The peculiar geography of tragedy


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.