You're Not Meant to Remember Everything

A new shooting victim will replace this one.

About 18 months ago, I was chatting with my friend Marin Cogan about a podcast episode we were going to do. Marin is the sort of journalist who gets to write one story per month that appears at the top of the page, and at the sort of length that says that readers who otherwise supposedly can’t endure 1,000 words at a time will commit to 3,000 if she's doing it. She's also just a supremely nice person. Between the two, I was ready to accede to any list of demands.

She only asked for one thing. The October 1 shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59 and wounded 422 had happened 17 days before, and she could already feel it slipping away. She wanted to talk about it. She didn't want it to be another horror that news at the Speed of Trump could erase in just a few weeks. We agreed that it was important.

We didn't talk about it.

I have no idea what we talked about. The Speed of Trump rendered week-in-review riffing as mostly futile. It's obsolete the second the last syllable ends. (This is how I defend doing Hallmark podcasts: We could wake up in six years, turn on the TV and see Trump ordering the Global Imperium to construct low-G brothels on the moon, and a movie about cowboy James Brolin becoming a Balkan monarch is exactly as silly as it always was.) I recall laughing a lot; maybe we were too frivolous. I suspect at the time I still wanted to believe that this administration's slapstick incompetence would vastly exceed its cruelty, and the cruelty itself would remain somewhat proportional to the hum of it that we let fade into the background when its perpetrators appear civilized and share our tribal allegiance. Whatever the reason, we ran out of time.

I remembered her concern this weekend, after Brenton Tarrant (and here one writes allegedly) murdered 50 people and injured 40 more at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. I remembered that I had already gone through the clinical Stages of Writing about mass shootings long ago: Historical/Policy Argument, Anger, Despair, Numbness, and Thinking About My Child. When I wrote that last one, I noted that honoring one victim of Las Vegas per day, starting on October 2, 2017, would take you until January of this year. But mostly I remembered that I forgot. That's what everybody does.

Forgetting doesn't make you a bad person, it just makes you normal. Unless you have lost someone in a mass shooting or work in a field related to the phenomenon, remembering every mass shooting would drive you crazy or border on proof that you already were. Remembering every victim is impossible.

Failing to honor or memorialize the dead is normal. Dick Dale died yesterday. He had nearly a dozen albums and 20 singles, and even people who like him might not know or listen to more than one song, and Dick Dale will only get deader and quieter. Writers die all the time, and people feel sorry that they're dead but not sorry enough to commit to reading an entire book. The older guy at the butcher's counter at the grocery store—the one with the nicest smile—got sick, and someone who walks in for the first time tomorrow won't ever know what's missing. Someone's favorite teacher died today, and no one will tell them.

Longform-slingin', Bourbon Bastard craftsman types love to say that every life is story, and that a gifted enough writer can take the forgotten workaday and muscle that prose into a compelling narrative. Despite the tens of thousands of journalists laid off this century with sudden free time and the limitless print space of the internet, we don't do this. The idea of every life as innately worth remembrance is too beautiful to disprove by taking it literally. You can't remember Las Vegas for 481 consecutive days, and everyone knows that's what anniversaries are for.

After so many mass shootings, the thing I think I've settled on as their most depressing feature is the certainty that the NRA, the Republican Party and their donors know the limits of our exhaustion for opposing gun violence as well as we do. Somewhere, in some form or another, there exists a set of actuarial tables, and it shows how much total gun death can be endured and how frequently: that black people can make up 24 percent of those killed by police per year, despite being only 13 percent of the US population, and it won't lead to critical levels of unrest; that 10 slain children equals one week of news cycle, but after a point our capacity for sorrow plateaus; that children accidentally executing their friends or siblings or parents can become a cliché; that we have not yet invented a barbarism that can't be waited out until it seems embarrassing to continue to harp on it.

Perhaps that's recency bias at work—in the same way that a tragedy yesterday is worth more in print than a tragedy from three days ago, and anyone decrying either one two weeks later starts to catch themselves at the thought of being the only one still talking about this. Maybe the sense of impotence at being out-waited by powerful interests only feels this sharply bleak because every sensation that can be mined from Policy Argument, Anger, Despair, Numbness and Protectiveness has already been refined and its waste strewn around the emotional landscape like slag.

We forgot Las Vegas, coded it in memory with another metonym ("the bump stock one"), and the knowledge that another will come and be brushed aside in malice and bad faith and cowardly policy—and another—tempers the next outrage before it's even felt. The internet, Fox News, the Republican party and conservative racists around the globe enamored Brenton Tarrant of Islamophobia and nurtured his hatred until it blossomed into mass murder, and even that sudden horror could be made old and disposable by our sundowning racist president echoing him the very next day and paving the low road for the next one.

As Tarrant (allegedly) sprayed the inside of a Christchurch mosque with bullets, a three-year-old named Mucad Ibrahim appeared to mistake what he was doing for the video games he'd seen his brothers play and ran toward him. He's dead. You can try to fix him in your mind—overlay the laughter you've heard from children his age or picture a toothily off-kilter grin on his face as he breaks into a wobbly run—but no matter how tightly you hold onto this image, it will dim and bleed into another, and there will be another. He will depart from memory more gradually than he departed from life, but this much of him will be lost too, and the same people that engineered the circumstances that took him from the world are counting on that.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.