A woman lays flowers at a memorial site at Columbia Mall

A woman lays flowers at a memorial site at Columbia Mall (January 30, 2014)

"I told him, 'Dude, I can't play GTA today.'" Damanti Melvin, a lanky young man in a red plaid shirt, shook his head as he related the conversation to the stocky blond kid standing with him.

Damanti and Collin Morley were waiting patiently in line next to me at the Columbia Mall on Monday to sign condolence books for those killed in the Saturday shooting.  Apparently the reality of senseless bloodshed had dulled the appeal of the simulated violence in the video game, Grand Theft Auto.

"So did you shop there?" I asked, referring to Zumiez, the skate and surf store where the two clerks were killed.

The tall young man held out his phone.  "This is her."

In the photo, a grinning Brianna Benlolo posed with Damanti in front of the store, one arm around his waist, the other outstretched proudly.

"I'm so sorry," I replied.

Then their stories tumbled out.  Everyone loved Brianna.  Kids would come hang out at the shop just to be around her.  She had turned Damanti’s birthday around from a flop into a hit.  He had just talked to her two days before the shooting when she was heading on break to get a bite at the food court.

"This just doesn't make sense," said Collin. 

We signed the condolence books, tossed white daisies into the central fountain in memory of Brianna and her co-worker Tyler Johnson, hugged and went our separate ways.

The mall was oddly empty.  Clusters of law enforcement officers kept watch at entrances and strolled amid the few shoppers.  Inside stores, there was little conversation, some strained smiles -- no laughter.

It reminded me of another place I had been the day it returned to “normal” back in 2001 –- Reagan National Airport, the day flights resumed after the 9/11 attacks.  Travelers went about their business in hushed tones, while volunteers passed out yellow buttons with American flags that read, “Thanks for traveling.”

The day of the shooting, I’d planned to take my 19-year-old daughter shopping at the Columbia Mall five miles from our house.  She was going back to college and needed heavier winter clothes for the frigid walks across campus.  But I had a cold and so delayed departing that morning.

 “Mom, I’m scared,” exclaimed Kara when she heard about the shooting, wrapping her arms around my neck as tears welled up in her eyes.  Her best friend worked at the mall, and it had been her crowd’s favorite hangout spot since middle school.  As a child, it was where she and her sister had their pictures taken with Santa and the Easter bunny.  It wasn’t where people got shot and mothers and children had to dive behind tables and clerks hide in locked storerooms.

During my career as a television correspondent, I grew accustomed to seeing communities pick up the pieces after tragedy and disaster.  It was, and is, never easy.  As devastating as natural disasters could be, it was man’s inhumanity to man that was always the hardest to fathom.

Yet time after time, I saw heroes emerge, families and friends pull together and communities determined that the event would neither define nor destroy them.

As the investigation in Columbia moves forward, there will be proposals to prevent such tragedies in the future –- and we must try.  We must create a more caring, connected society that values compromise over confrontation, where we solve conflict through dialogue not violence and where mental health care is readily accessible.

If it sounds like I’m describing utopia, that’s what the planned community of Columbia was founded on in the '60's.  Developer Jim Rouse dreamed of a place free of racial, religious and class segregation where residents could "grow in character, in personality, in love of God and neighbor and in the capacity for joyous living."

Despite all it lost Saturday morning, I believe Columbia, Md. actually grew stronger that day.  Fleeing shoppers helped one another.  Store clerks protected their customers.  People did the right thing when faced with the unimaginable.   And the law enforcement response was swift and organized.

Bumper stickers for the county read "Choose Civility.”" Now, we choose resilience.


Kathleen Koch (www.kathleenkoch.com) is a former CNN Washington correspondent and author of Rising from Katrina: How My Mississippi Hometown Lost It All and Found What Mattered. She now speaks around the world on disaster and resilience. Her email address is  kathleenlkoch@gmail.com