Let’s Stop Calling For ‘Strength’ In The Wake Of Tragedy
By Tabitha Blankenbiller
We’ve spent close to two decades since Columbine committing a routine to rote collective memory: preliminary death counts leak, constrict and ebb, settle into numbers that are intangible metrics of rippling loss. We compare the latest tragedy to all the others in our growing collection. We look for reasons, patterns, rationales.
Cable news cycles through its memorized script of questions: Was it terrorism? Was the shooter alone? From which wellspring did he draw his hate? Where did he live? Who was his family? Did he know his victims? Did he attend this school, this church, this place of business? Does he have a criminal history? Was he on a list? Were we watching? Was he mentally ill, or was he non-white?
After each American massacre, the sheriff speaks. Then the mayor. The governor. The president steps up to the podium. This all happens more often than I get the oil changed in my car.
We are deeply saddened.
Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.
Love is stronger than hate.
The community of [insert city/township/state/institution here] will stay strong.
Cue the footage of mourners huddled over makeshift memorials of teddy bears and cellophane-wrapped flowers, cloaked in sweatshirts, their heads cut off by the camera to preserve their anonymity. The news segment wraps. The camera crews hit the freeway.
This is where the dialogue customarily ends. “We are stronger than this. We will remain strong.”
The phrase made an undeniable splash as the post-Boston Marathon platitude of choice, initially tweeted by a single mourning citizen, then morphing into a slogan painted on bridges and stamped into rubber bracelets. Search “Boston Strong” and you’ll find the mantra layered with city sport mascots and grimly staring eagles — a byzantine display of trinket patriotism. Attach the “strong” suffix to the end of any gun slaughter locale and you’ll retrieve a deluge of thoughts, prayers, and Instagram peace signs. It is shorthand sympathy — but sympathy with a steely edge. Strength has balls. Strength doesn’t cry.
On October 1, 2015, my area of Oregon had its own mass shooting: 10 students and faculty members murdered at Umpqua Community College. For a day or so, the reports were national and ubiquitous. In the local news footage, a sign wedged into the school’s chain link fencing proclaimed UCC Strong.
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Strong by what measure? I wondered, as the news drifted off into newer, fresher disasters. Roseburg, where the rampage took place, fell far outside of Portlandia’s blazing blue political lines, in a state that, despite its Keeping it Weird national reputation, often takes a hard political right. What effect did fresh graves for kids and teachers have on a city that reacted to a presidential visit by hanging an OBAMA GO HOME banner at the city airport? A city overseen by a sheriff who believed gun control to be an unconstitutional violation? What were these lives worth, if their neighbors were more worried about an existential threat to their weapons cache than their children’s right to live past college graduation?
The history and culture of a rural area, the insularity of a small town, questionable availability and support for mental healthcare, the vulnerability of a college campus: All of these tangled together to make the Umpqua case complicated, just as every one of these genocides is complicated. These are stories that cannot be told in a single distilled news segment, with consequences that cannot be solved by a single bill.
But in the aftermath of a tragedy, there is one simple thing a community can do: It can be strong. Roseburg rallied to the call. It remained strong, and gradually it disappeared from coverage. The wounds were assumed to have healed; the scars were assumed to have faded. Roseburg is strong. The rest of us forget.
Staying strong is not a scream or a riot. It is not calling out a politician who pledges his “thoughts and prayers” with one hand while taking donations from the NRA with another. It is not marching. It is not stepping outside of the narrative.
The strength that our country’s complacency requires is a silence; it is cowardice cloaked in the guise of dignity. If you wish to respect the dead, you won’t politicize their assassination. If you wish to move on, you won’t ask questions.
What if we didn’t advise cities to “remain strong”? What if we gave mourners the berth to rage? What if we listened instead of smothering out their raw fury with a deluge of prayers and thoughts and broken heart emojis and vows to Never Forget? Would we stop calling these almost-daily exterminations “unthinkable”? What power would rise from the blood-splattered pavement if it were allowed to dry, to cake, to curdle and fester?
No community is strong in the face of slaughter. There is no level of stiff upper lip that can will away the systemic cultural forces converging in never-ending deadly crescendo: the misogyny, homophobia, racism, bigotry. Fear nurtured in the uncertainty of evaporating opportunity; terror cultivated like a crop. The demand that we Move Forward only serves the system that profits from our complacency. Be strong, move along. Nothing to see here.
When our grandchildren reach, for example, the Orlando Pulse club massacre chapter in their history books (or whatever they have instead of books), they will see the catastrophe through a lens of inevitability. It’s the same set of connections we made in our own grade schools, when we read about the Civil War or Great Depression or the Holocaust. Where we look at the bubbling over of slow-seeping bigotry and say “who could’ve imagined?,” they will see the tide of hate-filled rhetoric as a tsunami gathering at our shore. They’ll identify the fundamental, tectonic ideologies wedging a fault line as old as this continent’s white settler occupation.
They will see the triumph of gay marriage legalization give way to transphobic bathroom discrimination.
They will see the clamor to “build a wall” as the death rattle of a fading white majority.
They will see the first female major party presidential candidate claim her nomination the same week that a rapist is given a fractional sentence because he is a fast swimmer.
They will watch our nation skew away from every other first-world nation on the planet — Australia, Japan, Israel, the UK — and continue resisting gun control as bodies pile and pile and pile.
They will feel the hopelessness of a warming world drowning in pollution and debt, the existential threats creeping in as economic opportunities shrink for the young and security fades for our parents.
What I hope they also see is that this is the point where we pivoted. In the wake of the latest deadly mass shooting, I hope those history students of the future see that we are fed up with pandering with our silences and stately respects. We are mocking and rejecting the hollow ”thoughts and prayers” for victims that NRA-sponsored conservative politicians have always painted as lesser — for the country of their birth, for who they loved. When Paul Ryan called for a moment of silence in the House to close out the traditional American shooting storyline, Democrats led by Connecticut congressman Jim Himes walked out and erupted in dissent. “Our silence does not honor the victims, it mocks them,” he stated. The calls to cease “politicizing a senseless tragedy” were loud, but for the first time in recent memory, the screams were matched with an equal call to make sense of the tragedy by recognizing that it is already political.
The Latin community, the LGBTQ community, the city of Orlando were all strong in the wake of Pulse, and are all strong. But they are also human. Humans who can be maimed, threatened, marginalized, murdered. Let the legacy of 49 dead and 53 wounded young, innocent, blazing and beautiful people be this: The time of stately strength and quiet healing is forever in the past. Let us drag these hideous convergences of fear and bigotry into the light, no matter how ugly and weak they may make any one of us appear. We must confront them not as one simple problem with a waiting antidote, but as a swelling challenge to our humanity. If all our country’s firearms evaporated overnight, the hate would still remain. If Trump was called back to his planet of sadistic orange mutants and never returned, his army of frightened bigots would continue to walk among us. Anger will not immediately reveal the solution. But if the last 17 years have taught us anything, it is the deadly, decaying weakness of compulsory strength.