A woman wept at the corner of Table Mesa and Harvard Lane, and all I could do was put my hand on her shoulder.
I should have asked her name, if she’d be willing to talk in the future, gotten her contact information, but all I wanted to do at that moment was comfort her . . . and myself.
She said she was inside when the shooting began and ran out of the grocery store to save herself, but in between sobs she mourned not saving others. I assured her there was nothing she could have done, but I knew the words rang hollow—not because I didn’t mean them, but because nothing meant anything. I had a feeling words would be meaningless for quite some time—for myself, for this stranger.
It felt like less than a minute passed before the woman and I were surrounded by camera crews, her tears a beacon to reporters looking for sound bites.
I backed away as reporters crowded in, asked politely if they could talk, gently pushed mics in her face, positioned cameras to capture her in front of the store, now surrounded in yellow caution tape.
I backed away further and wondered what kind of reporter I am.
I’ve wondered that a lot over the years: What kind of journalist am I? On March 22, I found that I’m not the kind who can ask a stranger to tell me about the worst moment of their life two hours after it happened.
But I knew that already. I’ve never wanted to be a crime reporter, or a war correspondent.
Still, that day sent me into professional reckoning: If words are meaningless, like they felt in that moment, what’s the point of my job? If I can’t rise to this moment, what am I doing?
I’d watched the event unfold from the glass door of Boulder Weekly’s office on South Lashley Lane, just across from the upper lot of Table Mesa Shopping Center. My coworker and I were just about to trek across the street for our daily 2 p.m. coffee when our publisher told us there were reports of an active shooter at King Soopers. So we waited. And watched. First there were Boulder police, then Jefferson County Sheriff’s cars, then Weld, and Larimer. For an hour the scene escalated: more police, then ambulances, fire trucks, K-9 units, SWAT teams, helicopters, news vans. They made hard left turns into the upper parking lot coming from the south off Highway 93. They blocked traffic in every direction leading to the store. Emergency vehicles and satellite vans parked in every open space, lining the strip of Broadway in front of Boulder Weekly, taking over the gas station at the corner, spilling down into Lashley Lane.
And I watched. And edited the special “Kids Camp” issue that was due to the printer by 4 p.m.
Someone in the office turned on the live video a freelance videographer was streaming from the scene. I shuddered thinking of people seeing the crumpled forms of their loved ones this way, and wondered if this was preferable to a call from a police officer.
My heart screamed that it wasn’t.
I thought about the coverage that would pour out in the days and weeks to come, and was thankful for the journalists manning police scanners and helicopter feeds that kept us all connected with the reality of a surreal moment.
And I selfishly wondered what my role in all of this was.
I’ve had a long internal battle about not being the “right” kind of journalist, the hard-nosed, Bob Woodward type, the daily reporter who follows the police scanner and puts the mic in a survivor’s face. But I can’t be what I’m not. I can’t fake it. I have to move slower, to come at things from a different angle.
Still, I had to bear witness, even if it was just for myself. My coworker and I headed across the street around 4:30 p.m. The world outside was a hellish spectacle of flashing lights and ashen faces. Reporters with press badges waited for the district attorney to hold a press conference. People cried, masks muffling their sobs. Still the earliest days of vaccination, hugs were scarce, illicit even. I felt thankful that the sky was slate gray, because typical Colorado sunshine would have felt insulting.
I thought about words for weeks afterwards. Of course they aren’t meaningless. We are creatures enamored by stories—real ones, made-up ones. We are driven by narrative, which is what makes it so useful . . . and so goddamn dangerous. Some of us have to help tell the stories: of the survivors, of the dead, of the perpetrator. Others of us can tell stories more removed from the moment, of the artists who help us process our collective grief, of the therapists who provide free services in the months afterwards, of the reporters tasked with covering tragedies like this over and over and over through their careers. It’s all a part of history, no one part more important than the other. The only requirements are compassion and humility. Truth always follows compassion and humility.
But words do feel meaningless when we are forced to repeat them over and over, as we do with mass shootings in the U.S. It doesn’t mean we stop saying the words, but it’s important to acknowledge how hollow it all feels in the face of violent death.
I don’t regret not getting that woman’s name. I only regret that I couldn’t hug her.