"What we do in the memorial spaces says a lot about who we are. The American South is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy. We are celebrating the architects and defenders of slavery. I don't think we understand what that means for our commitment to equality and fairness and justice.
If there were Hitler statutes all over Germany, I couldn't go there. I just couldn't. I would not able to make peace with the nation that was still comfortable with the era of German history where Nazis were responsible for the death of millions of Jewish people in concentration camps. But if you go to Berlin, the Holocaust memorial is extraordinary. You can barely go a hundred feet without seeing a monument that's been placed at the home of a Jewish family that was abducted.
In Rwanda, you are required to hear about the genocide. You can't go to Rwanda and spend a few days without someone talking to you about the damage and despair and the hurt and the pain created by that horror. In the genocide museum there, there are actually human skulls; that's how powerfully people want to express their grief. In South Africa, you are required to see the consequences of apartheid. There are places where camps and prisons have been turned into visiting sites where people can reflect on that legacy.
In this country, we don't talk about slavery. We don't talk about lynching. Worse, we've created the counternarrative that says we have nothing about which we should be ashamed. Our past is romantic and glorious. In my state of Alabama, Jefferson Davis's birthday is a state holiday. Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. We don't even have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama. We have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day.
Our two largest high schools are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High. They're both 90-some percent African-American. If we don't think it matters, then I think we're just kidding ourselves. We do think it matters; that's why we have a 9/11 memorial. What we haven't done is understand what we are saying about who we are.
I think we have to increase our shame — and I don't think shame is a bad thing. I worked with people in jails and prisons, and most parole boards will make my clients say, “I am sorry,” before they can get parole. It's a requirement in many states that you have to show remorse, even if you have a perfect prison record, before they will let you out.
We require that because our sense of comfort, our sense of safety, is compromised if we don't think you appreciate the wrongfulness of your criminal act. In faith perspectives, to get to salvation — at least in the Christian tradition — you have to repent. There is no redemption without acknowledgement of sin. It’s not bad to repent. It's cleansing. It's necessary. It's ultimately liberating to acknowledge where we were and where we want to go. We haven't done that collectively."
Here are floor plans of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Pulse Nightclub, Aurora Century 16 Movie Theater, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Umpqua Community College, Westroads Mall, and Binghamton Immigrant Community Center.
Nearly 80 mass shootings have occurred in my lifetime and I still haven’t been able to get beyond feelings of compassion, sorrow, and shock to reach an empathy that felt more complete. I tried to distill the specific places (the sites of the shootings) to places or spaces that I knew—the hope being that I could feel this other empathy through recognition, through familiarity.
So the question became—how many details do I have to strip away to make each story my own? To make each place my own? At which point does the Aurora movie theater become the one in my town? I felt like in order to truly understand these shootings, I needed to find some form of emotional commonground. Ultimately, I stripped away all of the details and was left with just floor plans— which aren’t places at all, rather simply, they are designations of space.
I thought I could come to see the floor plans as part of a phylogenetic tree of spaces we share, a reminder of our common ancestry. When a tragedy occurs somewhere in this tree—in one of these spaces—everyone downstream can feel it, and the tragedy reverberates beyond that particular place to all spaces.
The process of working on this project—of pouring over the details of two decades of mass shootings; imagining the smell of popcorn or a kindergarten classroom mixed with gun smoke; the screams of the actors on-screen mixed with those other harrowed screams—was definitely empathy instilling. The end product, the floor plans, was not. The pieces feel clinical and sterile. They remind me of the importance of going through a thorough distillation process.