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  • The Story of Generation Why

    My oldest son received his master’s degree on Thursday. Less than 24 hours later, a 17-year-old gunman killed eight of his classmates and two teachers in a high school only 16 miles from my childhood home.

    The shooting at Santa Fe High School was and is disturbing for all the reasons you can imagine: Another senseless loss of lives. Another incident of gun violence in a country marred by decades of it. Another realization that, no matter how many steps local districts take, preventing someone determined to come into a classroom with a firearm is perhaps just … not … possible?

    My four children are 25, 21, 20 and 20. Ben and Emma were 16 months old when Columbine occurred. Kate was 2 and Nicholas was in first grade. We count ourselves lucky that nothing like this happened to them when they were in school.

    What does that say about our society?

    ••••••

    This school shooting was the third in eight days and the 22nd since the start of the year in the U.S. It occurred just three months and four days after 17 were slain at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School, which led to two student walkouts and the March for Our Lives events across the nation.

    I was at the March in Washington, D.C., taking photos and working on a freelance story about youth who were galvanized by the movement started by Stoneman Douglas students. I didn’t write the headline for the story, which looked at whether the Florida shooting could lead to a new era of civic engagement, but believe it is perfect.

    It reads: Generation Why.

    “Why?”

    That’s the burning question asked first and most often when something like this happens. We are on an endless search for motive, a trend that will be the path to answers. Camps form within minutes, if not seconds, on social media. The phrase “thoughts and prayers,” no matter how sincere in intent, now is considered a synonym for doing nothing.

    At the March, I interviewed more than 20 students and adults for a series of portraits that would accompany the story. (Some are in the magazine article; you can find the portraits in expanded form here.) I was struck by the kids’ determination not to go through life afraid of going to school.

    Despite our need to understand why something happens, we are stubbornly resistant to one-size-fits-all answers, which leads to an endless round robin of he-said, she-said rhetoric that does no one any good. It’s not guns; it’s people. It’s not people; it’s guns.

    Grieving quickly turns to shouting. Nothing happens. And we wait, knowing that it likely — inevitably — will happen again.