By Danielle B. Szabo, Editor-in-Chief
Graphic by Daniella Ashley Mazzio
Fellow Grappler Ben Claus’ play, 52 Hertz, offers a unique look into the life of a school shooter. As the dramaturg on the production, I submerged myself into the research—Columbine, Virginia Tech, Buddhism, violence, masculinity, etc. I even had three school shooter nightmares. But now that I have had some time to reflect on the process, I am only left with questions rather than answers.
What makes a school shooter? What do we do after a tragedy?
From the opening “Oscar Speech,” the audience knows that there will be a shooting. Checkov’s gun demands it. The stakes are high throughout the first act as Cold Killer’s motivation unravels. After I watched the first run, I suddenly realized that these were high school students. They were sitting at lunch table eating peanut butter and jelly, talking about the school play. 52 Hertz is life and death, but the action is still cocooned in perfectly normal teenage concerns and hopes. Auditions. First time having sex. Parents, Teachers. Grades.
I thought back to my high school self — my fears and obstacles seem so silly to this almost college grad. But at the time, they were real fears and anxieties that caused me to feel alone and cry to Panic at the Disco! on the ride home. Hindsight sometimes desensitizes us to how difficult it is to live through an experience — we survived, but we only know now that it is possible to survive.
I don’t pretend to understand what Cold Killer or any other mass shooter were going through, nor do I want to give them an excuse for their behavior and absolve them of the proper blame. But I do want them to be seen in the context of people with actual human struggles and experiences that we might be able to bring ourselves to relate to. Not a single part of them isn’t human. They aren’t made of scary DNA or cells, of different bones or organs.
Jiva, the Tibetan Buddhist who wrestled with Cold Killer’s demonic spirit, said, “Because he is still a human being… He only could trigger the gun because I was how I was. He could only kill because you were how you were… When you see a cloud in a piece of paper, everything is because of everything else.”
Tragedies, and the people who knowingly cause them, are a part of our world. We cannot think of them as outside of ourselves, as an other-worldly experience.
But is Cold Killer redeemable? Do we want to watch a play about school shooters and find out they have some really compelling reason that drove them to murder?
Well, the problem is… they don’t. Cold Killer repeatedly says in the afterlife that his life wasn’t even that bad.
Lucinda Roy was a professor at Virginia Tech. In 2005, she was the head of the English Department. They had a student who was scaring other professors and students with his violent writing. Roy, even with a full class load and department duties, took the time to personally counsel and teach this student. Two years later he would still go on to commit the largest school shooting in history.
After reading about Roy, I don’t know if I could reasonably spend that much time with someone like Cold-Killer. I don’t know if there are many who can. She talked about the experience being physically draining and unnerving. There were these small moments where Roy could see his humanity, but it would disappear soon under a hard shell of anger and apathy.
Apathy is a human emotion, but if it’s being used as a shield for hurt and anguish, what weapons do we have to break through to someone? How much time and energy is required to defeat apathy?
I finally watched Bowling for Columbine for the first time and I wonder if Moore is looking in the right direction. Something about the culture of the United States might be creating a cesspool of apathy where Cold-Killers are made. And that culture also creates roadblocks in us being able to connect to Cold-Killers before it’s too late.
Do we need to be like Roy and reach out more?
Do we need to be like Jiva and study our past actions?
Do we need to be like Mr. Windsor and create more platforms of self-expression?
I have no answers.
I have no resources or weapons or strategies for severe apathy. Or even the complex web of hate and pain that lies underneath.
My only hope is that art like this and discussions like this can start to propel us towards answers.