just a little harrowing.

“For the audience, who’s been feeling these emotions, it’s almost like… an outlet?” said Whitney, one of the production’s chorus members. “I don’t know if that’s it, or an emotional release where they can experience the show and be like, ‘Yes, I’m crying at a funeral. It is Moritz, but it’s more everyone who’s passed away before their time.’ Especially with the shooting. There were so many people like that. There was a 6-year-old whose life was taken from her when she had barely started living. You can kind of work through it a little bit.” The 6-year-old was named Veronica Moser-Sullivan.

As you travel east on Colfax Avenue, deeper into Aurora, you enter a stretch of road that echoes another crucial element of the frontier: Aurora is now one of the most integrated cities in the United States. Up and down Colfax Avenue, strip malls feature merchants from around Africa doing business next door to various Asian-owned storefronts and Indian grocery markets. Head south on Peoria Street and you’ll spot Cinema Latino, which shows first-run Hollywood films either dubbed or subtitled in Spanish. Across the street, Safari Thrift helps raises money and provide job training for refugees settled in greater Denver. After the shooting, whispers among newer immigrants and refugees in particular coalesced into a fevered buzz. Many had left nations where horrific gun violence like what transpired at Century 16 was relatively routine. What little media coverage of the event they understood stirred panic and isolation: Not only was it easy to feel unwelcome at Aurora’s public vigils, but recent arrivals also worried about their safety in a country that many of them had idealized as a haven for themselves and their families.

Officials at Aurora Mental Health Center acted quickly. Within days of the attack, the nonprofit had arranged a community meeting offering services for Spanish speakers. (Almost 1/3rd of residents are Hispanic or Latino, the majority being Mexican or Mexican-American.) On August 1st, a meeting was simultaneously translated into six languages, where they sought to answer what AMHC program director Mara Kailin described as “basic questions” about what happened at Century 16 and its aftermath.

“A lot of them didn’t know what happened, or they had heard rumors,” said Kailin. Many of the residents evacuated from homes in the vicinity of shooter James Holmes’s booby-trapped apartment were non-English speakers. “They wanted information about what to expect and information about trauma response, and then out of those meetings, those two communities specifically wanted to have some sort of remembrance for the victims. Many of those folks are also impacted and had people that were injured or knew people that were injured.” Kailin said that the participants developed a “peace ceremony” based on each community’s culture and religious background. The mayor joined; police attended.

I’ve often wondered over the last year what the refugees who would organize such a ceremony might make of “extermination alone.” Knowing what they know and seeing what they’ve seen, how would they react to the purpose of our own ethnic wars on the land they now call home? As proposed by Theodore R. Davis, how much does “extermination alone” have in common with the savagery of, say, Bashar al-Assad unleashing chemical weapons on Syrians, or the pathology of military juntas from Egypt to Guinea, or the ruthless politics of gang violence in Mexico, where 98% of murders go unsolved? Where does the zealously protected freedom to acquire a firearms arsenal rank among liberties? When they went to the Movie Tavern, what did they make of the prospect of buying Full Artillery Pizza from a “Mercenary Menu” just weeks after the murder of their neighbors? Is their cultural imperative to mourn this tragedy compatible with our national imperative to forget it? And as they assimilate in America, will forgetting take precedence for them, too? Or will they sense a gnawing, familiar power in “extermination alone” and its contemporary heirs: the righteousness of the gun lobby, or the state-sanctioned violence concealed beneath such banal semantics as “Stand Your Ground”? Mostly I wonder if they wonder: Who exactly remains after the extermination?

Many of the early residents surrounding the Smoky Hill Trail’s penultimate station at Cherry Creek had experienced and survived skirmishes similar to or even worse than those faced by Davis, Perrin and the rest of David Butterfield’s clientele. They would refresh visitors and swap stories of trail battles and the insidious enemy of the Plains — the bloodthirsty “red niggers” and “red devils” of Perrin’s letters. The tales and images of violence on the road between Denver and Atchison burrowed ever further beneath the skin, behind the eyes of the settlers who had seen their experience reflected in these legends. Travelers heading east nodded along and prepared their armaments accordingly.

The cycle of brutality continued for nearly three years along the Smoky Hill Trail. The raids on settlers grew so debilitating (including thefts of livestock and weapons) that Butterfield had sold his interests in the route to a competitor within a year. The erstwhile B.O.D. changed hands twice more before 1870, around which time the embattled route’s coaches, mail stages and freight-hauling prairie schooners began to give way to the new Kansas Pacific railroad. The rail-construction crews had been frequent targets: Working westward through a Native population that slowly tapered off through the ongoing Indian Wars and increased migration south to reservations in Oklahoma, they nevertheless found themselves and their military escorts routinely besieged by the region’s last remaining warriors. They perished by the half-dozen in some instances — entire teams of workers slain, prompting a military response that would claim even more lives from the other side. It seemed as though the only agreement to which either white man or Indian could assuredly assent was to baptize the railroad with the same type of murder, bloodshed and ritual reprisals that had haunted the Smoky Hill Trail into parched obsolescence.

This was the question as the country’s first century of sovereignty neared an end: How does one forge a civilization at gunpoint?

It would likely have to be from the abject ruins of another. The miasma of the Second Amendment, the mortally wounded president at Ford’s Theater in Washington, the devastation of the South and the smoky shadows of the Western frontier left little indication otherwise. Theodore R. Davis, for one, had surveyed the smoldering Southern cities laid waste by the March to the Sea; he had seen the crippling psychological tolls that Sherman’s unrelenting “total war” tide of fire, death and destruction had taken on Confederate warriors and civilians alike. His writing more than implies a clean intellectual break between that experience and his conclusion about handling Plains Indians through “extermination alone.” Davis’s party on the Smoky Hill Trail had armed itself to the teeth with Ballard rifles and Navy revolvers (four and eight of each, by Davis’s count) in case their more peaceful defense — including one man’s “assortment of beads, small mirrors, and a few books filled with brightly-colored pictures” — couldn’t pacify. When racist condescension didn’t work, only genocide remained.

Other travelers, of course, were trading guns to the Indians. On the Smoky Hill Trail, where the imperatives of security overlapped with those of authority, the gun inherited a singular status. It was a fearsome and lethal machine capable of a kind of violence that veterans on both sides of the Plains wars romanticized as much as the frontier itself. And while Davis’s report from the trail also waxes knowledgeably and eloquently about the various types and purposes of arrows deployed by Native Americans, one cannot shake his and Perrin’s awe of the Natives’ guns and their handiwork. Both Davis and Perrin, for example, recount witnessing the fate of young Fred Merwin, a messenger sent to summon military aid before encountering a hostile group of Indians at Downess Station, a stopover roughly just past the route’s halfway point.

From Perrin:

Merwin had just entered the stage to arrange some of the contents, when a number of Indians, who had concealed themselves near, opened fire on the express party. Merwin and one of the station-keepers were killed outright. […] He was seen to fall at the first fire, after which those who escaped were too distant to see the exact result. Mr. Merwin is a son of Joseph Merwin, Esq., of New-York. He was considered a young man of much promise and greatly admired by very many friends, to whom his death will be a source of sincere grief. It is said that he expected to be killed, and took the precaution of leaving messages for his friends.

It’s not difficult to imagine Merwin falling at the first fire — to visualize, around the edges and through the cracks and knotholes of the roughshod wooden hut where Perrin took sanctuary, the shady mist of blood and the silent space in the distance through which the young man’s frame crumpled and tumbled into lifelessness. It’s not difficult to imagine those who escaped: Adrift, befogged, left to deduce the incident’s forensics from the murk and horror of its aftermath. It’s not difficult to imagine the mourning of his family and those very many friends, recoiling at the horror of the frontier and the tragedy of such untimely death. It’s not even difficult to imagine the shooter: The vivid outlines of his mission and his target, the kick of the gun in the last instant of that target’s life, the quiet certitude of having killed a man.

The images prompted by the era are similar to those we have today, fed to us in a spectrum of contexts by insistent media from around the world. As our own national gun culture swelled out of the 19th century and into the present day, the American strain of this imagination mutated into something uniquely nihilistic. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre, reacting to the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The concept is more than just a PR bromide. It emphasizes the perceived necessity of violence and illuminates the true scale of what guns have accomplished, from the classrooms of Columbine — where one of the shooters, Eric Harris, wrote extensively on the topic of “extermination alone” — to the streets of Chicago to the grounds of Fort Hood to the Century 16 multiplex that rose from Davis’s embattled Great Plains. In accepting the omnipresence and costs of violence in our daily lives, we have made genocide as essential to America as democracy itself.

On Sept. 20, 2012, the memorial at South Sable and East Centrepoint was removed. It was transferred to the custody of the Aurora History Museum. The museum’s inventory of the region’s early history of violence on the Smoky Hill Trail already cohabitated with records of the city’s expansive 20th-century growth and grand, somewhat troublesome ambition. (Fun fact: The fake movie that the CIA undertakes in Argo began as part of science-fiction theme park/film studio swindle that burned Aurora in the 1970s. The theme park was to be built from the sets of an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light.)

Aurora officials would coordinate with victims’ families to transfer the crosses and other specific effects to their possession. The letters and banners and cards and international gestures of condolence toward the city would be archived. Slowly, the corner would be restored to the blank and dusty range that it had been before.

Across South Sable, the movie-theater chain Cinemark proceeded with rehabilitating the world’s most infamous multiplex. It removed the “16” from the name. It renamed its auditoriums’ numbers with letters. Theater 9 became Theater I. Its screen was replaced with one stretching across the entire front wall, for an “extreme digital” viewing experience. On January 17th of this year, Cinemark hosted survivors, victims’ families, first responders, and dignitaries at a “special night of remembrance,” to be followed by a screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Relatives of nine of the 12 victims slain in Theater 9 signed an open letter condemning the chain. “Our family members will never be on this earth with us again,” the letter said, “and a movie ticket and some token words from people who didn’t care enough to reach out to us, nor respond when we reached out to them to talk, is appalling…. we will not be attending your re-opening celebration and will be using every social media tool at our disposal to ask the other victims to ask their friends and family to honor us by boycotting the killing field of our children.”

Colorado governor John Hickenlooper attended the event. “Some wanted this theater to reopen,” he said during the ceremony before the film. “Some didn’t. Certainly both answers are correct.”

In the six months since, Aurora has returned largely to the sprawling, diverse suburban thrum it maintained in the days and years before Century 16. Its leaders plan to commemorate the massacre this weekend with a series of events and activities including garden-planting, mental-health counseling, charity drives, yoga, tai chi, a summer clean-up and “Aurora Strong beautification.” The Aurora History Museum, that modest custodian of legacies of unspeakable violence, will feature a healing mandala on Saturday.

The Century theater will be open for business as usual, summer movies clattering before viewers just like they did a year ago. Among the offerings: The Lone Ranger, the Hollywood bomb about a Comanche warrior and a white man seeking vengeance for the same bloodthirsty outlaw’s butchering of their respective families. Their quest leads to the exposure of a rapacious railroad baron and, later, his conspirator in the U.S. military; this exposure, in turn, leads to the order to exterminate the remaining Comanche tribes who obstruct the villains’ mutual path toward Manifest Destiny. $250-million worth of blockbuster carnage ensues, culminating in a bloodbath probably not unlike the one envisioned by Davis. Tonto tells the story in flashback to a boy transfixed by the legend of the Lone Ranger; he later gives the boy a silver bullet. The gesture lends credence to not only the tale of his exploits, but also the iconography that “settled” the Old West before ripping the New West to shreds.

I think back to Aurora a year ago, when the nation was asking why and how. I remember the etchings of prayer and support upon any surface that would accommodate them. There were shattered sheets of drywall signed from top to bottom, and posterboard fragments left behind by a couple from Cheswick, Pennsylvania. (“You will never be forgotten! Pennsylvania loves Aurora.”) There was a vinyl banner affirming that Detroit, too, loved Aurora, and a dust-ravaged Simba doll collared with a rubber wrist bracelet boasting a Brazil flag, and a lone patch from the New Orleans Fire Department. The listing toys and keening pinwheels, the ribbons, the Bibles wrapped in Ziploc bags marked FREE, the perished roses in beds of combat boots, the sallow prayer rug pinned facing east by chunks of brick and concrete, the Batman insignia, and the footprints in the dust.

On the one-month anniversary of the massacre, a Denver man named Stacy climbed the memorial grade with his 10-year-old son Cameron. They’d talked about it, and they’d decided to follow an appointment at a nearby doctor’s office with their first visit to the site. “It’s really been tough, you know?” Stacy said. “I mean, you see it and you hear it every day — what’s going on — and I thought I just owed it to myself to just come out and see what it looks like in person.”

“I don’t like what the man did to the people,” Cameron said. “It was just a movie.”

I asked Stacy if what occurred across the street might have an effect on what culture his family consumed.

“I haven’t really given that a whole lot of thought, about the movies that we watch,” he said. “The violence. I guess that as a parent that has to be in the back of your mind. I’ll tell you what it has done, though: It makes you rethink life. It makes you rethink, as a people, where are we going? When you can’t go to a simple movie and enjoy that with your family and friends, what is this world coming to? Restaurants, now movie theaters. It’s crazy. I mean, how do you stop it? Where do you begin or start to stop it? What are these people thinking, you know? And that old cliché about how a person is raised, or what they look like, or where they come from — that’s all thrown out. What do you do?” He had started to cry. “What do you do? Do you start with yourself? What do you do? Where do you go from here?”

S.T. VanAirsdale is a writer in New York.