I am surprised at what will trigger a memory. Often the memory that is jarred from the recesses of your mind seems to have little connection with whatever has caused it to surface. Yesterday’s shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando seems like the farthest thing from the memory it brought back for me.
In the early nineties I was a volunteer firefighter while attending college. The events of this past weekend caused one of the hardest memories of that time to surface. It was a sunny Saturday in May and the tones rang out calling us to service. The report was for a rollover accident and it seemed almost impossible to fathom how such an accident could occur on the reported stretch of road. I made my way to the station, geared up and jumped on our rescue to head to the scene. The first engine radioed that the reports were true and that there were victims entrapped. The scene was a very short code 3 response from the station and we were there in moments. The scene that greeted me was one that filled me with a deep sense of foreboding. The Jeep Cherokee had driven by me many times that day with teen girls hanging out of the windows and honking their horns. It was part of a tradition based around a dance competition held at the high school. A few years earlier my friends had done the same thing.
As is the case when a first responder is on a scene, it’s all business. You put on your game face and get the job done. The only problem was that it quickly became clear that there was not a job to be done. Two teenage girls (one of whom was a classmate’s sister) were crushed to death in an instant. A moment of teenage celebration quickly turned to tragedy. Once the reality set in that the situation was no longer a rescue but a accident investigation things shifted.
You might think that this memory was brought to mind because of the loss of life, or the sight of blue lights flashing behind a news reporter, but it wasn’t. This memory came to the front of my mind because of how people have been responding to this act of terror.
The work of rescue became a time of waiting. We tried to give the victims dignity but in many ways that was lost. In an era before social media and even cellphones word still spread fast. A large crowd of teens and parents had gathered at the scene. It wasn’t long until the crowd was a mix of tears and condemnation. It was more than the question why, but in an instant conversation turned into blame. The girls, school, parents, police all became subjects of people’s criticism and anger. This was not hours, days or weeks later; it was while we still had dead daughters and friends waiting to be taken to the local funeral home. I remember while I stood holding a tarp up around the body of one girl, thinking to myself why did her parents let her do this. There was plenty of blame to go around and lots of folks on the scene were trying to place it. (Read a NY Times article from 1994) Yet in an instant the need to place blame and solve the problems that led to the accident took a back seat. As a 20 year old college student I was asked to move behind the tarp and to hold the body of this young girl in a way that a police officer could take necessary pictures. In that moment I realized that victims need time. This young girl didn’t go out expecting for this to happen. Her parents set her on a course of life and hoped that all would be well. Here with her lifeless body in my hands and looking at her sweet, innocent face I was reminded that there is always time to place blame. There is always time for anger. There is always time to make changes but there is only one sacred time in a person’s life when we can honor them with a spiritual respect that puts a hold on judgment to show love.
In the days, weeks, months and years that followed that event many people called for change and education. The next time the competition rolled around there was a clear outlawing of reckless behavior. There was also a somber pall over the event for many years.
Again, I’m sure your wondering what this has to do with a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. I feel a responsibility to be a voice for a peaceful spirit in times like this. I am ashamed by social media posts, news reports and political pundit statements that instantly make times like this into an opportunity to jump onto their soapbox. There is a great deal of action that must be taken to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Situations like this should help to shine a spotlight on issues and policies that allow or even cause this to happen. They should force us to tackle hard issues and make changes. Yet, timing is everything.
Within minutes of the news from Orlando making it to national news outlets the religious and political commentary began. While families were searching for their children and cellphones rang next to victims in the club, many were taking it as an opportunity to politicize. Religious groups quickly make it about God’s wrath or to perpetuate misinterpretations of Islam. Anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration voices quickly took their positions. LGBTQ advocates, gun control law proponents seized that opportunity to make their points.
Perhaps it is a natural response to want to do something, but much is lost in all of that talk. The pain, suffering and anguish of families, friends and a community are turned into tools to advance a cause. This is why I was transported back to that day so long ago. Too often blame and guilt leads us to dehumanize victims. As I held that teen girls lifeless body I was reminded of my own need to keep my humanity. She wasn’t just a girl who died doing something careless. She was a child of God who needed to be honored with her full humanity. The victims of the Orlando shooting deserve a time of mourning and memorial before we turn them into tools to bludgeon each other with in political or religious debates. Again, don’t misunderstand me, their deaths must lead to vigorous debate that leads to appropriate changes in our systems so that such things never happen again. Still, we need to pay them proper respect. I don’t believe that turning their deaths into statements, post or memes that tear down one another within hours of their death shows them respect or honor. These innocent victims may very well become faces of a movement that helps prevent things like this in the future. I just wish we gave them a moment to rest in peace before that time.