Admittedly, schools are worse, especially elementary schools. High schools are horrible, too. Nightclubs, music and art festivals, and movie theaters are maybe slightly more terrifying to imagine if you're a grown-up. But the workplace mass shooting bears a particular strain of dread. And when it happens at the same kind of office you work in, targeting people who do the same kind of work you do, specifically because they do that kind of work, well... you'd think it would be shocking.
But beyond the deaths of Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, and Wendi Winters, beyond the nightmare of people like crime reporter Phil Davis and photographer Paul Gillespie, who had to hide under desks while hearing their colleagues being murdered, then had to jump over the dead bodies of people they knew and cared about to try and escape, beyond the incomprehensible trauma faced by all the victims and their families, the most shocking thing about the mass shooting at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis is that it happened yesterday and it's already a memory.
Gunman shot through the glass door to the office and opened fire on multiple employees. Can't say much more and don't want to declare anyone dead, but it's bad.
— Phil Davis (@PhilDavis_CG) June 28, 2018
The most shocking thing about the murders of these people is that it's simply not shocking anymore when five people are murdered for no reason. It goes without saying that their deaths were unjust, horrible, and sad, but unjust, horrible, and sad are first principles for life in the airless shadow of Trump America. It's getting so you have to stack rank the tragedies—where does Annapolis fit among caged babies, rampant homelessness, systemic racism in law enforcement, the near-certain prospect of an unshakably religiously-conservative bench bent on rolling back reproductive rights?
Yesterday afternoon, these murders were breathtakingly monstrous. As the details of the scene emerged—thanks to the work of diligent reporters, PS—they began to evoke a deeper form of dread: the kind that recognizes the utter nightmare of such a scenario unfolding and then reflexively compares it to all the other nightmares that have befallen innocent people because guns are so easy to obtain in this country.
There is nothing more terrifying than hearing multiple people get shot while you're under your desk and then hear the gunman reload
— Phil Davis (@PhilDavis_CG) June 28, 2018
But #AnnapolisShooting soon tumbled down the list of trending topics and was soon replaced by some other temporary fascination. Twenty-four hours later, it's still on the minds of lots of people, but the murders have clearly not retained its primacy in the national conversation. Probably because it didn't say enough of the fighting words we're all keeping an ear cocked for when shots begin to ring out.
Annapolis, in other words, was just a normal mass shooting.
They got a suspect. He didn't kill himself. The narrative of his alleged motive rings true. He appears to have been neither a particularly ardent Christian nor a Muslim, neither merely white nor obviously international, neither a Trumpet nor an anarchist. He was a violent monster with an obsessive vendetta against the paper because he didn't like a story it published about his criminal harassment of a woman online.
He didn't even use an assault rifle, so that "debate" had to stay on the table. He used the kind of gun you can buy for less than $200 at any sporting goods store, for which no permit is required. The Washington Post reported that the shots came from a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, the kind of firearm that even hardcore gun control advocates say they would never dream of trying to deprive Americans of.
Also, only five people were killed, so as mass shootings go, it wasn't even a big one—just one over the official limit to even consider it a mass shooting.
The story in question ran in a column by Eric Thomas Hartley in 2011. You can read it in court documents. It described the process by which Ramos repeatedly contacted a woman on Facebook, then a relatively new social phenomenon, and after eventually being blocked by her, went on to harass her with a barrage of hostile and even threatening emails containing information about her he'd gathered from her friends' FB pages.
He also contrived to get her suspended, and possibly later fired from her job. She pursued criminal charges against him and he "pleaded guilty in District Court to a misdemeanor harassment charge," for which he received a 90-day suspended sentence, probation, and a court order to continue therapy and never contact the woman or her family again.
The following year, Ramos tried to sue the Gazette for defamation. He represented himself, and his case was dismissed, with prejudice. A revealing exchange from the court transcript:
THE COURT: You know, I understand exactly how you feel. I think people who are the subject of newspaper articles, whoever they may be, feel that there is a requirement that they be placed in the best light, or they have an opportunity to have the story reported to their satisfaction, or have the opportunity to have however much input they believe is appropriate. But that's simply not true. There is nothing in those complaints that prove that anything that was published about you is, in fact, false. It all came from a public record. It was of the result of a criminal conviction. And it cannot give rise to a defamation suit.
MR. RAMOS: I would add that the public record from which that statement came from, was not even identified in the column, there was nothing to lead a reader to understand where that statement was being taken from.
THE COURT: I understand that, but that does not make it false.
MR. RAMOS: But it makes it unfair.
THE COURT: I'm sorry, but I am going to dismiss your suit with prejudice.
Reading the story of Ramos's behavior with the unnamed woman in 2010, the Gazette story from 2011, and the failed defamation suit in 2012, is chilling in lots of ways, but more than anything for how familiar stories like this have become in the years since. In 2011, most people were only just beginning to glimpse the degree to which social media enabled and encouraged this kind of unbalanced, toxic behavior in men like Ramos. It began with him writing to thank her for being the only person who had ever been nice to him in high school. She didn't remember him but she was sympathetic, so she corresponded a little. "I just thought I was being friendly," she told the Gazette.
At first, she felt bad for him, so she shared some personal information and offered advice.
"'But when it seemed to me that it was turning into something that gave me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, that he seems to think there's some sort of relationship here that does not exist ... I tried to slowly back away from it, and he just started getting angry and vulgar to the point I had to tell him to stop,' she told the judge.
"'And he was not OK with that. He would send me things and basically tell me, "You're going to need restraining order now." "You can't make me stop. I know all these things about you." "I'm going to tell everyone about your life."
An email in April 2010 said, "Have another drink and go hang yourself, you cowardly little lush. Don't contact you again? I don't give a (expletive). (Expletive) you."
Later that month, the woman was suddenly put on probation at the bank where she worked. She said a supervisor told her it was because of an email from Ramos and a follow-up phone call in which he advised them to fire her.
In many ways, the mushrooming of his peculiar brand of toxic masculinity, committed as a private form of aggression using the tools and protections of the new, democratized form of social interaction has been the story of America's decline—particularly as it signals a panic response from a group that perceives a threat to its immemorial authority and dominance. (This is certainly the story of the rise of Donald Trump, and what phenomenon better illustrates American decline?)
It's meaningful that the story which allegedly incited Ramos's alleged violence was a plainspoken, accurate, and newsworthy account of the kind of crime that would only become more pervasive in the years that followed. It's meaningful that Ramos's well-documented grudge against the paper was entirely personal, unjustified by the kind of unfairness or inaccuracy that do, in fact, sometimes make it hard to defend a given story or a given publication.
But in the end, it's a lot more meaningful that the subject of this accurate, unflattering story, having been shut down by the woman whose attention he wanted, then having been shut down by a court of law, then having been shut down by a newspaper, then having been shut down by another court in his effort at vindication, would pick up a gun and start killing people.
The irony that not one of the people who wrote, edited, or even designed the column still work at the Gazette? Also meaningful, in the worst possible way.
From the Baltimore Sun's exemplary coverage of the shooting shortly after it happened:
Photographer Paul Gillespie had finished editing photos from one assignment and was preparing for the next when he heard shots behind him and the newsroom’s glass doors shatter.
He heard another shot, he said, dived under a co-worker’s desk “and curled up as small as I could.”
“I dove under that desk as fast as I could, and by the grace of God, he didn’t look over there,” he said. “I was curled up, trying not to breathe, trying not to make a sound, and he shot people all around me.”
Victims of Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis Gillespie said he heard one colleague scream “No!,” then a shot. Then another colleague’s voice, and another shot. He could hear the gunman approaching his hiding place.
“I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to die. I can’t believe this.’ ” Gillespie said.
But the gunman passed him, he said, and continued to shoot. Eventually, there was a lull in the shots. Gillespie stood and ran for the exit, through the shattered glass, jumping over the body of a colleague he believed was dead as another shot rang out in his direction.
He ran to a nearby bank and screamed for people to call the cops.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, all the regular things happened. The first responders responded. Reporting emerged. Twitter was all over it.
The president said more disingenuous bullshit:
Before going any further today, I want to address the horrific shooting that took place yesterday at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. This attack shocked the conscience of our Nation, and filled our hearts with grief... pic.twitter.com/LALXGhk04b
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2018
Other disgraceful politicians, their henchdaughters, and other like-minded orc army volunteers said some other disingenuous bullshit, taking time to congratulate the Gazette for getting a paper out while only linking to Fox News, attaching a couple of smug photos of himself, and also encoding a subtle, chickens-coming-home-to-roost-style affirmation of his followers' inclination to blame the paper for the suspect's psychotic grudge against it):
A big salute to the staff of the Gazette, who despite being traumatized and losing staffers to death and injury, vowed that the next day’s edition would come out, and they worked at home and got it out.https://t.co/KTvxSuVFVL pic.twitter.com/dVJ7cpH9S9
— Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee) June 29, 2018
Strongly condemn the evil act of senseless violence in Annapolis, MD. A violent attack on innocent journalists doing their job is an attack on every American. Our prayers are with the victims and their friends and families.
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) June 28, 2018
(Note the shrewd web of qualifiers spun by Sanders's gossamer grammar threads...)
Meanwhile, many more journalists and citizens expressed grief and esteem for their dead colleagues, fear, and disgust about the state of affairs that makes mass shootings as common as they are, and incandescent contempt for the way the current president has invited, enabled, and encouraged this kind of violence with cavalier language and meretricious pandering to the lowest biases of people who simply lack the moral intelligence to govern their own language and behavior.
Reading about the shooting at the Capital Gazette is gutting. I start crying every time not just because the loss of life is tragic but also because it makes me feel like no one understands what journalists do and who we are. So I'm going to try to explain: (1/?)
— Nyssa Kruse (@NyssaKruse) June 29, 2018
1/2For every bot, troll & Trumpist declaration that arrives saying the dead in Annapolis were in fact enemies of America, or that Trump's words are certain to be without influence, there are more good people offering kindness or reflecting on what words can do. But...
— David Simon (@AoDespair) June 29, 2018
And that was the story. A genuine tragedy, the tragic dimensions of which were pre-diminished by the continuity of the larger tragedy they inhere and reflect.
To be clear: This is in no way intended as a "how can you think about anal fisting at a time like this?!?" I no longer have it in me to blame or shame anyone who checks out of the news quagmire from time to time, anyone who deactivates any account for any reason at all. I don't want to think about it either.
The only problem is that I keep not being able to stop.
I didn't know any of the victims, never once read The Capital Gazette, and though journalism has been a huge part of my life for 25 years, certainly don't have the skills required to be a reporter at a daily paper, thus don't flatter myself with inclusion in the fraternity/sorority of journalism that was targeted in Annapolis. Nor do I believe that a mass shooting in a newsroom there makes one in Seattle any more statistically likely. For once in my life, I am not making this about me.
Well, maybe a little.
Reading the Sun's account of the scene, I felt a deep well of equal parts sorrow and anger—a bit like the feeling you get when you visit Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial in D.C.—rising in my gut, up through my gorge, and out through my eyes. Of course I cried for the victims who went to work and never went home, and the survivors who had to jump over their dead friends to escape.
From the perspective of a spectator, the real pain of this episode feels more metaphysical than personal. I understand this is the least violent, least murderous, most prosperous time in the history of the human race. And I understand that mass shootings are still statistical rarities. But I also know that this is an age where the story of the socially unacceptable man who murders a bunch of random strangers is practically a cliché. You hear there's been a shooting and it's almost like a horse race as the details begin to leak out: Christian terrorist or Islamic extremist? Personal grievance or religious fervor? Libertarian or Extreme Libertarian?
And the man who is unfathomably president of the United States wants it that way because he profits directly from the chaos that kind of reality generates. You can't attribute these shootings on Trump in a one-to-one way, just like you can't make the case that Facebook makes people like Jarrod Ramos into harassers, or even that guns force people to shoot each other. But the fact that each of these three stimuli make each of those three responses easier is an indisputable fact. That doesn't make them the cause. It just makes them not the enemy of the result.
Trump didn't invent the human capacity to say literally anything, no matter how uncivil, unreasonable, or untrue, in the service of refusing to admit you're wrong. But he is the one who emboldened a faction of socially unacceptable men to double down on this strategy as a way of being, or at least seeming, powerful. The problem is that the willingness to say literally anything diminishes the value of truth and narrows the power of language. And when the power of truth and language are diminished, the logical leap to murder is a lot easier to make, because if nothing means anything, why should human life?
The murders of Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, and Wendi Winters diminish us all, not because of what they did for a living, or where they were when they were murdered, but in the John Donne's seventeenth meditation sense:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Not to be hysterical: I know we all die, and I also know the history of the human race is the history of murder. However, these five deaths are five further illustrations of humanity's insistence on refusing to acknowledge its interconnectedness, to acknowledge the tolling of the bell.
I remember times, and not that long ago either, when a shooting like this—Charlie Hebdo, for example, a slaughter that differs from this one in the number of people who did the killing and the dying; the principle at work in both instances, "stop making fun of me," is essentially the same—would have been the occasion for hours-long meetings about how to even begin to address it in print and online. And not just at The Stranger. Everyone I knew would have had a strong opinion about what it means. What to do. What to write. What to even think.
The story of five people at a newspaper being murdered by a man who didn't like what had been written about him would have been a major world event.
Now it's Friday. Come Monday it'll feel like it happened years ago.