Teri Orr: Sleepless in America
June 19, 2015
I have learned, in the middle of the dark night, when the sleeplessness happens, to stay in bed, eyes closed and turn the BBC on the radio. For years and years I have relied on the British, Irish, and international voices reporting from all over the world, to lull me back in sleep. And it should have worked Wednesday night.
Somewhere around three (I did sneak a look at the clock) I woke uncomfortable somehow. Not my body. Not a work or family issue unresolved. Something was just off.
So I lay there and listened and tried to let the stories put me back to sleep.
I only remember snippets but there was a story about a found penguin who had traveled 60 kilometers and ended up in one of those countries in Russia that sound like a place from a Harry Potter book. Azbar something maybe. And how happy folks were the endangered creature had turned up. He (she?) is of the South African tribe of birds which always messes with my head because I think all penguins should be Arctic creatures.
There was a story about Greece but the reporter was talking in French and finally the British BBC women jumped in and apologized that they had no one to translate the French version of the Greek story. And I remembered this was about the time my son and his family should be on a plane returning from their holiday in France.
Then some kind of stream of conscious order came… the announcement of the Pope’s encyclical on climate change… a woman would be on the $10 dollar bill in 2010… a shooting in a South Carolina in church and eight people were dead and one was in critical condition. A 21-year-old male was being sought and the police chief there was calling it a hate crime. I remember thinking in my dreamlike-but-not state, why would a 21-year-old be shooting people, in a church, on a weeknight? Why wasn’t he at a barbecue with friends?
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Maybe I slept a bit again. Because the BBC was gone from the radio and the NPR reporters in careful, modulated tones were saying the ninth victim had died from her injuries and a manhunt was on for the 21-year-old white boy who had escaped authorities in a dark sedan. I think I dozed some more.
"Brian Williams to move to MSNBC" is a demotion of epic proportions I remember thinking. A piece about Al Pacino and his insecurities about acting and life. Something about the country Qatar, which the reporter keeps calling Cutter incorrectly. I know I should get up. Some celebration of the battle of Waterloo. The flat, grey light of predawn starts outside my windows…
I hear Leslie and Brough from our local NPR affiliate KPCW next (which makes it at least 6 a.m.) and the report was on the passage of the general plan in the county). And then the tagline for the station came on, spoken by Andy, who had passed away just days ago but his disembodied voice was still living on airwaves. I tried to sleep. The birds are busy warming up with their morning songs.
The national NPR reporting comes on again with the top story and more details of the shooting and the sadness in Charleston, South Carolina. A city I visited for a minute, years ago, when my daughter was looking at colleges to attend. There is no more sleeping and no more pretending I didn’t hear what I heard about yet another shooting in this country by a citizen of other citizens. The kind of story that comes so frequently now we have become inured to the horror of them.
I’m awake now and I go online and start to see the images — the church, the police chief, the grieving community members, and pictures of the shooter. He is so young. If I hadn’t already heard his age I would place him in his mid-teens. Blonde with a bad bowl cut for his mop of hair. In another shot he has on a jacket with flags I can’t make out and he is trying to look angry or menacing or something, but he does not look like a kid I would take seriously if I saw him in a subway or a Subway.
As the day progresses along with the news cycle we learn he spent nearly an hour in the church where these people, many of them ministers, were having a prayer study group. And then he shouts angry racist trash and opens fire on all but one of the people gathered. Because in his vanity/insanity he wants a witness to speak of what he did.
All day long I am saddened in a way that makes me weary and more tired than just a restless night can produce. I am ashamed and embarrassed in the global arena that we have become the country of citizens that savagely kill our own citizens because we are filled with such hate. And someone, most likely many someones, taught that boy to hate. Filled him with lies and fears and taught him how to shoot a gun. Even gave him one. And he chose/planned to go into a church, which should be the safest place on earth and the most sacred and open fire on other humans.
And then I see an image of the South Carolina State House with the flag lowered at half mast, but next to it is a tattered-looking Confederate flag, a symbol of racism and treason, and it is flying high. And the national shame I feel is enormous. Having a black president and all the joy and hope that brought at the time of Barack Obama’s election seems to have only heightened our internal struggle with inequality. We have become a mockery of our core belief, that "all men who are created equal."
First, we must grieve. Each of those lives taken. Each of those liberties lost. The illusion that a church in America is a safe place. The illusion we are an enlightened world power. We have miles to go before we should sleep… through the dark night of our collective souls. It is time to be reflective and then reactive this Sunday in Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.