“It Could Have Been Worse”

It’s been two weeks.  In general, the faculty and staff at SPU have been truly heroic in their response to the SPU-Campus-Signcommunity’s grief, mobilizing resources (among them is this one, written by a professor to a friend and classmate) and making themselves available.  The weekend after the shooting, which was the last weekend before finals, the student counseling center organized counselors and students in the counseling program to be on campus during the day.  The faculty have been extremely generous with deadlines and extensions even as we went ahead with finals.

So I don’t want continue to be negative.  I know my last post had the potential to offend or hurt.  But I have to say, I’m bothered by SPU’s president’s statement that “it could have been worse” and that “emergency preparedness” is what kept it from being so.  Now, the phrase is *so* easy to use; I’ve thought and almost said “it could be worse” about a thousand times since the shooting.  And really, this is not about Dr. Martin as a person.  I would imagine that a school shooting is a school principal or university president’s  worst nightmare.  The poor guy was in front of new cameras or large crowds of people or victims’ families practically since the lockdown was lifted.  He has shown emotion and care for his flock.  He has an excruciatingly difficult job and yet, he’s found the strength to write to the SPU students, faculty and staff a gentle email about the victims, procedures going forward and encouragement.  My favorite line of his note, dated June 8th, 2014: “The most important thing we can do in the coming days, weeks, and months is to care for one another.”  Amen.

So please hear me, it’s not about him.  It’s about this phrase that, honestly, nearly every news article I’ve read about this, has used.  “It could be worse.”  First of all, “worse” in terms of what?  The sheer number left dead at the end of the shooting?   Then, sure, it could have been “worse.”  But if we as Christians believe that God knit each human being together in her mother’s womb with individual love and care, then talks of “body count” at best miss the point and at worst send the opposite message than the Good News that we are called to witness to.  SPU as a Christian University should be a witness to the value of each human being even as  he or she contributes to the whole we call the SPU “community.”

Second, I’m fairly certain it wasn’t “preparedness” that stopped more students from dying.  Columbine, VTech, Sandy Hook Elementary…all the sites of school shootings likely rehearsed lockdown drills.  I remember practicing ducking and covering under my desk in first grade (before any of those big-name shootings).  One thing this does is normalize violence: we’re teaching our kids to be prepared for violence, not how to contribute to ending it.  But even more importantly (and this was the main complaint I remember hearing in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre), if you’ve got a one-building campus, all lockdown does is trap students inside the school with the perpetrator(s).  (And really, how much chance does a locked door stand against a gun anyway?)  It’s not that lockdown is totally ineffective in an emergency, but it’s not that potent in stopping school shootings: the time to talk about preventing violence/how to save lives is not when the person with the gun has arrived on the campus, like this article does.  That is far, far too late.

No, what likely saved lives at SPU was the quick thinking of Jon Meis, the student security guard who tackled the shooter, disarming him and putting him in a chokehold.  I haven’t asked Jon, but if it were me, there wouldn’t be anything I could to “prepare” for a moment like that, no matter how many defense classes I’d taken.  But that, in my mind, shouldn’t be filed under “it could have been worse.”  I also haven’t asked the families of the victims, including Paul Lee, the one among us who died, but having attended at least five services on the various anniversaries of Columbine throughout the years when I still lived in Littleton, I remember hearing from parent after parent who lost a child that day that they couldn’t imagine anything hurting worse than knowing your child wasn’t coming home from school because she died in it at the hands of another student.

I don’t want to pedestalize Columbine as the be-all, end-all of school shootings; each one is

Students on the lawn at SPU, the day after the shooting.
Students on the lawn at SPU, the day after the shooting.

a unique event all its own even as there are some frustratingly common threads that we as a society have the means to address (and no, I’m not talking primarily about gun control).  But honestly, if I lost my son or daughter at school, I couldn’t imagine anything worse in that moment.   And even if I could, suffering deserves far better than cliches and brush-offs. “It could be worse” is far too great a burden to put on the already grief-stricken family that lost one of its members and the community whose sense of safety and life as it knows it has been deeply riven.

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