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The peculiar geography of tragedy

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Ed Quillen | Jan 31, 2011 12:15 PM

Within hours of the Jan. 8 shopping-mall shooting spree  in Arizona, there was already a journalistic term for it: Tucson, as in "How can we prevent another Tucson?"
 
Tucson is a city with 544,000 residents  where lots of things happen besides 19 people getting wounded, six of them fatally. People live, work, play and worship there, just as in every other city. But now it's tagged as a synonym for a tragedy.
 
We tend to assign place names to horrible events: Ludlow, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, Bosque Redondo, Pearl Harbor, Virginia Tech, Waco, Ruby Ridge, etc.
 
But not always. When we talk about 9-11, we use the date, rather than locations like Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, or Shanksville, Pa. And sometimes when we go by geography, it's not an accurate geography.
That's the case with Columbine,  where two students killed 13 others, and themselves, on April 20, 1999.
 
This one hit home in a strange way because I have a daughter named Columbine (my wife and I joke that it's an old Ute term for "My parents were hippies in the mountains," but in reality, it's the Colorado state flower and in 1975 we thought Columbine would make a pretty name for our first child).
 
And for a while after the shootings, our Columbine (she's now a bar manager in Oregon and keeps a blog) collected a scrapbook of headlines like "No more Columbines" and "Preventing another Columbine." She took it all in pretty good humor, considering that common responses had changed from "Oh, what a pretty name" to "That name must be a burden."
 
The shootings happened at Columbine High School. Many accounts said it was in Littleton, a suburb south of Denver, but Littleton (seat of Arapahoe County) isn't even in the same county as the high school, which eat in unincorporated Jefferson County, 

To add to the peculiarity of this geographical reference, especially for a history buff, Colorado already had a place named Columbine -- a ghost town about 200 miles away from the school, up by Steamboat Springs. So calling the tragedy "Columbine" seemed even more inappropriate.
 
But as a journalist, I realize the need for verbal shortcuts. Headlines have to fit, and as my old colleague at the Denver Post, Bob Ewegen, was fond of remarking, "Journalism is the art of relentless oversimplification." So for a while, whether it's fair or not, "Tucson" is going to be the short locution for "murder and mayhem at a shopping mall." 

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colo.

tragedy in red states
larry kurtz
larry kurtz
Jan 31, 2011 12:43 PM
The news that Jared Loughner had been pulled over three hours before his Safeway date, clicked. That his behavior had been documented by poorly-equipped staff, clicked. An isolated manchild with access to guns, clicked. When a troubled college student was involved it clicked again. Five instances of domestic terrorism; five red states.

Think about it: except for the attacks of September 11 (because some would argue that that was a case of domestic terrorism, too) mass killings take place overwhelmingly more often in red states.

Timothy McVeigh was 27, Eric Robert Rudolph, part of the Christian Identity movement, was 30, Eric Harris was 18 and Dylan Klebold, 17, Seung-Hui Cho was 23, Nidal Hasan was 39, Jared Loughner, 22. Average age--25 years. The acts of domestic terrorism were all committed by these guys in red states. All seven men were victims of bullying, isolation, and ostracism. All seven had histories of extensive video game exposure and easy access to firearms. Distrust of government was a factor in most, if not all of these episodes. Ted Kaczinski, likely master of the minds in all these events, punctuates this post since he resided in Montana, a red state when, at 36, his activism morphed. His case changes the average age to 26.5.

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