A flood of pictures, a trickle of grief

The official memorial ceremony was held 10 days ago on the first day of Spring.  Rebirth, renewal.


Memorial for whom?  Have we forgotten already?

Sixteen people, most of them school students, gunned down in classrooms, in the halls, on the street of any town, because it could happen anywhere – Germany, Finland, Norway, Canada… Don’t kid yourself – it’s not just an American thing.

You know, I really wanted to write something about Winnenden the day it happened, but I just couldn’t.

It was just so senseless, so incredibly mindless, and too close to home somehow.

I was working that day – I work in TV news – and as the wires in their ceaseless, droning regularity upped the numbers over six hours first from two, then to five, to nine, to 11, to 14, to 15, to 16, to 17, then back down to 16, I remained, as usual and as is expected, cooly distant to it all.  Doing my job without thinking about the people involved, whether it’s a school shooting or another boiler-plate Baghdad bombing,  plane crash or 100-storey buildings collapsing into smoke and ash: just chasing after pictures, relaying info to colleagues and staying on top of it all to help make sure our shows were getting out OK.

Until exactly 1455, when about 20 seconds of video came across of a woman – maybe 50, 55 – seen from a long shot, her hands on her face as she’s breaking down in tears, buckling at the knees as a man turns to support her, another beside her at a cellphone perhaps trying to get information, then the next shot from another angle a little later of paramedics escorting the distraught woman to a safe area.

We’re all supposed to remain so professional.  So on the job.   We have to treat the pictures for their value and their content without being affected by them, but as I was phoning to offer them to the editor of the news exchanges as is my job, for the first time in nine years on the desk my voice was actually breaking.

As I saw those pictures come in I was suddenly flooded with thoughts that I could very easily have been the one standing there,  that it could have been my kid in that school, that my wife as a high school teacher could just as easily have been one of the teachers there, that I could one day be the one to get the call that would pretty much destroy the foundation of my life in this foreign outpost.

This in a work culture of passionate indifference, where maintaining a balance between commitment and dedication to the timely distribution of the facts must be balanced by a cool disengagement to their enormity.

I wasn’t the only one to have trouble keeping an iron gaze.

The chief of police talking to reporters in Winnenden that day stood and gave his statements in measured tones, but his eyes flooded wet when he said, “…we’re naturally doing everything we can to support the parents at this time, but I’ve been over there among them and I have to tell you, it’s damn hard to look them straight in the eye.”

I allowed myself to imagine how the parents must be feeling. It was fleeting, but it caught me off guard.  We’re all human, we can’t stop feelings, but like a surgeon with Tourette’s Syndrome, we have to be able to keep them switched off or be unable to function.

In the end I posted something frivolous about Obama chicken fingers which received dozens of comments, but somehow regret it.

15 Responses to “A flood of pictures, a trickle of grief”

  1. March 31, 2009 at 8:16 am

    Very tough I know to remain distant. I had to get out of news because I couldn’t. Sad, because being a journalist was my dream, but at least I have found other avenues. That aside, there’s no taking away that Winnenden was and will remain for the families a nightmare come true.

  2. 2 G
    March 31, 2009 at 9:11 am

    I was in the US when I read the news. It seems that my threshold for hearing about (I don’t look at it) violence against children is so low that I need to avoid more than the barest description. The enormity of the losses is so great that I don’t want to wrap my brain around it. It’s not that we ignore it (in my case) it’s that we just can’t deal.

  3. 3 lilalia
    March 31, 2009 at 10:32 am

    At home, we all were following the news updates as you were. Feeling numb with horror. We talked at the dinner table. The next day, numerous teachers took time out of their classes to further discuss the tragedy and the necessity to be respectful (e.g. how media can exploit an individual’s privacy by taking photos of the deceased) and considerate (e.g. looking out for your classmates). I know the situation is very complex; that it just isn’t the violent media consumption, or his father owning guns, or being under psychological treatment, yet, I can’t help but wonder why the young man could have found other way out of his hellish existence. Thanks Ian for writing this post. It is timely, because only now can I read your words and consider them without shock or fear.

  4. March 31, 2009 at 11:01 am

    It’s moving to read something this honest. I think you did the right thing in waiting. Too soon and there’s that inevitable whiff of bandwagon-ing, of exploitation.

  5. March 31, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    I’ve often wondered how journalists manage to maintain a cool distance from a disaster that’s unfolding before them. Here in New York, the coverage of 9/11 was surprisingly void of overwrought emotion.

  6. March 31, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    It’s a challenge to keep an open heart while not being overwhelmed, especially when we can so easily identify with the tragedy. Thank you for this post.

  7. March 31, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    It’s been several weeks since the horrendous fires in Australia that claimed so many lives. Yesterday while driving home I heard an interview with a couple who’d lost everything but survived though their neighbours on either side didn’t.

    I didn’t cry at the time of the fires but listening to their story weeks later was so affecting. Especially when I realised I’d buried that recent tragedy beneath all the other bad news that comes flooding in every day……

    So many sad stories. It takes a special kind of person to work in news, but then again, I don’t suppose you’d want my job either would you Ian?

  8. April 1, 2009 at 7:01 am

    Part of the reason I couldn’t write about it was the shock of it all, another was not wanting to be too open in case collegues stumble upon it and disapproved somehow. I almost never mention my work, and when I do, it’s in an oblique way. This was probably the furthest I’ve ever gone to a full-fledged post about what I do for a living, but it took two weeks of hemming and hawing.

    Nurse – yes, I would never want to set foot in a hospital or an old folk’s home unless I were carrying a bunch of flowers as a visitor, nor would I want to get up in front of a classroom day after day and deal with all the BS as my wife does.

  9. April 1, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Well timed, lest we allow this horror to fade away amongst the many diversions in our lives.
    Putting on the face of “it doesn’t matter” to remain professional in these situations is one thing, to be able to deal with and put your pain into words after the fact is something special.
    I remember very well working a morning radio show on September 11, 2001 and swallowing hard throughout what turned into an extended six hour broadcast just to keep my voice from cracking and the tears from flowing.

  10. April 1, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Thank you for the moving and personal post. As a recent expat, I normally feel very much the outsider, but in the face of such senseless and total loss, suddenly I feel very much the global citizen, connected to the victims regardless of nation; there is a commonality that connects.

  11. 11 CanadaFan
    April 3, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Thank you for your blog and especially for not posting anything the day and after it happened. I enjoyed reading your posts about other themes especially since I live close to Winnenden and I also have to do with TV.
    For me too it was not easy to understand – Erfurt is long ago and mostly you only hear about this happening in USA.
    First it was more easy for me to keep a distance because I have no kid. But after getting the message I have to work saturday because of the memorial service, I thought much more about it. Watching the memorial service made me sad on the one hand. On the other I think everybody who is older than the gunned down kids should be happy about being alive regardless of all the other problems he/she has.

  12. April 4, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Ian, we all do what we must do in our way and in our own time. Avoidance and humour are my mechanisms for coping with this sort of shock… humour unfortunatley cannot transcend human tragedy and is wholly inappropriate… avoidance is much easier but is cowardly and unhealthy. Good on you mate! BB

  13. April 5, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Ciao: yes it’s true, it could happen in any place in the world. To notice that if happen something in a place, after some days it happens in another place too. I remember in Italia a period of Italian military suicides almost in mass, started with one and followed by others , day by day. Sometimes the press does not really have respect, and after talking a lot then it seems like people forget. Well as someone say before me here in commentaries you made the right choice to wait.
    Good evening!

  14. April 6, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this so much, and finally remembered a comment made by an aunt who was living in NYC on 9/11. She was elderly then, and has died now, but she’d lived for decades on West 16th, entirely too close to the Towers for her family’s comfort after the attack.

    I called her that morning when I saw it on the news, and she didn’t answer the phone. When I called again in about an hour, she answered, and she was fine. She’d been out taking her morning walk when it happened. When I was able to get through again, about three days later, the phone was unanswered. Finally, I got in touch with her and asked where she’d been. She had been out, taking her walk. I asked her why. She said, “Because that’s what I do.”

    That morning, after watching television for an hour or so, I picked up my things and went to work, because that’s what I do. And that’s why I found no offense in your post. That’s one of the things you do. In times of crisis and horror, there can be great comfort in looking around and seeing people go on, doing what they do.

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