You turned on the television.
Within minutes you saw the images, you saw the religion "ghost." Clearly, the journalists behind the cameras knew what they were seeing.
It would be hard to imagine a more powerful image -- in terms of ancient traditions clashing with Life. Right. Now. -- than ashes in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of people caught up in yet another mass shooting of students and teachers.
The images, of course, called up words that would be familiar to any reporter who has worked, or is working, on the religion-news beat. We are talking about words that -- especially in South Florida's large Catholic community -- many people, including students, had heard that morning as a priest marked their foreheads with the sign of the cross, during Ash Wednesday rites.
"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
The prayer that many worshipers would have whispered during the rite are even more haunting:
Jesus, you place on my forehead the sign of my sister Death:
"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
So did this symbolic detail make it into many stories about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School? To my surprise, it did not. To see the context, let's look at the main story in The Washington Post. Did the national desk see the religion ghost?
PARKLAND, Fla. -- A heavily armed 19-year-old who had been expelled from a South Florida high school opened fire on campus shortly before classes let out Wednesday, killing 17 people while terrified students barricaded themselves inside classrooms, police said.
The violence unfolded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, a school of more than 3,000 students in an affluent suburb northwest of Fort Lauderdale where houses sit on broad lots.
The Broward County sheriff identified the suspect as Nikolas Cruz, who had recently attended the school but had been kicked out for “disciplinary reasons.” He was captured after a manhunt that transfixed the region and forced a nearby school into a lockdown, said Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. Students recalled terror and confusion in the aftermath of the shooting.
“It’s a horrific, horrific day,” said Israel, whose own triplets graduated from the well-regarded high school. “It’s catastrophic. There really are no words.” The victims included several students and adults, authorities said.
In an English class, students were reading Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” when the shooting began, and a Code Red was declared.
Yes, I think the "Macbeth" detail is poignant and worth including. I was also touched -- remember South Florida's large community of elderly Jews -- by this detail included in a New York Times report:
Rebecca Bogart, 17, a senior, said her teacher was finishing up a discussion of the Holocaust when she heard a series of loud bangs.
But what about those ashes? The South Florida Sun-Sentinel -- one of the newspapers in my driveway when I lived in West Palm Beach -- did include one short paragraph that mentioned some of the images seen in video coverage:
Emergency workers appeared to be treating victims for injuries on sidewalks outside the school. Parents gathered at the perimeter, some of them Christians with ash on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday, some wearing hearts to mark Valentine’s Day.
Will readers automatically know the symbolism of those ashes? Many will, but I think it's safe to assume that many will not.
So, was there a report that included any background information?
Let me confess that when I think of detailed information about religion news, I don't think of The Daily Beast. However, the main report at that website included not one, but TWO, important symbols linked to the shooting. The first may emerge as part of the motive, if you read between the lines of many reports about Nicolas Cruz.
Cruz posted on Instagram a photo of the AR-15 set out on his bed along with a small arsenal of other weapons. Somebody certainly saw something. But nobody seems to have said anything.
As Cruz was a guy who seems to have had considerable problems and little success with girls, his decision to revisit the school on Valentine’s Day was not likely a coincidence.
This was a troubled young man who had even been rejected in the school's lunch spot unofficially reserved for weird, unpopular students. Several newspapers also noted that he was adopted (along with his blood brother) and that his mother died on Nov. 1, after his father's earlier death by heart attack a few years earlier.
What about Ash Wednesday? The following Beast material isn't perfect, but the basics are here:
Outside the school where the latest active shooter drill had been held just last month, parents stood waiting to learn if their children were among the dozen dead whose bodies would remain inside until the investigators and photographers and forensic people were done.
The foreheads of a number of parents bore crosses made with the soot of palm fronds, for this year Valentine’s Day was also Ash Wednesday, when the faithful are supposed to ponder their mortality.
For all the moms and dads, this was no longer a day of flowers and chocolates. And for even the most devout of those who had received the symbolic ashes earlier in the day, no ritual could have prepared them for this present moment. They stood facing the prospect of their child’s mortality as the result of high-velocity bullets.
That's good. May I note that the somber Ash Wednesday prayer would have required only a few more bytes of digital ink?
One final question: I realize, at this point, that officials have not released the names of the victims, for valid reasons. As I write, their bodies may not have been removed from the school building.
But I'll ask: Do local pastors know if any of the dead had attended Ash Wednesday rites? How about some of the survivors? Watching the coverage, I think I saw at least one person young enough to be a student with an ash cross on her forehead. Had any students been to church in the early morning hours before school?