It’s happened again.
It seems like such a prosaic, ordinary thing to say, such an inevitable observation.
Another place, another town, another American city where a mass shooting has occurred, where murder on a scale that is hard to fathom and digest as information has happened.
This time, the place was Virginia Beach, Virginia, a city that sprawls in sunny comfort more like a series of neighborhoods and villages and towns along a vast beachfront, perpetual light and water, a city that is the largest in Virginia, but somehow doesn’t feel so urban.
It is, among other things, a military town, with naval and other military bases and centers, where you encounter soldiers and sailors. It is a religious city in its aspect of gathering places and a wealth of churches. And it is a family town and a government town of civilian work, offices and malls and all the things and places we would all recognize.
It’s happened again, here in Virginia Beach. In late afternoon on a work day, Friday, May 31, a man named DeWayne Craddock, age 40, of Virginia Beach, a civil engineer who worked at the Virginia Beach Department of Public Utilities for the past 15 years, went to work — after having sent an emailed letter of resignation — and took two guns with him, killing 12 people on three floors, 11 of whom were coworkers, the other, and the first to be killed, a contractor who was shot in his car outside.
In the less than an hour that it took for events to unroll and unravel, Craddock ended up in a gunfight with police, who came quickly and prevented further slaughter. He was himself shot and eventually died of his wounds.
All of that occurred in a relatively short and shocking time and evolved into a familiar aftermath: the press conference by law enforcement officials, who announced the roll call of victims, the identification of the shooter (but only once, much in the manner of the prime minister of New Zealand, who refused to mention the killer’s name thereafter in a mass shooting in that country earlier this year), the information available, the weapons used, the name of a wounded officer.
The media gathered, and the Friday nightly news erupted and the internet and social media guessed and grieved and, outraged, swallowed up the death and killings in a familiar way. Like many of these mass shootings, it started to take on the shape of a hard-to-grasp mystery as to motive and the eternals whys, if not the hows.
Shocked, people wondered why, what for, how come and, maybe just before sleeping, wondered why them and why there and why so, tossing and turning in the metaphysics of their sleep. We all do and did. Why did this man do that, eyes wide open and determined, then and there?
Nobody seems to know. The word that was used often to describe the killer — by his neighbors, by his coworkers — was “quiet,” a word that seems to attach itself to almost every mass shooter that drew a long and last breath. This one was particularly quiet, not mean, brusque or off-putting, but quiet. The description sounded like the guy in the Beatles song “Nowhere Man,” living in his nowhere world.
I’ve never been to Virginia Beach, but I know people who live there or in places like it. There is a list of places that are like road marks of disasters and tragedy. It grows and changes with every shooting. It is a map of America in some ways, of places and roads and buildings and events and people lost and the sound of pop-pop gunfire accompanied by screaming.
It’s a trail of schools — middle, elementary, high school and college — and churches and post offices (hence “going postal”), a night club, an office, a military base, a church in Texas, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Navy Yard complex here in D.C., the campus of Virginia Tech, a movie theater in Detroit. Policemen were shot in Dallas, African American parishioners in South Carolina. Las Vegas is the top spot to date with 58 dead at the hands of a ruinously armed sniper in a hotel shooting up concertgoers.
It is a long list, alive as a snake in our midst. Sooner or later, you recognize a place, a time of day, a year, something.
What always accompanies these events are immediate acts of kindness, an outpouring of tears, an outburst of roadside or killing-site bouquets and flowers and altars of remembrance, a kind of commonality, sometimes so strong that we are surprised by its presence.
We recognize the victims as ourselves. The pictures and photographs, in twos or threes, name after name, are housed like mirrors. The victims are us; the killer is not, however many rationales, reasons and stories are told.
The victims have names: Robert “Bobby” Williams, Herbert “Bert” Snelling, Richard H. Nettleton, Laquita C. Brown, Mary Louise Gayle, Ryan Keith Cox, Christopher Kelly Rapp, Alexander Mikhail Gusev, Tara Welch Gallagher, Michelle “Missy” Langer, Joshua O. Hard, Katherine Nixon.
Mothers, wives, daughters, fathers, husbands, sons, older people and younger people, married and single, sports fans, people who wore glasses and people who didn’t, strong and smiling faces all.
As victims of mass shootings, they resemble each other, each and every time. But there is something else, too. Often we in the media, when we write in the obituary form, are dealing with lives more or less completed, even when they are cut short. The stories are about accomplishment, significance, things created, deeds and their impact; they are not lives shut down and shot down or thrown over a cliff by someone else.
What’s missing from the lives of the victims, as we write them or tell stories, is the rest of their lives: the void.
Mass murder is more than murder. It is a robbery in that way, closer to what happens when people are caught in the crossfire of so-called gang wars. What we miss here is all the things the 12, this 12, and all the other victims of mass shootings will never experience, all the breaths not taken, the morning hours not awakened to, the love not received or shared, the exploration, the achievements, the roller-coasters, the holidays, the honest work and the good and bad times taken away.
Whatever we find out about this time, let’s remember the names, and forget his.