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Opinion: Real violence in an unreal city

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The way I found out about Monday’s mass shooting was through a Facebook status by a high school friend saying “my heart is breaking for my city.” I no longer live in the D.C. area, but it was still jarring to see so many familiar images on CNN portrayed in such unfamiliar circumstances. Images of D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier putting her calm, matter-of-fact attitude to work orchestrating the police response to a mass shooting. Images of SWAT vehicles racing through Southeast. The sort of images that came out of Boston in April suddenly transposed onto the geography of many Saturdays spent with friends in downtown Washington.

When a friend here at school asked me on Monday morning what I was doing, I told him I was watching Twitter for updates, as one does in these situations. I went on to explain that there was a shooting in Washington D.C. and that (at the time) 4 people had been killed. By the end of the day, it would be clear that 12 people had been killed in the rampage at the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington. This was apparently the first he had heard of the shooting, and I was taken by surprise by what he asked me next.

“Was anyone notable killed?”

It was a question I had never heard asked in the wake of such a tragedy, and this country has had enough recent tragedies draw from. I cannot recall anyone asking immediately after the Boston Bombing or the Aurora shooting if anyone “notable” was among the victims in those cities. But the truth is, Americans don’t seem think of Washington D.C. as being a real city.

At best, Americans think of Washington as being a large hotel for the government and all its “notable” personnel. Is it possible that it was easier for Americans to feel solidarity with tough, bustling Boston and the quaint city of Newtown because such adjectives are at our disposal? Do those other towns have an easily applied identity that can be held on to in times of grief? Is there any identity for Washington other than as the seat of government?

This is not even the first instance of this phenomenon. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example, are considered a national tragedy, but also very much a New York City tragedy. This is for good reason; New York and New Jersey suffered the most loss of life and the most horrific images from that day came out of Manhattan. Even so, the attack on the Pentagon in Arlington V.A., which killed 184 people, has largely and regrettably fallen by the wayside in our national recollection of 9/11. Even fewer people recall that downtown Washington was the likely target of United Flight 93, and had it not crashed after being overtaken by its passengers, the loss of life among Washingtonians could have been devastating.

It is not as if the Pentagon or the Navy Yard are simply government installations and therefore somehow removed from the community. The Navy Yard is very much a part of Southeast, a neighborhood dotted by elementary schools and residences and businesses and which was plunged into a state of fear on Monday. A few blocks away is Nationals Stadium, the parking lot of which was used as a reunification zone for families of those survivors who had to “shelter-in-place” at the Navy Yard. The game between the Nationals and their bitter rivals the Atlanta Braves was understandably delayed until Tuesday. The Nats won in a 9th inning rally; inspired, perhaps, by tragedy.

Such details recall in some ways the reactions to the Boston Bombing; the Red Sox and “Sweet Caroline” and #BostonStrong. It is unlikely we will hear many national tributes of “Take on Me” or “Hail to the Redskins.” We’ll not see BuzzFeed lists of “12 Moving Images from Washington After the Shooting” as we did after Boston. Even locals do not expect to start tweeting “#DCStrong,” nor do they really want to. And if this shooting does reopen the debate on gun control, mental health or even violent video games, that is not a debate that Washingtonians will be allowed to participate in. The District is infamously without proper representation in Congress, perhaps another byproduct of D.C.’s popular status as not-quite-a-city.

Washington is indeed full of “notable” people, but Monday was not a day about them. It was about the real people who live and work in the nation’s capital, perhaps not as “notable” as government officials but still noteworthy. To many students across the country, Washington is nothing more than a place one goes for internships and to see monuments, but for Washingtonians, it is a real city experiencing a real tragedy. But the response of non-locals to the shooting opens a disturbing question: if a tragedy occurs in Washington D.C. and nobody notable is harmed, does anybody care?

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