From Managing Outcomes, published by Tony Jaques, Director of Issue Outcomes Pty Ltd, for people who work in issue and crisis management
In the wake of the shocking school shooting at Uvalde, Texas, in May, the mayor now says the whole site will be demolished. It’s not easy stand in the shoes of families of the victims, but is demolition the right crisis response?
While such incidents may seem unlikely – despite the frequency of mass shootings in America – any innocent organisation can suddenly find itself at the centre of a deadly crisis. Think of the owners of the Lindt Café in Sydney where two people died in a prolonged siege in 2014. Or staff at the Tops Friendly supermarket in Buffalo, New York, where ten people were shot and killed in May. Or the London Pub in Oslo, Norway, where a lone gunman opened fire just two weeks ago.
Following a high-profile shooting tragedy what is the right response? To memorialise or move on? Robb Elementary School in Uvalde will reportedly be razed and rebuilt, but how will the 19 students and two adults who were killed be remembered?
After the notorious Columbine High School shooting in 1999 the library, where most of the 13 deaths occurred, was slated for demolition but was later renovated. And following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018, some new facilities were constructed, but the classroom building where 17 people died could not be demolished pending the resolution of protracted legal proceedings.
By contrast, after 26 people died at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 – America’s deadliest school shooting – the entire campus was razed to the ground. The New York Times said town authorities were so anxious to erase every last piece of rubble that demolition workers had to sign a confidentiality agreement and were forbidden to remove “any dirt, bricks, tiles, hardware, windows, glass, doorknobs, doors”. The debris was later removed to an undisclosed location and destroyed. A replacement school was built on the site, but the newspaper reported the new building contained no memorial to the devastating attack.
Maybe schools are different, but with the emergence of pro-gun conspiracists denying some mass-shootings even happened, what is the right balance?
An important precedent was set in 1984 when a disgruntled Vietnam veteran shot and killed 20 people at a McDonald’s store in San Ysidro, Southern California. It is regarded as America’s first high-profile modern mass-shooting, and for many years was the country’s worst.
McDonald’s paid hospital bills of the wounded; flew in relatives of victims for the funerals; provided counselling for families of victims; and gave $1 million to the survivors’ fund.
Most importantly – to foil souvenir hunters and prevent gun-control protesters using the location for political purposes – McDonald’s demolished the store and donated the land to the city for non-commercial use. The company built a new restaurant several blocks away and the old site eventually became a satellite campus of the nearby Southwestern Community College. It includes a permanent memorial to the victims where a small observance is held every year right up to the present day.
Another example of how to sensitively remember a tragedy followed Australia’s worst mass shooting – the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996 – which triggered a nationwide gun buy-back and decisive gun control legislation. While there is now a memorial plaque in a garden of remembrance, there was widespread demand at the time for demolition of the historic Broad Arrow Café, where 20 of the 35 victims fell. But police intervened to preserve the crime scene and it stands today partially demolished with just stone walls and no roof. The building contains no memorabilia or commentary of what happened, only a simple bench where visitors can sit and quietly contemplate the tragedy.
Perhaps, after Uvalde and other recent mass shootings, it is time for less politicking, less knee-jerk reaction, less reliance on the bulldozer, and more thoughtful contemplation.