How the Parkland students brought us back from the brink

In the aftermath of a mass shooting, we have been forced to explain the cravenness of a society without substance

Colin Horgan
5 min readMar 1, 2018


Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve seen a lot from the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida in the last two weeks, ever since a former student killed 17 people at the school with an AR-15 assault rifle. They’ve done countless interviews. They’ve publicly excoriated Marco Rubio at a CNN town hall. They’ve organized support for a walk on Washington, D.C. to push for stricter gun laws.

They also held a vigil.

Last week at BuzzFeed, Charlie Warzel noted how savagely the Marjory Stoneman students have dunked all over the right-wing online trolls who are hopelessly trying to convince the world they’re frauds. “The pro-Trump media has met its match in the Parkland students,” the headline declared. The far-right media pushing conspiracy theories about the students being crisis actors, or simply coached in their lines — or both — made a critical tactical error, Warzel wrote. “It chose a political enemy effectively born onto the internet and innately capable of waging an information war.”

This is entirely likely. But there is something else these students have been born into: a world where mass school shootings are considered completely normal — the graduating class of 2018 were likely born a year after the Columbine shootings — and thus also into a world wherein the candlelight vigil was the focal point of the national stories detailing the aftermath. A world that came to a weird tipping point in the spring of 2016.

That May, a gorilla named Harambe was shot at the Cincinnati zoo as he dragged around a three-year old boy who’d managed to get into his enclosure. The reaction was instant, and quickly turned to the strange. Harambe became an all-encompassing meme — the event horizon for anything created or talked about online. But, months after Harambe’s death and months into the ridiculous meme universe it spawned, something interesting happened: people attended candlelight vigils for the dead gorilla, each one an obvious and deliberate send-up of the post-Columbine auto-impulse to offer symbolic healing, declare “never again” with an increasingly