One by one, in the most profoundly personal ways, they told us what the depraved violence of June 28, 2018 had cost them.
One by one, relatives of the Capital Gazette shooting victims described what the killer took from them: a brother who was “the curator of obscure family memories” and helped his siblings recall happy times from childhood; a dad who never failed to express pride in his daughter and celebrated when she found a job and found her way; a mother who would be there when a daughter fell in love, graduated from college or discovered a fulfilling career; a big sister who would serve as a role model and inspiration; a good newspaper editor who would mentor young reporters and educate a new generation of journalists; a quiet and shy man who would write a love poem for his wife every Valentine’s Day, and a husband who would join his wife in an idyllic retirement they imagined as Seurat’s painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
The horrible mass shooting at the newspaper office in Annapolis left five people dead — Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, John McNamara and Gerald Fischman — and scars all over their friends and relatives. A reporter who survived the shooting said she suffers from post traumatic stress, becomes distracted at work and is less productive. A sister said “everything I had worked for suddenly had no meaning.” A widow said she went to a restroom to cry while at a dealer to sell her late husband’s car.
It went like this for an hour and a half, a cascade of heartbreaking stories from the day of the shooting and its long aftermath that made me want to leave the courtroom, call everyone in my family and tell them I love them.
The killer, with long hair and glasses, half his face covered with a pandemic mask, sat off to the left side of the courtroom, and while he seemed to listen attentively to this testimony, it’s hard to know what, if anything, he thought or felt. If you go by what the prosecutor said, the killer took grotesque pride in the pain he caused. Testimony at his trial revealed that he had only one regret about what he did — that he did not kill more of our colleagues at the Capital Gazette, which is owned by Baltimore Sun Media.
He got what he deserved and apparently wanted — the rest of his life in prison with no chance of parole.
Was this closure for the families, old friends and co-workers of the victims? Whoever came up with “closure” surely must have been trying to describe the experiences of others. I’ve never met a relative of a victim of violence — or a survivor of it — who did not live with some degree of torment the rest of their lives, vulnerable to some song or image that reminded them of the father, husband, mother, sister, brother, admired co-worker or friend suddenly gone because of a violent act. And the list of victims stretches to the heavens now.
Before the Annapolis horror, there had been thousands of mass shootings across the country and here in Maryland. In October 2017, a man shot five co-workers at Advanced Granite Solutions in Harford County; three of them died. One of the survivors suffered brain damage. His small children, he said in his victim impact statement, “can tell I am not the same dad as before.” A judge sentenced the shooter to life without parole.
A few months after the Capital nightmare, there was another workplace shooting, also in Harford County, at a Rite Aid distribution warehouse. A woman who had been diagnosed with severe mental illness was able to purchase a handgun. She used it to shoot seven workers. Three of them died. The woman shot and killed herself.
There have been so many mass shootings by now — and so many homicides on the streets of American cities, including, of course, Baltimore — they barely make a dent in the conscience. It’s now implanted in our heads, the fear of violence in the ordinary walk of life. And there does not seem to be a solution. We’re a nation with more guns than people and a broken political system, and one side refuses to end its marriage to the gun industry. With one exception — health insurance for the previously uninsured — the lack of progress against obvious problems defines America in the 21st Century and explains the simmering despondency we all feel.
I came across a tweet left for the social media universe by a woman I assumed to be in her 20s, perhaps early 30s: “This is something that many older people don’t seem to understand. There is a spike of mental illness in younger generations because of how society has deteriorated and there is a widespread feeling of anxiety and nihilism.”
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It’s not hard to understand why someone would express that. Young people must wonder, if not worry, whether they can fix the world they are inheriting: With climate change, with deaths from drug overdoses, day-to-day gun violence and mass shootings like the one in Annapolis that caused so much pain, that deprived a daughter of the consoling mother, a sister of the witty brother, a wife of the romantic husband, a brother of the inspiring sister, a woman of a partner in retirement and a retirement like a Sunday in the park.