One writer’s part in the online mass shooting ritual

A few weeks ago, a story I wrote for the Smithsonian magazine website was atop the “Most Popular” ranking.

Normally, making any list is good for the writerly ego, but this story however, has reached the popularity pinnacle on more than one occasion and I’d just as soon never see it again. It’s nothing more than a quirk of social media, but every time it makes the rounds, I know there’s been another mass shooting.

In September 1949, World War II veteran Howard Unruh went on his “Walk of Death” in Camden, New Jersey, murdering 13 people, including three boys under the age of ten. In 2015, I became interested in Unruh’s forgotten story after a seeing a blood-soaked timeline on Twitter following… I forget which particular slaughter it was, but I remember being unaware these angry white guy-style massacres date back nearly 70 years. Thanks to my Unruh article, I am now a minor player in the macabre, yet entirely predictable, social media ritual following the latest American bloodbath.

Depending on the body count, of course.

It’s an all-too familiar scenario: The minute breaking news hits, the posts start rolling through the feeds. There are the charts showing the incredible number of guns in this country, updated historical rankings of the ten deadliest (So long Columbine, as of November, you’re out!), “thoughts and prayers,” mockery of said “thoughts & prayers,” #shootings, list of the year’s cumulative victims, and boilerplate gun control advocacy v. rote “not the time to discuss gun control” pandering.

Then there are the two primary totems, the singular posts encapsulating the maddening, terrifying, depressing reality of firearm carnage in the same way the “Saigon Execution” and “Napalm Girl” photos captured the Vietnam War. The first is The Onion’s “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” which originated in 2014 following the murder of six by a Santa Barbara gunman, only to be updated and republished with grotesque regularity. The second is the 2015 Tweet from British journalist Dan Hodges, “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”

These two viral proclamations are so woven into the post-shooting online fabric, someone Tweeted “I never want to see that Onion or Newtown Tweet again” after Las Vegas. Or maybe it was Sunderland Springs.

Hodges, a British journalist for the Mail on Sunday, is in total agreement. More than once, he’s awaken to a rash of retweets and knows even before checking the headlines, another terrible massacre has taken place.

“The Tweet wasn’t a considered thing, it was an instinctive in-the-moment realization that these appalling mass murders will just keep continuing,” Hodges said. “It sounds trite, but it went from being my Tweet to everyone’s Tweet. The observation isn’t even associated with me, nor should it be. It’s not my country or laws, and none of my friends or family are affected like Americans.”

The Smithsonian article hasn’t reached critical mass like Hodges or The Onion, but it too is generally sent around by people feeling utterly helpless. It’s a scream into the void about how long we Americans have been living with this horror show. Unruh’s “Walk of Death” was an anomaly—it would be another 17 years before Charles Whitman climbed the University of Texas clock tower—but he’s the lone wolf blueprint. On a strict timeline basis, Unruh was an outlier, but in 2018, the specifics of his killing spree matters less than the fact he’s a foundational link in this deadly American chain. It’s important to know the history, but I’m ambivalent about making Unruh even a bit more of a household name.

For me, the recycling of Howard Unruh is simply an unsettling online oddity, but for others, playing a central role in the media aftermath can be taxing. Dave Cullen, author of the 2009 award-winning book Columbine, knows what it’s like. Media outlets often call upon him to offer expertise (particularly after Sandy Hook because of the school setting) and his thoughtful television appearances have been dispersed about the internet. Lately, he hasn’t been drawn to the violent spectacles like before, but his public standing means he can’t totally escape it. If enough people die to make the news, Cullen’s Facebook followers will instantly let him him know.

“These days, I’m trying not to get sucked into the maw, but it’s not easy, especially when I have issues with the media coverage,” he said. “Within an hour of Las Vegas, CNN had a ‘deadliest mass shooting’ chyron. It bugged me so I posted a screen shot to Instagram demanding Wolf Blister ‘Stop Score-keeping!’. It’s hard to look away when people are looking to you for answers.”

I doubt any of the well-established online aftermath protocols offer much in the way of answers, comfort, solace, or reassurance. Maybe it’s just a thing we do now to feel like we’re doing something. The only thing I can equate it is the Catholicism that was once central to my life. Of being an altar boy at the weekly mass trying to comprehend the horror of the Crucifixion, the body and blood of Christ, and keeping faith in the Resurrection. It was all ritual, but it mattered. Somehow, it meant life. Today, all I know is that with apologies to Groucho Marx, I belong to a strange club I wish didn’t exist.

“I’ve heard from many people who hate the Tweet because the regard it as a counsel of despair and that we can’t give up,” said Hodges. “I understand the sentiment and let’s hope they have success. But it’s just a Tweet. Sadly and tragically, I don’t see it’s had any influence at all.”

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