Teri Orr: When did we become a country at war with itself?
I had lunch with old friends last Saturday and then came home to enjoy the rainstorm. I propped all the doors and windows wide open and then … took a nap. When I woke and checked my computer I saw headlines about a shooting of 20 people in El Paso, Texas, at a Walmart. Breaking news was piecing together the story. I told myself this time I just couldn’t get engaged. There have been too many of these. I get too emotional — this time I was going to tune it all out and read a book on the cozy afternoon. The world would keep on spinning sideways but I didn’t need to get sucked into raw emotional unfolding drama. Another news cycle extended with special coverage. These just happen all the time now and there is so little I can do to help those people affected by these mass shootings. The towns are far away from my home. And the situation is so different from my town.
It had been less than a week since the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival — an event I had attended ages ago. A goofy community gathering in the garlic capital of the world. I remember all the beautiful garlic braids woven together with colorful wildflowers. The pasta sampling with all the sauces. The odd garlic ice cream. It was an event in a field with a dirt parking lot. When my mother still lived about 30 miles from Gilroy. It was a rare thing we had done together where politics were suspended between us — for a few hours — and we shared some simple country-fair-meets-food festival moments.
All week long I had been churning about the children killed in Gilroy by basically another child. The horror — the terror — the panic there must have been at that festival. And the confusion that a place so safe and benign had gone from being a growing field to a killing field.
I had been carrying Gilroy with me all week.
The first images and information from El Paso showed a Walmart on the Saturday before school started — filled with families shopping for clothes and supplies. We didn’t know much at first — a lone gunman — an expression so familiar now — had entered the building — heavily armed — and started shooting. He was immediately taken into custody.
I shut my computer.
I am so old school I cracked the spine of a new book. I put the tea kettle on. I was not joining the news cycle spinning exercise. Detachment was the only sanity saving measure. But the words on the page of the novel wouldn’t stay on the page. I kept rereading sentences and then paragraphs. I kept wondering about the targets of the shooter — random? Domestic violence related? Returned military? And I started to feel the ripples of any tragedy … the loved ones who were learning about the unimaginable horror of a normal Saturday shopping chore turned into a mass-murder scene.
I put down the fat new novel. Who was I to ignore the suffering and want to stay inured to it? Comfortable and safe and thousands of miles distanced, I could only imagine a vague sense of loss. Twenty dead meant hundreds of friends and loved ones affected. This wasn’t someone else’s family — this was errand-running, back-to-school-shopping, just-like-us folks.
Looking away, I decided, would not erase the crime — it would add to it.
I turned on CNN. And I stayed there for hours. When I finally fell asleep it was fitful. I woke up before dawn and flipped open the computer.
Nine shot dead in a trendy neighborhood with a vibrant bar scene on a summer night. By one male shooter. I slammed the computer shut. I had left all the doors and windows open. I woke up cold under the summer covers. Cold. And so sad. Sure, mad and confused and curious and no longer disconnected. The manifesto from the El Paso shooter was surfacing and so was the realization he had driven 10 hours from his home to target this place in Texas because it is on the border and he wanted to kill brown-skinned people. The guy in Dayton was a bit fuzzier — an angry young man — with a military-style assault weapon.
When did we become a country at war with itself? What exactly are we fighting for or against? Why are killing machines so easy to buy and end up in the hands of disconnected young men? How have these young men been radicalized like any soldiers in any war in the world?
Last month I was in northern Europe for two weeks — mostly attending a conference. Every cab driver asked the same question of me straight away — are you with The Trump or against it? No one there called our president by his title or showed any respect for the office. And more than one driver asked if I was afraid. I had no reason to be personally afraid, I remember saying to my cabbie — though I do fear for our political system. It was the quick intimate conversation you have with someone you have never met that you are now entrusting your life with — assuming he will take you halfway across the major city to the destination you need to arrive at safely.
“God bless your great country,” said one driver for whom English was not his first language — as he dropped me at my hotel. “I hope you have a new president soon.”
Recently, Amnesty International issued an alert for global travelers about the threats in a country I don’t ever remember seeing on the alert list — ours. The random shootings in churches, at concerts, country festivals, shopping centers and trendy neighborhood bars have made this country unsafe for travelers. And ourselves. We are in an unmarked war zone. We are becoming battle fatigued and want to turn away. The enemy — the evil — waits for the unsuspecting and attacks. We cannot turn away right now from our neighbors in another city or town who are grieving. We cannot become inured to their sadness. And we must grieve together — however painful — every Sunday in all the Parks…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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