Reflecting on a Tragedy

Some days are uneventful.  Nothing goes wrong and nothing goes right.  You just coast.  Last Monday was not one of those days, however.  At around 10:15 AM, someone I knew and respected was shot dead in his office.   The shooter was also someone I knew albeit not well.  Never in my life did I think I’d know anyone involved in something like that.

By now most of you probably know the story.  It all came like a bolt out of the blue on an otherwise beautiful day.  First I heard the sirens.  Then maybe ten minutes later the message from Delta State went out letting us know were on lock down.  There after nobody heard anything else official from the University until several officers from the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics cleared everyone out of the library and moved us to the basketball arena.  In retrospect, nobody was in any danger.  However no one knew it at the time and we all stood around nervously checking the news for any tidbit of information.  By mid-afternoon I was home.  The whole thing ended with Shannon Lamb’s suicide around 11 PM.

I’ve never been in a situation like the one which happened last Monday.  Twice in middle school we were evacuated due to bomb threats, but never an active shooter.  Usually when things go wrong, I more or less sit quiet.  But the significance of what was happening quickly dawned on me.  So I did something unusual: I took to social media.  After texting my parents I sent out the following tweet:

and followed it with a similar post on Facebook.  Friends and family would want to know what was going on and social media seemed to be the best way to keep people informed.  Turns out my instincts were right.  People from all over the country were concerned about me and followed my posts until I was safely in my apartment.  The tweet above was viewed more than any of my others.  It even got the attention of MSNBC where a producer contacted me wanting to talk.  Ultimately I declined.  Showing up live on air would not have looked good.  But I finally understand the power of social media.  It’s like having your own private megaphone.  Some people decry the tendency for rumors to spread, but without Facebook and Twitter most of the world would have been in the dark, nourished only by the occasional official release of information.

Overall Delta State acted exactly the way it should have.  While the danger turned out to be lower than initially feared, they reacted with appropriate caution.   Not only did the local and state police arrive on the scene, but they were joined by the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, the US Marshals, the ATF, and the FBI.  Even the army showed up along with police officers from other counties and towns.  The Delta is often neglected so its comforting to know the right people will come when needed.

Yet after the dust settled a curious thing happened: people around Cleveland stopped talking about the shooting.  The media is still running stories and probably will for some time.  Its not everyday when a university professor is shot by another faculty member.  But Cleveland seems intent to sweep things under the rug.  Within an hour of Shannon Lamb’s suicide, a candle light vigil was announced for Dr. Ethan Schmidt.  It was a moving and somber event, one very appropriate given what had happened.  Since then the mantra has been heal, heal, heal.  Its time to move on.

And I can understand why.  Some crimes inspire difficult conversations or at least the should.  The Aurora Colorado shooting comes to mind.  But last Monday was not one of those incidents.  Certainly Ethan’s death was a tragedy.  But there aren’t really any great lessons to be learned except perhaps that everyone makes mistakes.  Each of us will construct our own narrative of events.  There is very little we can do except move on.

One also must consider the impact Ethan’s death could have on the reputation of both Cleveland and Delta State.    This town is supposed to be a friendly place where everyone knows everyone else.  People think of it as an oasis in the otherwise barren Delta landscape.  I don’t feel the portrayal fully matches reality.  Certainly Cleveland has a lot to offer both for a town of its size and in relation to the rest of the Delta.   But its a very divided place.   And people around here don’t seem to enjoy the spot light.  Perhaps the best way to make it go away and minimize any damage is not to talk about what happened.   Between recruitment for Delta State and the new Grammy museum there are ample incentives to hope the negative attention goes away soon.

Perhaps too there is a cultural element.  Murders, shootings, and violence aren’t really the subject of polite conversation around here.  Just as with politics there are some things one does not discuss in public.  So focusing on the children and the families is perhaps more acceptable than morbid speculation about motives.  It certainly won’t help people move on.

Seeing the reaction helps me understand Cleveland’s soul just a little bit.  Politeness aside people around here come together and support each other.   Its one of the upsides of small town living.  If you fit in, its easier to form the sort of social support structure many people crave.  Along with the slower pace of life and cheap living, I can understand why some find Delta living so attractive.

Ultimately everyone will construct their own narrative of events whether they talk of them openly or not.  Perhaps a Delta State professor was doing things others would find unacceptable.  Or maybe his killer had reached his breaking point.  The truth will likely never be known.  What matters is how we deal with the tragedy.  In the end the past is the past and can’t be changed.  We each have our own way of coping.  Ethan Schmidt was a good man.  May he rest in peace.

Article by Mike

Mike is the Head of Discovery Services for the Delta State University Library. He has lived in Cleveland since May 2013.

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