The All-American Ritual of a School Shooting, This Time in Santa Fe
‘I always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.’
The Brits have royal weddings.
We have school shootings.
Both have their particular rituals.
The Brits were to repeat theirs with the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle on Saturday. Markle is American, which marks her as rare as would be a British school shooter, but the ceremony will be essentially no less British than when Prince William wed Kate Middleton. The latest royal bride was expected to wear a less extravagant gown than some in the past.
We repeated our ritual with the murder of 10 people by a lone gunman at Santa Fe High School in Texas on Friday. The event was as classically American as when a lone gunman murdered 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The most recent school shooter sported a black trench coat reminiscent of the Columbine school shooting, but bearing such personal touches as a Nazi Iron Cross which he imagined symbolized bravery and a Communist hammer and sickle that supposedly stood for rebellion. He also wore a T-shirt bearing the words “BORN TO KILL.”
The Parkland school shooting was on Valentine’s Day, a date that should make us think of such things as fairy-tale romances between a prince and a princess. What instead became a day of mass murder left people across America still so jumpy two weeks later that a Santa Fe High School teacher heard some loud sounds and decided they must be gunshots. An increasingly common word went over the police radio.
The school was shut down from 12:30 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. as police conducted a search. They then issued an all-clear, but the hour and 15 minutes of fear and uncertainty gave students all the more reason to join the National School Walkout on April 20. Students posted photos of classmates holding a sign: “Santa Fe High says #NeverAgain.”
“We read a poem by a parkland survivor, handed out gun violence fact sheets and orange ribbon, did 17 minutes of silence, and then talked about ways to raise awareness for gun violence, and make your voice heard,” one tweeted.
Ten days after the drama of the shutdown was followed by the walkout, 17-year-old Santa Fe student named Dimitrios Pagourtzis posted on his Facebook page a photo of a custom made T-shirt. He photographed it laid out flat the way a bride might take a picture of a bridal gown in anticipation of donning it for the big event.
The words “BORN TO KILL” across the chest seemed at odds with selfies the teen posted of himself wearing a baseball cap with a rainbow heart on the back and a peace sign on the front. But there was also that black trench coat. And there were photos of a pistol on a bed and of a video game involving a sniper rifle. He was a follower on Instagram not just of President Trump and the first lady, but also of such accounts as “guns_glory” and “_guns_lover_.”
Those pages feature numerous photos of assault rifles that can be seen as a kind of firearms porn. The images seem to have roused the teen in ways far more deadly than would have sexual porn such as the Florida state legislature deemed a “public threat” even as it declined to enact meaningful gun control in the wake of the Parkland killings.
Pagourtzis would likely have preferred an AR-15 such as he saw on Instagram, but he made do with his father’s shotgun and .38-caliber revolver. He had the weapons under his black trench coat when he arrived at Santa Fe High around 7 a.m. on Friday. He also seems to have been carrying homemade bombs.
He had once been an honor student, but his grades had slipped. He had been described as a “standout” junior varsity football player, but he had not gone on to varsity. He now proceeded to become a particularly American archetype.
In one classroom, he tossed an object he would later describe to police as an improvised explosive device. The gunfire began.
“Today I was shot in the back of the head but I am completely okay and stable,” a 16-year-old baseball star named Rome Shubert survived to tweet later.
Eight other students and two teachers died before the rampage ended. Santa Fe Independent School District Police Officer John Barnes and another cop joined in exchanging gunfire with the teen.
“We could hear somebody’s shooting back,” one of the students later told a reporter.
Barnes was was shot in the arm.
“Officer down!” a voice could be heard over the police radio.
A cop on the scene radioed that the teen had barricaded himself.
“He’s active shooting. He’s in the art room. We got shots fired right now, guys. We need you all here.”
Somebody added, “We need SWAT.”
“En route,” another voice advised.
Pagourtzis had reportedly written in a journal that he planned to end his killing spree by taking his own life, but he apparently changed his mind and quickly surrendered to police.
“We got one coming out,” a cop radioed, “One in custody… White male.”
Another crop radioed, “Subject is in custody. At least one subject in custody. And this time he is advising he did have IEDs. Threw them in a room. We might have pipe bombs.”
A supervisor got on the air.
“All units, there is possible pipe bomb, pressure cooker bombs somewhere in the area.”
A report came of a firearm found in front of the school.
“That is my weapon,” a cop radioed. “It malfunctioned. I took out the magazine, hid it behind a trash can.”
As at all school shootings, frantic family members had begun to arrive on the scene, summoned by cellphone calls and texts from their terrified kids.
“We’re going to need a detail out front for parents,” a cop radioed.
Another cop posed a question.
“Is anybody else still inside or are they all evacuated?”
“Kids in the dance hall, I’m talking to them now,” a dispatcher said. “They can hear you knocking on the doors. They’re in the closet… Check the closet. I have nine students and a teacher.”
“Where are they hiding at?” a cop radioed. “I’m in the dance hall.”
“Dance hall closet,” the dispatcher repeated.
Among the students who subsequently emerged from the school was one who said she had been hiding at a teacher’s instructions. She spoke softly, becoming all the more heart-wrenching, all the more the voice of this horrible repeat.
“It’s been happening everywhere,” she said. “I always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.”
Santa Fe High School had last hit the national news in 1995, after two families sued to end the practice of beginning the football games with a student-led prayer, saying it violated their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court agreed, but noted “nothing in the Constitution… prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying.” Many of the 1,400 kids there on Friday morning no doubt exercised that right.
The all-American ritual continued. The crime scene was established. Students were transported to a “reunification center,” where they were joined by their parents. The families of the dead were notified. The wounded were treated. Officials held press briefings.
In the evening, Pagourtzis appeared in Galveston County Court. He stood in a jail jumpsuit behind a glass partition with his hands cuffed before him. The judge asked if he understood his rights and whether he wanted a court appointed lawyer.
“Yes, sir,” he said quietly, his head down.
He was instructed to sign some routine paperwork. He held the pen in his right hand, almost certainly in his shooting hand. He affixed his signature with improbable care, as if this greatly mattered when the lives of innocents had mattered not at all.
He was then led off to solitary confinement. He had reportedly told authorities that he had acted alone though there were reports that police were considering whether another teen might have been involved.
Some 4,900 miles away, the British were preparing a ritual of their own, a royal wedding made a bit different this time by the input of a naturally noble princess bride who brings with her what is best in America. Prince Harry and Princess Meghan will exit the chapel to a 1920s gospel children’s song that became an anthem of the civil rights movement.
“This Little Light of Mine...
I’m gonna let it shine…”
The song would now make a perfect anthem for the movement here in America to stop the killing. The funerals in Texas will begin as the new royal couple rightly enjoy their honeymoon.