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Sean Kirst: Amid numbing wave of mass shootings, counting by ones

I first heard Wednesday about the bloodshed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the way we learn now of national horrors that once would have stopped us in our tracks.

There was a vague tweet about a shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla. When I turned on the television, news crews were already saying there had been many injuries, extent still unknown, and before long they were offering a body count:

At least 17 dead, including adults and students, a total The New York Times said Thursday "could rise even higher."

For a moment, I had a reflexive, almost numbed reaction to another "mass killing" in a nation that's witnessed escalating mayhem. Police soon arrested 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz and charged him with multiple counts of premeditated murder, amid reports that Cruz had a history of troubled, erratic behavior.

After 2017 was considered the worst year for mass shootings in modern American history, after recent slaughter on a monstrous scale in Las Vegas and at a church in Texas, after The Times reports that over 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings since the killing of 26 children and staff members in 2012, at Sandy Hook …

There is a temptation to put blinders on, to offer a quick prayer for the lost and hope that such a thing will never happen here, then to will ourselves on toward the next day.

At such an instant, I try and remember the Harvey Thomson rule.

I met Thomson in the 1990s. I was working at the time for The Post-Standard in Syracuse, and I had gone to Lockerbie, Scotland, to write about the aftermath of the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am 103, a jetliner downed by terrorists.

All 259 passengers and crew members were killed after a "boombox" packed with explosives tore apart the plane, and 11 people died in the village when the plummeting jet ignited a fireball.

The total count was 270 lost, a number hard to wrap our heads around. The bombing set off shock waves everywhere. Still, many in Lockerbie realized that it was easier for people far from the scene to process all the deaths as one vast casualty, as a reason to shudder at the cruelty in the world – then turn the page.

Harvey Thomson did not have that luxury.

The explosion occurred when the plane was tens of thousands of feet above the ground, and luggage and wallets and photographs were carried off by the wind that tore into the fuselage. Many of the items fell across the countryside, lacking any identification. It was up to Thomson and some of his colleagues to return each one – a mountain of artifacts – to grieving families.

To do that began with one requirement.

Of the hundreds dead, the constables had to fully understand the singular nature of each life.

Thomson spoke with relatives. He read letters and personal journals. He studied photos, and tried to match them to images once he developed scattered rolls of film, some of them recovered from farms or drainage ditches.

Part of the task meant delivering unopened Christmas presents, miraculously undamaged, to the people intended to receive them from passengers. He brought families baby bottles that still held the residue of formula or juice, meaning little children had probably been holding those bottles at the instant the bomb went off.

He came to know each victim so well that there were times he could return pieces of clothing, based on favorite colors.

It took a long time, after the attack, to accomplish the job. Thomson's wife, Margaret, said the duties had a deep and searing impact on her husband, sometimes leaving him isolated, emotionally far away. From the pain, he arrived at some hard wisdom.

What he came to understand, every time he read of some act of monstrous horror, is that the phrase "mass murder" provides a hard shell over the unbearably specific core of what's been lost.

As a civic official in Lockerbie once told me, when the people of his region hear now of mass fatalities, they always count by ones – a lesson we also learned in the worst fashion in Buffalo, nine years ago this month, when Flight 3407 fell to the ground in Clarence.

We are only beginning to take in some of the individual tales of loss from Florida. Yet the toll of dead, wounded and traumatized wraps in teachers, staff and hundreds of high school kids, and the Thomson rule can break down walls of distance between Broward County and Western New York.

Teenagers, at any place, are teenagers. If Douglas was like every other school, some of these kids were undoubtedly driven to succeed, their plans for college and careers already made, and some were dreamers still figuring it out. There were some who did not want to roll out of bed in the morning and some who slept with their phones two inches from their nose.

There were kids close to their parents and kids doing what so many high school kids do, rebelling and pushing away for their own identity, a phase many of us lived out and then watched reoccur with our own children.

[Sean Kirst: Writing helps to heal for woman who lost husband and home in Flight 3407 crash ]

Through experience, through what we took from going through that time ourselves, we understood that the space and silence kids sometimes need at 16 or 17 is repaid when they become closer to us than ever, as adults.

We just assume every child will get that fundamental chance. They ought to be able to go to school with no worries beyond the next exam, the next practice, the next date or what they'll do once they graduate – rather than the unthinkable notion of confronting a merciless killer in the halls.

Amid such terror, all innocence is stripped away. It is part of a void in a nation with too much violence and too much despair, where too many kids are ending up dead with needles in their arms on restroom floors in fast-food restaurants, where schools that once didn't need to lock their doors are increasingly becoming high-security fortresses, a statement unto itself about these times.

In the days to come, the debates will rise again in this country about all that's going wrong, about gun violence and mental health, about how to prevent or anticipate these outbreaks of raw slaughter. The only communion, the one shared place we can begin, really comes down to this.

If we follow the Harvey Thomson rule, what happened at Douglas High School is not simply a mass killing.

Follow that rule, and every student in that school becomes one of our children.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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