On Monday morning, students at Michigan State will return to class and attempt, as the saying goes, to pick up the pieces. But the pieces you pick up after a tragic loss are merely the ones that are left. When you put them back together, there is always something missing.
The pieces that the Anderson family will pick up will no longer include their daughter, Arielle, who was 19 when she died. Same for the Verner family, and their daughter, Alexandria, who was 20. The pieces that the Fraser family will pick up will not contain their 20 year-old son, Brian, who breathed his last Monday night in East Lansing.
The pieces picked up by the five MSU students who were wounded in that shooting spree will forever carry a scar now, an ache, a pain, a throbbing, or some other physical reminder that a bullet from a madman pierced their flesh and shattered their world.
The pieces that the MSU students and faculty will pick up may fit together, but only around a big hole, where a calm and carefree campus used to be.
Innocence, lost. There’s an old expression in boxing, everybody has a plan until they get hit. Innocent people, young people, college students at a suburban university in the middle of a Midwestern state, don’t have plans for when a crazed shooter invades their space. Why should they? College is supposed to be a protected environment, a safe and nurturing place for academic and social growth.
But mental derangement knows no boundaries, and weaponized mental derangement can burst through any wall, building, or previously unimaginable space. And if you don’t think that Anthony McRae, a 43-year-old man who still lived in a room in his father’s house, reportedly didn’t talk to anyone, eat with anyone, but thought it was OK to load up with guns and rounds of ammunition and a note that read “Hi, my name is Anthony McRae” and “I will be shooting up MSU” — if you don’t think that represents mental derangement, then we need a new definition.
“Nobody can get in nobody’s brain but Jesus,” McRae’s father told the news media. But Jesus wasn’t in his son’s brain when he entered Berkey Hall on Monday night, killed two students and wounded five others in a single classroom, then proceeded onto the student union, killed another student, then headed back toward Lansing as if “he was walking home” the police said, and then, when confronted by officers, killed himself.
“There were no ties to Michigan State, no nothing,” said a confused and saddened Tom Izzo, the MSU basketball coach, last week. “Unfortunately for him, he killed himself. Unfortunately for us, we (are left with) no reason.
“When somebody walks in and does something that’s a racial issue, at least you know. When somebody walks in and does something to a professor that flunked them or a boss that fired them, at least you know.
“I mean, this seems so senseless. And that’s what makes it so discouraging. Because what could you have done?”
The endless cycle continues
What could you have done? What can be done now?
There will be much conversation on that subject this week. There always is. The first week is for mourning. The second week, debate. The third, fourth and fifth weeks, sadly, in the past, have been for doing nothing. Forgetting. Moving on. University of Virginia. Umpqua Community College. Uvalde, Texas. Parkland, Florida. America has a mosquito’s attention span, especially for things that are upsetting, or seem to have no answers, or involve guns. And sick people with gun access in open public places is a combination that apparently has no answers. Not in a free country. Not in a country with a Second Amendment. Not in a country where as soon as another mass shooting occurs — and we are averaging more than one per day this year — people line up and start screaming their same old lines.
“We need more gun laws!”
“We have plenty of gun laws!”
“There are too many guns in this country!”
“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people!”
“We need to limit access!”
“Limit access and only the bad guys will have them!”
“Fewer guns will solve the problem!”
“More guns will solve the problem!”
Don’t think Michigan State will make things different. It just feels that way because it happened in our backyard. But when school shootings happened in Florida, Oregon, California, did Michiganders spring into action, hold rallies, demand change? No.
So don’t expect the other 49 states to be as angry, frustrated or insistent on action as we are. Our governor, Gretchen Whitmer, vowed to do something. Our local lawmakers vowed to do something. We have a rare Democratic majority across state politics right now, so partisan bickering should not be the barrier.
But is political action really going to stop this madness?
“It is easier to walk out of a gun shop with a gun than it is to walk out of a dealer’s lot with a car,” said Michigan Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Detroit, the House majority floor leader. “That’s just preposterous to me. So we are absolutely looking at ways to ensure that we are vetting folks that are trying to purchase weapons. We’re exploring things like a cooling period so that if someone is having a mental health crisis, they’re not going to go purchase a weapon and shoot themselves. …
“It’s clear that there is a problem. And the common denominator is the unfettered, easy access to firearms. We need to rein that in. At this point, the conversation is clear. You are either on the side of our children, and the safety of our communities, or (on the side of) your obsession with guns.”
No place is truly safe
We should be clear here: If McRae had gone on his rampage in the streets of his Lansing neighborhood, and three were killed and five injured, it’s unlikely the state’s populace would be wringing its hands. That’s partly because we are so used to senseless violence and partly because we simply don’t show as much concern when it’s not our children at risk. That’s wrong. A life is a life. And an innocent life lost to bullets is tragic no matter where it happens.
But school shootings hit us in a particularly sensitive place. I spent part of last week interviewing students who endured the terrifying five hours after the police issued that secure-in-place “run, hide, fight” alert and they had to hide in classrooms, in dormitories, in bathrooms where they were too afraid to even flush the toilet.
They mostly said the same thing, that hunkering down, waiting, wondering, jumping at every sound, was unnerving, frightening, and distressing. But, sadly, they did not say it was unimaginable. Not in a nation where mass shooting is so commonplace. Not in a state that last year saw Oxford High School forever shattered by a teenage gunman who killed four and wounded seven.
“In my high school, we had some students whose moms were teachers at Oxford,” an MSU freshman named Mina Badhwar told me. “I don’t want to say we’re lucky we knew how to handle everything, but we did end up having conversations about like, ‘hey, this could happen.’ ”
Hey, this could happen. It is the mantra of our time. Not “This could never happen.” Not “This should never happen.” Hey, this could happen. Because it can, and it does, anywhere, any place, and it will keep happening (there was another mass shooting last week after MSU, leaving six dead in Mississippi) because we don’t really address guns in this country, we just spit venom at each other, and we don’t really address the core issues behind these lone assassin shootings — the alienation, isolation, depression and disconnect that our society is producing in increasing numbers.
And how do you legislate against that?
You don’t. You can’t. You need to fix families. To need to fix social media-obsessions. You need to fix violent entertainment. You need to fix prescription drugs. You need to fix our drift from faith, civics, brotherhood, shame. There are so many ingredients that splash into the cocktail of hopelessness that leads people like Anthony McRae to lash out, make a statement, to declare to the world “I am!” by killing others before turning the gun on themselves.
Until then, what do we do? Close campuses? Erect walls? Lock everything down?
“I do believe that would help to a certain degree,” said Badhwar. “But we shouldn’t have to be taking those precautions. Like, I consider this place my home. I don’t want to see it you know, constantly …”
Turned into a fortress?
How can we fix this?
Everyone in Michigan now knows about a campus shooting. Two years ago, a high school. This year, a university. Heaven forbid an elementary school is next.
A writer in this newspaper last week suggested rage was the proper response. But rage is what’s causing the problem. Rage inside lonely, isolated minds. Rage mixing with weaponry. Rage over what laws should or shouldn’t be touched.
Rage is what needs to be turned down. Safety and precaution are what need to be turned up. Compassion, understanding, and services for those struggling with demons need to be turned up. Compromise on hardened positions needs to be turned up. Legal action based in humanity and security, not profit or politics, needs to be turned up.
Do we have that within us? We’d better find it. Because we know that twisted anger is within us. And it keeps finding willing soldiers to lash out with firearms. It haunts the teenagers at Oxford. It haunts the young adults at MSU. It haunts the parents who send their precious children off to be educated and have to pray that they come home alive.
Picking up the pieces. The process begins for students, faculty, staff and families in East Lansing. But the picture will look different when their pieces are reassembled. What bullets shatter, you cannot replace.
What, fellow citizens, are we going to do about it?