Aurora and the Template of Our Grief

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The way mass casualty stories unfold in America has taken on a chilling familiarity.

As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg again calls for gun-control efforts from our national leaders and critic Anthony Lane examines whether the shooter in Aurora, Colorado, could have been inspired by the villain in The Dark Knight Rises, it's clear that we as a nation have developed an awful template for reacting to our growing catalog of domestic mass-casualty events.

The age of new media being now well-established, it goes a little something like this:

First we get the shaky camera phone videos and the tweets. Then the distraught eyewitness interviews and 911 call recording. Quickly, the shooter is identified. Politicians issue statements of shock and sorrow. The shooter's parents, if interviewed, are confused and abashed or else hide. The social media forensics begin. People with the same or a similar name as the shooter are harassed. There is speculation he is part of a right-wing group, or an Islamic terrorist, or a former Army veteran. The FBI and the armed forces check their records and issue denials or confirmations. Calls for better gun control efforts are issued once again. Defenders of the Second Amendment fight back immediately, or even pre-emptively. The victims of the shooting are blamed in social media for being where they were attacked. More eye-witness interviews. The shooter's parents are castigated. Survivors speak. Warning signs are identified as the alleged shooter's past is plumbed. We ask if violent movies are to blame for his actions. Or cuts to mental-health services. And talk about what kind of country we are, if we have culture of violence. The death toll fluctuates. International voices from countries where guns are heavily regulated shake their heads at us. People leave piles of flowers and teddy bears at the shooting site. There are candlelight vigils, and teary memorials. Everyone calls for national unity and a moment of togetherness. Eventually, the traumatized community holds a big healing ceremony. It is moving, and terribly sad, and watched by millions on TV or online. A few activists continue to make speeches. The shooter, if still alive, rapidly is brought to trial. There is another wave of public discussion about our failures, and the nature of evil. Politicians make feints at gun-law changes, which fail. And then everyone forgets and moves on. Everyone, that is, except the survivors.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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