Susan J. Demas: What we owe our children after the horror at MSU
Michigan State University students and members of surrounding communities pay their respects for victims of the mass shooting on MSU’s campus at the Spartan Statue on Feb. 14, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)
Michigan State’s sprawling campus has been home to thousands, like my daughter, during some of the most exciting and demanding years of their lives. It can feel like just about everyone in the state has a connection to the school in one way or another.
And so, there are countless personal stories about the Michigan State mass shooting.
Mine is not particularly special. But here it is.
My kid was staying late for a couple activities on campus Monday night and I was set to pick her up for a late dinner. But because I was editing a late-breaking story, I ended up arriving on campus a few minutes late. Looking back, I am hyper-aware of the time she clambered into the car and rolled her eyes at me for working late again (8:08 p.m.). I know when we passed by Berkey Hall, where she’d had meetings before (8:12 p.m.). I know when we pulled into our driveway (8:21 p.m.).
Because at 8:37 p.m., she got the alert — and it was unlike anything she’d ever seen from MSU, although there had been threats and incidents before. There was an active shooter situation on campus and she was told to shelter-in-place if she could. If not: “Run, Hide, Fight.”
What a thing for young people to read. If no one is coming to save you from slaughter, here are some rules of combat to quickly memorize. Because at any time in a country awash in guns, your life could become a war zone.
Then came the terrified messages in all her group chats. Her friends walking home after their meeting were desperately trying to find places to hide. Others were barricaded in their apartments or dorms. Everyone was crying. Some were having panic attacks. One person with a heart condition later had to get medical help.
For so many of us in the MSU family, it’s like time and real life suddenly stopped at 8:37 p.m. Monday and became a slow-moving nightmare.
She reached out to everyone, even people who had graduated and were living in New York or Chicago. She texted people she hadn’t talked to in years.
Are you safe? Are you OK?
The messages were endlessly horrifying.
Every wild rumor spreading on Twitter and Snapchat popped up by the millisecond. There were so many reports that the gunman was wantonly roaming from building to building.
Nobody felt safe.
Nobody knew what was really going on. Nobody knew what was true. Nobody knew what information to trust.
When my daughter showed me every new ghastly message, all I could do was hug her, gently mumbling that scanner traffic is notoriously inaccurate, reporters sometimes get things wrong in the heat of the moment, and viral posts are usually hoaxes. None of that was remotely comforting. Nothing was. In those moments, you cling to anything that might give you a little peace of mind through the horror. But your expertise will not save you from the anguish, the powerlessness, the overwhelming guilt.
I was one of the few parents lucky enough to be able to hold my child in my arms throughout the entire ordeal. For so many others, Monday night was about trying to breathe while waiting for a call, a text — any sign that their babies were OK.
If you were an outside observer, it probably seemed like it was all over relatively quickly, as police within hours located the gunman who was already dead. But for so many of us in the MSU family, it’s like time and real life suddenly stopped at 8:37 p.m. Monday and became a slow-moving nightmare.
It’s a nightmare from which three students, Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser and Alexandria Verner, will never wake up. It’s a nightmare that their friends and family will relive again and again. It’s a nightmare for five other injured students who have been fighting for their lives and for everyone who loves them.
One of those students happens to be my daughter’s friend. And I’m not going to say anything else about that right now because that’s not my story to tell. But all of this has been devastating.
What I will say is in these last few days, so many of us discovered just how small of a place MSU is under the grimmest of circumstances. In life, each one of us touches so many people. It’s something that we rarely pause to think about. The ripple effects of tragedies like this are almost incomprehensible.
I have seen so many acts of kindness and comfort, from students who don’t even know each other talking and hugging each other to people bringing therapy dogs on campus to provide some respite even for a moment.
When my daughter wanted to go to the vigil Wednesday night, my first instinct as a mom was to keep her far away from campus for as long as possible — even though I’d been there three times because it’s my job as a journalist. But it was her decision. And she wanted to be there with thousands of others as they all grappled with fear, anger and grief, alone and together.
But I have also seen unimaginable cruelty. We’ve come to expect anonymous accounts taunting survivors after catastrophes, but heaping that kind of pain on anyone is vile. And there are also political operatives and leaders proudly trolling everyone with pro-gun propaganda who should be deeply ashamed.
So I am amazed by students like mine who are already working to turn their pain into sweeping societal change, showing up to the Capitol this week to demand real gun reform. I can tell you that they are going to keep showing up and no one should ignore them. Lawmakers should know better than to try to placate them with platitudes about “thoughts and prayers” or insist that mental health is the only problem.
We have two generations of kids who have grown up doing lockdown drills in school like it’s as normal as learning your ABCs — sometimes starting in preschool. We have sent them the clear message that they were always at risk for a mass shooting like the one at MSU and 72 others in America in this year alone. And so, sadly, but not surprisingly, some arrived on campus as survivors of Oxford or other shootings.
That’s another form of slow-moving trauma. It has been ignored for too long.
So many young people have had enough. Doing everything we can to ensure that they do not have to survive another combat zone seems like the bare minimum of a functioning society.
Too many times, kids are told it’s up to them to build a better world. But we owe them so much. And it’s really on all of us to stop failing them.
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Susan J. Demas