Before you begin to Google a specific event or occurrence, first open your browser and type “tragedy” into the search engine. You will see a score of links to definitions, as well as the website for an all-metal tribute band to the Bee Gees called Tragedy. This is the surface. This is the jumping off point.
The first definition of tragedy, according to the Wikipedia site, describes it as “a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes in its audience an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in viewing.”
There is a website towards the bottom of the results page titled, Tragedy: the Basics. The link provides a brief history of the Greek origin of tragedy. If you were to then Google “the basics of tragedy,” the Internet’s explanation would focus solely on Greek theater. It would discuss heroes and plot points and Nietzsche—not necessarily the association to trauma or emotional calamity like you might think.
The following instructions pertain to the research of the Virginia Tech tragedy:
Step 1: To properly begin your search, first Google “Virginia Tech shooting” and click the Wikipedia page that appears. The page also refers to this event as the “Virginia Tech massacre,” which took place in Blacksburg, Virginia on April 16, 2007. Read and learn that Seung-hui Cho, a Virginia Tech senior at the time, entered an academic building on campus and shot his way into several classrooms, killing 32 people before turning the gun on himself. Wikipedia asserts that this was, “the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S. history and one of the deadliest by a single gunman worldwide.” Process this as you return to Google and type in the next thing.
Step 2: Google “massacre” and an immediate definition will emerge as follows:
massacre: n. an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people.
Below this, click the Wikipedia site titled, Lists of events named massacres. The list starts in the year 61 and extends until present day. An italicized caveat at the start of the list reads: “This is an incomplete list that may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness.” Begin to scroll through anyway, looking for the specific incident at Virginia Tech, but then feel overwhelmed when you have to hold the scroll button for longer than expected. Let your eyes gloss as the dates soar down the screen—as the history of killings glides on.
Step 3. Return to the search for “Virginia Tech shooting” and jump over to the Images tab to examine the first photograph that appears in the corner of the screen. It shows Seung-hui Cho, the shooter, posed and wearing a khaki cargo vest over a black T-shirt. He also wears khaki pants, a black belt, and a black backwards baseball cap. His arms extend in front of his body, angled out to form a V, and he holds a handgun in each gloved fist. His brows are furrowed, his mouth closed and tight. He looks directly into the camera—directly into you.
Step 4: Now Google him. Google Seung-hui Cho, and click the second website that appears which is a link to his profile on Biography.com. Beneath his name is the label, “Mass Murderer (1984-2007).” The accompanying photo was taken from Cho’s Virginia Tech student ID and shows him with an awkward expression in front of a blue backdrop—the same backdrop present in my own student ID.
Step 5: Now Google me, the author. See my place in this. Google “Whitney Hayes Virginia Tech” and click on the WordPress website called Photo Lady Love at the top. Scroll down about eight pictures, through the stunning collection of photographs and find an image of me from the neck down, wearing a jean jacket, my arms wrapped around my former housemate. You cannot see our heads, but both sets of our hands clutch large signs that read, “Free Hugs” in bold Sharpie.
Hit the Back button and return to that search for my name. Follow the page to the article, “A Gruesome Task is Followed by Search for Serenity” from the Washington Post, dated April 24, 2007. The piece is about my father, a local physician, who was called in on the day of the shootings to serve as one of the medical examiners on the scene.
A week after the incident, the reporter from the Post found my dad beneath a tree, wearing a cowboy hat and holding a Bible in his lap. He told her in the interview that when he received the call that Monday morning, his first instinct was to contact me to ensure I was okay. He told her, “I’ve investigated plane crashes and all sorts of fatalities, but never anything like this.”
Step 6: Step away from the computer screen. Grab a cup of coffee. Scratch that—pour yourself a beer. Envision the soft details of this tragedy drifting up to the surface of the glass in tiny effervescent particles. Look closely as these pinpricks rise up and kiss the air so gently you barely notice. Because what you won’t notice or find on Google—what you can’t possibly locate through any combination of words—are my father’s memories of April 16, 2007. You won’t find the details of his bleak walk through the second floor of Norris Hall—the blood drops that formed patterns along the hallway or smears across the tiles like crimson paint. You won’t read about the metallic scent of death that permeated the classrooms or about the piles of expended shells the investigative teams discovered. You won’t be able to Google anything that describes the angles of the fallen bodies, or the trembling fingers of the people whose job it was to thumb through the back pockets and purses for wallets or identification. You won’t read about the haunting sound of vibrating cell phones that littered the floors of the otherwise silent classrooms—the phones of the dead, all ringing with calls from loved ones trying to reach them.
Step 7: Return to the blank Google search engine bar. Return to that crisp webpage of pixelated flashing white—that promise of beginnings and intrigue and hope. Type in “Virginia Tech victims.” See the antithesis—the results that are anything but hopeful. Find the results page that lists only endings.
Click the very first page, the official Virginia Tech Remembrance website. Witness the list of names, all in maroon font with links to separate biographies. Read the first name: Ross A. Alameddine. This was my classmate. This was the nineteen year-old who sat directly behind me in my American Lit class that Spring semester of 2007. His death is the only tangible I have. In conversation, when a stranger finds out I went to Virginia Tech, he or she will typically ask, “Oh my gosh, were you there for that thing?”
I’ll nod. That thing.
“Yes,” I’ll affirm. “I was a student.”
“Were you on campus?”
“No, but I had a classmate who died.”
Ross A. Alameddine, the classmate. A boy I barely knew, aside from his broad smile and shaggy dark hair. The boy who began a discussion on the first day of class about the proper escape plan out of the building in the event of the zombie apocalypse. How ironic to know he was plotting this escape from the wrong location. He was scheming about the wrong demise.
Step 8: Return to the Google homepage. Type “Blacksburg Va” into that flickering search bar and read the quick summary of statistics that Google drafts for you on the right side of the page. Skim over the town’s total area (19.4 sq mi), its population (43,609 as of 2013), its points of interests (Virginia Tech, Lane Stadium, English Field). When I was in high school, kids my age who debated between attending the college in this town or going to a school like Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, would often be told to choose Virginia Tech. Richmond was dangerous then. Blacksburg was safer—less crime.
Try to see my thought process now when people tell me to avoid certain neighborhoods in cities where I travel. “Be careful,” my grandmother tells me. I could be traveling to New York, London, Istanbul, or Chicago; it doesn’t matter. She worries ceaselessly, as do my other family members. But what I understand now is that terrible things happen everywhere. What I understand is that it could’ve been my body on the floor of that building my father investigated. I could’ve had class in there like anyone else. It could have been my untouched cell phone vibrating on the floor. It could have been my name on that list.
Step 9: Return to Google once more. Type again, “Virginia Tech shooting.” Gaze intently at the number of hits—over 9 million. This is how the world learns about us now—through news articles and photographs and blog posts and facts. We are broken down into minute-by-minute timelines. We are defined collectively by the few tear-streaked faces the news cameras captured.
This is the place the memories are stored now, in this stretch of web pages like a Rolodex—sites you could spiral through for days. This is where you must arrive for knowledge about this day that’s now frozen on the web—solidified in the amber of webpages. The Internet serves as the dusty archive—the yellowed photo album. The past cannot disintegrate the same way anymore, which makes me wonder: should it?
Step 10: Close your eyes. Pretend you were a Virginia Tech student in 2007. Pretend you watched the news all day with the rest of us, you attended the Convocation the following day in the expansive school coliseum, you went to the Candlelight Vigil. Pretend you wear the school colors, maroon and orange, for every anniversary. Pretend you are part of the “we.”
We are in pop culture now. We are referenced. In the 2012 movie Ted, written and directed by Seth MacFarlane, it tells the story of a thirty-something man and his friendship with a talking, stuffed bear. In one scene, John, the main character (played by Mark Walberg) is speaking to his fiancé, Lori (played by Mila Kunis), about Ted and says, “I could have wound up like that Asian guy at Virginia Tech but I didn’t because of him. So I’m not that psyched to just, like, kick him out.”
Lori responds with sarcasm, saying, “It’s good to know that a talking teddy bear is the only thing that prevented you from gunning down your classmates.”
Maybe some people see this scene and laugh. Maybe they only chuckle. Maybe they don’t get the reference at all.
When we see this scene, we wince. We don’t get the humor. We also don’t understand how the rest of the world doesn’t recognize the date of the anniversaries—a date as monumental to us as 9/11, even though we too forget the dates of other tragedies. We don’t necessarily know when the shootings at Northern Illinois University happened, or at the movie theater in Boulder, but we hold our own memories like fragments in our hands. It’s a contradiction. We forget and were forgotten by the rest of the nation once the news cameras captured their stills of our streaked faces. They moved on to new stories—new tragedies. They tossed us aside like an oily waiting room magazine.
Step 11: Return to the original definition of tragedy: “a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes in its audience an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in viewing.”
Highlight, circle, underline the word, “audience.” Realize that a tragedy needs a viewer. See yourself in front of the television, watching a news story like this unfold—perhaps at Columbine High School, perhaps at Virginia Tech, perhaps at Sandy Hook Elementary. See the players involved: the shooter, the victims, and you.
Step 12: Open your hand and hold this memory of mine—a tangible image for you about the town of Blacksburg in 2007.
At the Candlelight Vigil the university held the day after the shootings, my housemates and I gathered on the massive school lawn with thousands of other students and community members. We huddled in a sea of candles flickering like fishtails inside plastic cups. Towards the end of the ceremony, after a woman read the names of the victims across a static speaker system and a lone trumpet played a hollowed version of Taps, there was a loud period of silence that settled across the open space. One of my friends standing in front of me knelt down on the damp grass, his eyes closed and his hands locked in prayer. Moments later, a strange man bent down beside him, steadying a bulky TV camera in his face while he prayed.
I felt an immense urge to yell at him—to break the silence and tell that man to leave us alone. Leave us to our pain. I wanted to push him away and protect my friend’s private moment.
When classes resumed the following week, I watched news crews loiter in corners of the campus, waiting for willing students to accept an interview. Paper signs plastered the doors of the academic buildings, warning the media to remain outside and allow classes to resume uninterrupted. I found myself angry at these signs—at the sheer presence of reporters and news teams—but also wishing for them not to leave. I was conflicted. I wanted the news vans to stay parked all over town, the hotels to stay full, and the restaurants and bars packed with outsiders. I was afraid for their absence because I didn’t know what we would become when they left. What would our town look like? How could we try to return to normal, knowing we could never have it again?
Step 13: Return to Google a final time and type in, “Whitney Hayes MTV interview.” You will find an eclectic assortment of links that point to pages related to either Whitney Houston or Hunter Hayes, the country music star. One of the first sites is an MTV Blog titled, “Spanky Hayes and James Davis Explain The ‘Wild ‘N Out’ Wildstyle Rage Phenomenon.”
Backtrack and try once more. Type “Whitney Hayes Virginia Tech MTV Interview.” Find more dead ends. Find more incorrect results.
What you are looking for is a video interview taken in 2008, around the time of the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings. My friend and I organized a Free Hugs Campaign on the school campus. We held signs and hugged people as they walked to class. Some people resisted, while others hugged us tightly. Several students confessed to how badly they’d needed that. The interviewer recorded video of the hugs and asked me questions about the campaign. “We figured that a lot of people would be struggling with the anniversary tomorrow,” I told her. “We wanted to come out and provide support any way we could.”
What you will learn if you search hard enough is that this video no longer exists on the Internet. You can continue to Google it or comb through the MTV News archives online. In fact, you could even click directly the link of the video—a link found in an old Facebook message from the reporter—only to discover it no longer exists.
What happens to an event when the Internet can no longer find it? What happens to something—to someone’s memories—when even Google forgets?