This is the final installment of “First-Person Target: A six-part series on fear and safety in the era of mass shootings,” a personal-participation journalistic endeavor about three years in the making.
To better understand my own feelings on these topics, I wore a bulletproof vest everywhere I went for a week. I then interviewed people I thought would have a special perspective on these issues.
The previous installments are here:
- Day 1, Friday: “I’ve chosen not to be afraid.”
- Day 2, Saturday: “God is weeping.”
- Day 3, Sunday: “Sometimes the cards are just not in your favor.”
- Day 4, Monday: “If I die here, my wife is going to kill me.”
I know this is the last day in the vest, which makes today feel better than the other days of the week. Usually, time flies by each week, but it really seemed to drag for the past six days. Part of that is the lack of sleep, mainly due to the anxiety of “OK, what’s going to happen now?” Part of it is that I don’t know if this whole thing was going to lead to anything worth writing.
My 8 a.m. class gets a second look at me in the vest. When I walk in, the class is chatting and it just feels more normal. One kid notices I’m wearing an “I Voted!” sticker.
“Did you really wear that to vote?”
“NO WAY! What happened?”
“Nobody said anything. It didn’t look like anyone noticed or cared.”
A young woman up front looks at me with a “voice of experience” expression and says, “You’ll hear about it later. It’s a small town. That’s how it works in a small town.”
Class is relatively uneventful, although the heat seems to be lower this time in the room than it was the first time. I’m almost entirely sure that it isn’t the room, but rather my lowered anxiety that makes me feel more comfortable.
After class, I hunker down in my office to prepare some presentations for a daylong workshop I am doing with journalism students at Stoughton High School the next day. I agreed weeks earlier to work with a friend of mine to help the teacher there help the publications staff. Student media has always been a big part of my life, and I’m really looking forward to this opportunity to help these kids out.
It is a weird fluke that this seminar hit at the end of when I wanted to do this bulletproof vest project. thought about wearing it the full seven days, which would include this field trip. However, I realized that a) the last thing these kids needed was to see someone they didn’t know wandering into their classroom in a bulletproof vest and b) my presentations tend to be hard enough to follow without them wondering if I was the crazy person they had been trained to avoid since their first ALICE drill.
Kelly Furnas spent six years working as the executive director of the Journalism Education Association when he realized he missed working with student media. He took his current job at Elon University in North Carolina back in 2016, which gave him the opportunity advise the student newspaper, TV station and website.
“That was one of the highlights of taking this job,” he said. “As much as I really, really loved the job at JEA, and being able to work on a national scale, I realized I was doing a lot more administration and no teaching and I really missed interacting with students, so now it’s full-time teaching and advising student media, which was sort of the dream job.”
Furnas’ first job full-time job at a university ran from 2005 to 2010, when he advised student media at Virginia Tech, an experience that placed him at the forefront of what remains the deadliest shooting at a U.S. college. In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people on campus before committing suicide. The attack wasn’t the first of its kind, but it made Virginia Tech the collegiate equivalent of Columbine for many people.
Furnas was 30 years old at the time and less than two years into his first media advising job when he had to ask a newsroom full of students with little experience to cover the deaths of their friends and classmates.
“In the moment, there was simply no time to process anything,” he said. “Even the scale of the shooting… We kept hearing the death toll increasing throughout the day and we didn’t really learn until the afternoon what the final death toll was… It is interesting to me to realize now how numb I was to those numbers because they were incomprehensible at the time.”
The following days and nights became a fleeting blur of reporting, writing and publishing while simultaneously giving interviews to national media outlets, working through their own grief and consuming copious amounts of pizza that news agencies throughout the country sent to the Collegiate Times newsroom. The paper won a Pacemaker Award, often viewed as the Pulitzer Prize of college journalism, for its work that year, specifically the content produced in the wake of the shooting.
“It’s striking to me today to think about how I just continued to go about my business that day because we were so high on adrenaline and we were so caught up in the moment that we weren’t actually reflecting at all,” Furnas said.
It wasn’t until months later that the full impact of what his students went through actually took hold, Furnas said. People who live through a traumatic situation tend to have a specific memory, such as a sound or a smell, that remains carved into their minds for years to come. In Furnas’ case, it wasn’t anything associated with the Virginia Tech shooting, but another attack altogether.
“The picture in my mind that I go to a lot is actually months later: Feb. 14, 2008 when the shootings at Northern Illinois happened,” he said. “I remember walking into the newsroom and we had the TV going and CNN or whoever was covering it and I remember my students all paralyzed, just frozen, mouths open, staring at the television. That is seared in my memory, this idea that these 18-to-22-year-olds who had just lived through this horrific event were now essentially reliving the trauma.”
One of my former students stops by for a conversation about something else, and she notices what I’m wearing. She gets kind of a “You OK?” look on her face and then asks if I’m able to talk about something with her class schedule for the next term.
Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, she decides to ask somewhat quietly, “So, what exactly are you wearing?”
I go through the same routine I’ve gotten into over the past week and she tells me how cool that sounds as a project. I explain that it’s been anything but cool, but at least nobody has taken a shot at me yet and that I’m almost done.
As this student is leaving, she bumps into one of her friends from her sorority. That student enters my office and asks point blank, “Why are you wearing a bulletproof vest? I heard you say you would talk about it if people asked, so I’m asking.”
As I explain this to her, she doesn’t seem to flinch at all. Almost everyone else kind of had some kind of change of emotion. For her, it feels kind of like something she would normally expect to see.
“How did you know it was a bulletproof vest?” I ask.
“I’ve grown up around guns,” she says. “I’ve been shooting since I was a kid.”
We talk at length about her experiences and it is fascinating to me, given that she never struck me as a person who would have a background with firearms. She says she knows how to load, fire and clean a variety of weapons and that she was always taught to respect the guns.
She says she has family in both the armed services and law enforcement and that she has guns in her family home back where she is from. Although she comes from a more conservative background, she says the bigger issue for her is a general respect for the law and what a gun represents in regard to safety and responsibility.
“It’s not about politics or whatever, it’s about what’s up here,” she says, pointing at her head.
Her father serves in the Air Force and is away from home for long stretches of time, so when her father is away, he gives her access to the gun at home, she says, and she keeps it under her bed.
Once, she says, she heard something that sounded like someone breaking in. She had the gun under her bed and she contemplated her options. It turned out to be her brother trying to sneak in to the house, but it did give her pause.
The bigger concern for her, she says, is her uncle.
“The thing with him is that he got a concealed carry and he doesn’t have it just in case,” she says. “He has it to basically gloat.”
It is an interesting dichotomy: She says she would feel totally comfortable around her father if a gun were on the table in front of the two of them, but fearful if it were her uncle instead of her dad.
She mentions that she was thinking about getting a concealed-carry permit because newer reporters tend to end up on the crime beat and she might end up in a new city and have to enter some less-than-savory parts of town.
I think back to a documentary I saw about Miami in the 1970s and 1980s during the days of the “cocaine cowboys.” A journalist interviewed in it said she never went anywhere in the city during that time period without a gun. I also remember one of the newsroom veterans back at the Wisconsin State Journal telling me a story about a long-gone police reporter who carried a two-shot derringer and a six-pack of beer in her purse.
We finish up our discussion about the vest and get onto something more important, namely her need for some kind of general-education elective to help her graduate. We pick through her transcripts and look for some options.
As she leaves, she says, “I’d really like to read what you write when you get it done.”
I tell her if I ever actually got this done, I’ll send her a link.
More than a decade after the Virginia Tech shooting, Furnas finds security in his ability to balance a need for heightened awareness with his ability to rationally examine the reality of his surroundings.
“I do feel safe…,” he said, pausing before continuing in a measured and thoughtful tone. “It hasn’t changed for me since 2007. I tend to look at the statistics and I try to take emotion as much out of it as possible. I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to focus on my fears or let the fears kind of control how I interact with the public or how I limit my activities. I imagine there is a significant portion of that that is the benefit of being a white male and I’m acutely aware of that. It’s why I’m always hesitant to take my own feelings of safety and try to apply those to policy or how other people should feel.”
The work his newspaper students did to unpack the “why” elements behind the attack helped him more broadly examine the issues of guns, mental health and safety, he said. The state produced an extensive report regarding the attack, which included an analysis of the shooter prior to the event. The content there makes it clear the shooter “fell through the cracks” when it came to mental health issues, background checks and more, Furnas said.
“That certainly has changed how I think about my own responsibilities in terms of interacting with others,” he said. “If someone seems like they could be harmful to themselves or to others it’s not enough to just say, ‘Oh, they’re probably having a bad day.’ That probably weighs on me more than anything now, I really do think, ‘What is the right course of action?’ or ‘How can I get them help if they need help?’”
I’m heading out the door around 2:30 to pick up the carpool kids from Zoe’s school, when I stop by the main office and run into our program assistant. She asks if anyone talked to me about the vest or if anyone has stopped by with concerns.
“Not really. I had a couple conversations after class but nothing much. Why?”
“Some people were wondering if you had gone off the deep end.”
Apparently, multiple students expressed concerns to at least one professor in the department about me and if I had some sort of a mental breakdown. They spent their lives preparing for active shooters, so apparently seeing me geared up had them on edge.
She knew what was going on because I told her about my intent before I started the project. She explained to the concerned faculty and students that I wasn’t any more crazy than usual and that I was doing this as a project. She says she encouraged them to talk to me about it.
I tell her that I’m interested in what they wanted to say and why they didn’t come to me. I suggest fear as a rationale.
She says it’s strange that we talk around this issue but we don’t really raise the issue in any meaningful way. We agree to talk about it at some point later.
About a week after I stop wearing the vest, I end up needing something or other from the main office, so I walk down the hall only to find the door locked, with our program assistant inside doing something or other. Usually, if she’s in there, the door is open unless she’s taking a sensitive phone call or talking with someone privately.
I look at my keys and look at her to see if it’s something I need to leave her alone for or if she’s OK with me just coming in.
She opens the door for me and says, “I need to talk to you.”
My Catholic guilt kicks in.
“I’m sorry. What did I do?”
“You didn’t do anything. Remember about a month ago when you had me look into the journalism library?”
Last month, I noticed a kid in our library, which is just across from my office, listening to headphones by himself in the dark. He was walking back and forth and back and forth, occasionally making an odd sound or talking to himself or something.
The kid was rail thin, with a really short, utilitarian haircut. He had dark hair and really wide-open eyes. He was wearing a T-shirt and had kind of a hyper-aware look on his face.
Think Sheldon Cooper if he were hopped up on speed.
I said something about being in the dark, flipped on the lights and asked him if he was OK. It wasn’t abnormal for kids to be in the reading room by themselves or even just sit in there in the dark. My issue was that I didn’t know who this kid was and I’ve taught almost everyone in the J department at least once, so I felt like he shouldn’t be there.
I got an odd vibe off him, but I kind of shook it off at the time as he reminded me of a student I knew who was on the autism spectrum. I was just like, “This room is for journalism folks only and I don’t know you so I wonder if you belong here.”
I went down to see our program assistant and asked if she’d poke her head in at the time. She did in and the kid immediately left. I didn’t see him again that day, so I figured he was just gone. She said she didn’t recognize him, but we’d keep an eye out.
Today, she was in her office which shares a wall with the library and she heard some banging around so she went over there. She found the door locked, the lights out and this kid was in there walking around, listening to his headphones and talking to himself. She unlocked the door and asked why the door was closed and what he was doing in there.
He kind of half answered her about that, so she asked for his name and he said Tyler something or other.
They then had a brief exchange about how this was for journalism students and he left.
He then came to her office and confronted her about asking for his name and why she cared that he was in there. She says it really freaked her out which is why when he left, she closed the door and call the university police.
I sit down and offer to hang out in there with her for an hour or more. I will get my laptop and just work in there for a bit until we are sure everything had blown over, I tell her. She says thanks, but no thanks. It is just that the kid gave her the willies because of the confrontation and she has been thinking about safety more since I started the vest project.
I’m about to get up, but just then, I look at the glass wall that abuts her door and see a person look like they are coming down the hall toward the door. However, the person sees me and jumps back away from the door in the direction from which he or she came. I can’t see the person’s face because the wall has all sorts of posters on it, but in the space between the artwork, I make out a skinny body in a reddish-pink shirt.
“I think he just tried to come in here,” I tell her. “But I couldn’t see his face. I did see his shirt. Was it red?”
“Pinky red, yeah,” she says. “That was him.”
Now we’re both essentially holding the fort in a locked office and neither of us is particularly enjoying the level of anxiety in there. I keep talking to her to keep the air moving in the office. Eventually, I get up and peer down the hallway through the wall of windows to see if he is lurking. I can’t see him, but there is a student lounge area about 20 feet away and it is hidden from my vantage point.
I ask if she wants me to stay and she says no, but as I get up to leave, I tell her I’ll take the long way back to my office so I can look into the lounge and see if the kid is still there.
She closes and locks the door behind me.
I get going down the hall and right when I get to the point where I can see into the lounge, I spot the kid sitting in a chair that is close to the hallway where I was walking. He spots me, so I pretend not to notice him. I think about doubling back to the main office, but then I reconsider: If the kid is going to do something, going back might set him off.
I walk calmly to the end of the hall and then I start hustling down each subsequent hallway to get to my office so I can call the main office and tell her about the kid.
I make the final turn down the last hall toward my office, doing this “walk-run” thing where I’m trying to move quickly without doing a full sprint. I see the program assistant coming toward me and we both go right into my office and I close the door.
“He was in the lounge,” I tell her and then I essentially stop hearing everything she said to me in response as my mind started racing.
“Entrances and exits. Where are they?”
“Is my door locked?”
“What do I have in here that I can beat the shit out of him with if he tries to do something?”
I snap back to reality when she sits down and asks if she should call the police again or not.
I err on the side of caution and encourage her to make the call.
“You’re not wrong about your gut feeling,” I tell her. “You’re not wrong.”
Over and over, I tell her at various points, “You’re not wrong.”
It’s like a mantra, an affirmation and a prayer all at the same time.
It feels like we’re in the office for about 7,023 hours, but I know it isn’t more than five minutes. She calls UPD and relays what happened, noting her earlier call. They say they’re sending officers right over.
I sit facing my door, which has a long, thin window in it, made of some sort of plexiglass. Like most faculty, I covered it up so that people can’t look in on me, but there are gaps in the coverage because I used baseball and football cards to block the window out.
It always felt like a personal touch. At this point in time, it is an impediment. I can half see movement outside the office door. I see the red shirt flash by.
I go over to the door and pull out one of the cards so I have a peep hole through which I can see at a distance. I watch people move back and forth as the class “passing period” has students streaming through the hallway.
Suddenly, there is a face at the door.
It is one of my students stopping by for office hours. I open the door and she apologizes and says she didn’t know I had someone in here.
I give the PA a look like, “Do you want me to tell her to go away or…?” She shakes me off and gets up. As the PA leaves, she turns to go to her office and then she turns back toward the library, which is right across the hall. She is followed by two police officers who arrived. I start to feel better about her not staying in my office.
As I edit, I’m half paying attention to what’s happening across the hall when the kid in the red shirt walks past my office.
I froze. Now what?
The officers emerge from the library and I hear one of them, in her best “loud-but-not-yelling” voice say, “Why don’t we just go into this room and talk?” She’s followed by her partner and somebody closes the door.
After I edit the student in my office, another one shows up for help. I go through the edits with him and, again, I am trying to be normal.
A short time later, the cops are done, the kid in the red shirt is gone and I go to see our program assistant. She is locked in her office again with another faculty member. I don’t disturb her and I go back to my office to prep for an interview later that day.
About five minutes later, the program assistant shows up in my office doorway. Turns out the kid lied to her about his name and freaked out when he saw the cops.
He’s actually a student in some other department, she says, and police explained to him that since this isn’t his area of study, he should stay out of the room. Also, he probably should stop doing whatever the hell he’s doing that freaks us out (I’m sure there’s more to it than that in a legal sense).
In the end, it remains unclear if that kid is a threat or or if he has a spectrum disorder or if he’s just socially awkward. I still have no idea.
Suddenly, I realize that I had about 10 minutes to answer two emails and get to the interview with a source for this project. I make it there on time, but I am a mental wreck and the adrenaline drain has my head pounding. Fortunately for me, he is about 10 minutes late, so I have enough time to get my head together and prepare for the interview.
The next couple hours were a blur, with me barely making it to carpool pickup on time.
When we got home, Zoe asks if she can check the mail. As she heads to the mailbox, I enter the house through the garage as our mini-Schnauzer, Maggie, is yapping and bouncing and yapping and bouncing.
She heads to the back door where we have a tether for her to “go outside.” I also realize I need a restroom break, so I clip her leash to the tether and head for our powder room.
When I get done, I sort through the mail: a couple catalogs, some junk mail and an official looking envelope addressed to me.
I absentmindedly open it as I walk to the door to let the dog in.
“Holy crap,” I say to no one in particular.
My concealed-carry permit has arrived.
Right after the Virginia Tech shooting, Furnas became a de facto “must have” for high school and college media conventions. I remember planning sessions for the first big college media conference after the shooting and I felt like it was a major coup to get him and at least one of his editors to speak about their experiences.
The room we scheduled for them was about the size of a 100-person pit classroom and it was packed with students and advisers. As they spoke, the silence in the room felt both tense and yet respectful as every word they uttered soaked deeply into the minds of the attendees.
At that time, Furnas’ experience bordered on the unique and getting him as a speaker was like having a unicorn at your zoo. In the years that passed, however, his sessions became crucial because more people had experienced mass shootings and student journalists realized they needed to learn how to cover them.
His sessions became less “unique speaker,” and more “how to,” something that has weighed on Furnas.
“I think part of that is just knowing that things were happening that were pretty horrific before 2007 and things have continued to happen since 2007 that have been pretty horrific and that lets me know that experiences that I had were not unique,” he said.
Furnas said he pitched a session to a high school convention in Chicago, which would have been the first large student journalism conference after the Parkland shootings. He called it “Covering the Unimaginable,” and he saw it as a way to help high school students cover any tragedy that affected their schools, not just mass shootings. As he prepared the presentation, he said he experienced an unexpected reaction when he tried to look into the coverage of various shootings.
“I really don’t want this to sound callous…,” he said. “What I found was I could not research other school shootings. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to see how the coverage was of them. It wasn’t like an overwhelming sadness or upset or frustration. It just was I couldn’t do it. I started googling coverage of this shooting or that shooting or that shooting and I would get to the headline and get to the lead and say, ‘Mmm. OK. I don’t want to go any further.’ I really wish I could nail down exactly what the emotion was that was keeping me from doing it but I couldn’t.”
“Quite frankly when I hear about a mass shooting I read the headline and I mention it to my wife and that’s about it,” he added. “That’s about all I can handle at this point. It’s obviously overwhelmingly sad and it’s frustrating and it makes you angry and upset but it’s also just like not where my energy can be. I think every single time that happens I think back to my students and what they went through and maybe that’s part of it.”
In the middle of explaining this, he paused and emitted kind of half of a laugh, as if he had realized something about himself.
“I’m kind of working through all of this as I’m talking to you,” he said.
While he found the activism of the students in Parkland inspirational, Furnas said he doesn’t have the same desire.
“I keep it at arm’s length,” he said. “I think that’s probably the most accurate way to say that. When other tragedies happen, I get a little sad, I get a little frustrated, but I’m not interested in it. I’m not overly compelled to seek out more information… I’ve done enough of a deep dive into one of those that I feel like I don’t want to do that over and over and over again.”
I’m half asleep on the couch, planning to coast to the end of the project when Amy sidles up next to me with the “I love you because I need you to go out and get something from the store…” smile on her face.
Thanks to the doctor’s visit I need to get some foot stuff, along with whatever it is she needs, so I grab the vest from the back of a kitchen chair, make a list and head to town.
Somewhere along the way, the sky begins to emit a “mixed precipitation,” so after I park the car, I put on a knit cap in hopes of keeping my head relatively dry.
The store isn’t that crowded and most of the stuff is easy to find. It’s a quick run through the store until I have to check out.
The kid at the checkout counter has green hair and has these green deely bopper head things on. She scans everything but pushes the beer to the back of the conveyor, as she is too young to ring it up. As she waits for something resembling an adult to scan the alcohol, I start feeling warm so I unzip my jacket, exposing the vest as the line continues to grow behind me
“What does that mean?” she asks, rather loudly.
I figure she saw the vest and the “Second Chance” logo on it. Before I could answer, she points at my cap
“Carhartt. What is that?”
“Just a brand,” I tell her as the woman who is supposed to ring up the beer walks past us for at least the third time.
The line grows longer and people are starting to mutter under their breath. The guy behind me wearing a UPS uniform keeps nudging his items closer to the scanner, as if that is going to help anything.
He has two packs of gum and four sticks of deodorant. I have no idea why I notice that.
I tell the checkout kid to just put the beer back, but she says, no, because the person is probably coming right now and that she will get in trouble if she does that.
In the meantime, I find myself even more uncomfortably awkward than usual and it has nothing to do with the vest. I hate people who hold up the line, so doing it to others really bugs me. Whenever I’ve got someone in front of me who decides to strike up a conversation with a cashier or pay for a Snickers with a third-party check, I feel like my soul is going to emerge from my body as a screaming ball of green energy and explode.
I don’t really even care about the beer, so I’m standing here keeping people from going about their daily lives for no real reason. I’m also pissed at myself for not finding a cashier who looked older than 12 before I chose my lane.
Sure enough, two seconds later, the woman returns from her fourth full tour of Walmart’s entire cashier bank and rings up the beer.
As everyone behind me shuffles forward, I pack up my stuff and leave as quickly as I can.
I mentioned to Furnas that people involved in traumas often remember small things about them or they feel subtle alterations to their daily lives. He said he felt a few moments like that, even though he’s a dozen years and a few career stops away from the incident on the Blacksburg campus.
“The shooter had chained the doors shut in Norris Hall, where he did most of the shootings so that people couldn’t escape,” Furnas said. “That is certainly something I notice now when I walk into a building or walk into a business and they have those same door styles… And that was a big push at Virginia Tech afterwards. They essentially got rid of all of those doors.”
“I wouldn’t say I avoid those buildings or I’m more scared in those buildings, but it definitely something I observe more,” he added. “I know it seems like a small thing, but it’s one of the things that is now heightened in my senses.”
Furnas said general awareness meant as simple safety precautions benefits people in every walk of life, regardless of the situation.
“They’ll tell you that the difference between people who go through a traumatic event like this and have a higher chance of survival higher chances of being able to get out of it are the ones who have thought about it before they walk into a room,” he said. “You can argue whether this is a sad state of affairs or not, but I think more people should think that way and just be more aware of their surroundings and not be just be so self-absorbed as to think that everything around me is just going to take care of itself and I don’t need to look both ways before crossing a street or know where the exits are when I enter a building.”
Elon is a private institution, and it doesn’t allow people to carry weapons on campus, and Furnas said he isn’t sure if any groups on campus are pushing to change this policy. One thing he is sure of is that it isn’t just people who were directly involved in mass shootings and the people closest to them who suffer as a result of an attack.
“I think the one thing I can say with a pretty high level of certainty is that when traumatic events like this happen there is an emotional impact that ripples throughout even the thinnest of connections…,” he said. “I was not in any building the shooter was at, I was never really in harm’s way, one of my students was injured but none of my students was killed and I was still shaken by it.”
My last stop of the night is to drop off some things at my mother-in-law’s place, a newer assisted-living community just on the outskirts of Omro. About seven years ago, she had a stroke that deprived her of movement on her left side, so she spends much of her time in a wheelchair now or in her lift-assist recliner.
As I walk to the front door of Country Villa, I can see a few of the older residents congregating in the living area across from the kitchen, watching some rerun of an old TV show I don’t recognize. I punch in the access code at the front door and quickly swing it open so I can grab the cabinet my mother-in-law asked me to bring and make it inside the door in one fluid motion. I put the cabinet down on the floor and pull on the closing door, fighting the pressure hinge in it to make it close faster.
You get 15 seconds to unlock the door, get inside and close the door before the alarm goes off. Several of the residents have dementia issues, so they tend to wander, which requires the facility to be locked down. If they try to get out or if the door stays open too long, a computerized voice will call out to the staff, “FRONT DOOR! FRONT DOOR! FRONT DOOR!” This continues until someone with an override code shuts it off.
I move down the hall past the kitchen and to my mother-in-law’s room, knocking on the slightly ajar door before entering. She’s sitting in her wheelchair, doing something or other at the desk in her room.
We chat as I bring in the cabinet and rearrange some of her furniture to make it fit properly. I also fix a couple of her electronic gizmos and set her clock back an hour to account for daylight savings time.
Somewhere in the middle of this, I start sweating profusely, so I take off my jacket.
She points at my vest and has a quizzical look on her face.
“How is the project going?” she asks, clarifying for me what Amy told her and what she remembers.
“It’s almost done. The hard part, anyway. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this or where to go next with it.”
“You’ll figure it out.”
She pauses and then smiles.
“I’m just tickled pink that you’re doing this,” she says. “I think it’s really incredible.”
We talk a bit more before I look back at the clock I reset to realize it’s almost 9 p.m. and I had promised Amy I would unclog the shower drain today because water was backing up into the tub.
“I gotta go, Mom,” I say as I pull my jacket back on.
I close her into her room and walk to the exit. Nothing has changed in the living area, other than the episode of whatever TV show is on that I still can’t identify.
Time to go home and be done.
Like most of the people interviewed for this project, Furnas doesn’t have a magic answer for how to solve the issues of fear, safety and mass shootings in this country. However, his perspective on where we are as a country provided more than a glimmer of hope that this isn’t as hopeless as it seems.
“We’re not that far apart,” he said. “The problem is, we seek out the most divergent viewpoints. We as journalists especially — and this isn’t just gun control or this isn’t just school shootings or mental health or whatever— Every single time we have a topic, we find the most polar opposite view points and we say let’s have the two of us engage. Or we do a poll and say, here are your two options. How incredibly ignorant is that to say that a solution a problem as complex as this is going to find a solution on the fringes or by checking box one or two.”
One of the key things journalists learn at the beginning of their careers is to find “both sides” of an issue, which often means playing to the extremes or providing what we are now calling “false equivalency.” In other words, if we have someone who says that humans need breathable air to survive, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we need to find people from the “anti-breathing establishment” to outline a polar-opposite position.
“I think there are incredibly intelligent people who have very nuanced opinions in the middle…,” Furnas said. “I think you can actually have really intelligent conversations if you find those people and you engage those people.”
Furnas illustrated this point in recalling a time at Virginia Tech when online readers clashed over a story regarding firearms.
“I distinctly remember the Collegiate Times had a story online about gun control… and at that time our comment section was very, very vigorous,” he said. “Someone threw out what would now be a pretty standard online comment bashing liberals and in all the poetic language you can use to describe a liberal, saying they’re just pansies, they’re snowflakes, they don’t understand that this is a right and I think that’s how the comment ended, they just don’t understand. Someone replied to them and said, ‘I agree with a lot of what you’re saying but the problem is they’ll never understand when you talk to them that way.’”
“If you are beginning a conversation with anyone by undermining them as a human being, not just disagreeing with their viewpoint but undermining them as a human being and saying you are a snowflake, you are a gun nut, you are whatever fun little phrase I can throw at you that I heard on late-night TV, you’re done,” he added. “That’s the end of the argument. There’s no convincing someone. No one has ever been convinced to be a better person by being told what a horrible person they are. You get convinced to be a better person because you care about the people on the other side of the view point. I think that’s how you hopefully begin to have conversations or have maybe even solutions.”