Sunday, April 05, 2009

Trying to Make It All Make Sense

Latest Newspaper Column:

When Editor Steve Bouser first e-mailed and suggested that I put my usual political stuff aside until next week and write about the recent shootings in Moore County, I balked.

Look, my gig is pointing up the absurdity of the wingnuts by using biting wit and devastating satire. Failing that, I resort to cheap shots and sarcasm.

But wit fails in the face of a something like this.

I can whistle past the graveyard as well as any man, and better than most, but there's a limit to even my capacity for gallows humor.

How do you write about how it feels to turn on CNN while eating lunch on a quiet Sunday afternoon and see a national story about a massacre a mile from your house?

How do you even write about a horror like this occurring within sight of the pond where my kids used to go to feed the ducks?

Eleven shot. Eight dead. A police officer wounded. And to add to the misery, there was another killing, an unrelated drive-by shooting of an 18-year-old young man, in Robbins on Tuesday.

A drive-by shooting. In Robbins. That's the sort of thing you expect to happen in places like New York or L.A. or Baltimore, not Robbins. Not the town where my dad's from, a place that's associated forever in my mind with Christmas dinners (and my Granny's amazing cooking). A place I always associate with Grandpa taking me to the drugstore downtown to buy me comic books. Not a place I ever thought I'd think of in the same sentence with the words "drive-by shooting."

You never think it can happen here, the headlines blare. But it did. And now, as I write this, I can look out my office window and see the flag at the post office, still at half mast.

White ribbons are everywhere you look. And those freakin' TV trucks don't look like they're ever going to leave.

They will, of course. The perfectly coiffed and made-up reporters with names like Christi and Sloane will file their stories, looking oh-so-serious and concerned.

Then the anchor will cut to sports and they'll all move on, ready to breathlessly describe the next crime or disaster, without a thought of those of us who are still here, trying to get past it. Trying to make it all make sense.

There are some things that help, like the story of Carthage police officer Justin Garner, who was the first one on the scene. The prudent thing would have been to hold on and wait for backup. But had he done that, the shooting probably would have gone on and more people would have died. So he went in, shot it out with Robert Stewart, and ended the killing, while getting wounded himself in the process.

We don't know what was going through Corporal Garner's mind that morning as he pulled up to Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center. He was faced with an unknown killer, armed with God knows what. I know that had it been me, my knees would have been knocking together like castanets.

But whatever fear Corporal Garner may have been feeling, he shoved it down, went into the killing zone, and did his duty. You listen to the 911 tapes posted on the Internet, listen to Corporal Garner reporting back to dispatch that he'd taken down the shooter and been wounded himself, and you hear the voice of a guy who's scared and in pain, but who's hanging in there. Doing the job.

Then there's the story of Jerry Avant, the former Coast Guardman who came back to Moore County to become a nurse.

Doctors said Avant suffered more than two dozen wounds while trying to shield his helpless patients from the terror stalking them. You read their stories printed here and in other papers, and you begin to get a sense of who they were. Not steely-eyed, iron-jawed heroes out of a thriller novel, but regular, decent guys. The kind of guys you meet every day.

And that's one thing that'll help us get through this: remembering the stories of these neighbors of ours. Regular guys who were confronted with a threat that would be enough to chill anyone's soul, but who saw what they had to do and did it.

If they can do it, so can we. For their sakes.


Fran said...

I've been thinking about what happened in your neighborhood too, Dusty, and how shocked you were when you heard it. I completely understand. We live not too far from the recent shooting in Graham, Washington, where the father killed his five children.

And we, too, have been wondering what makes someone do that, if a crumbling economy and a disintegrating marriage and the fear of losing the children to foster care (and all the rumored nightmares attached thereto) is a factor, but ultimately, we just can't know.

And it's heartbreaking.

But it is the actions of the everyday heroes that helps us cope. Sadly, I wish we had that kind of event in this killing.

I wish it made sense.

Alexander Field said...

Thanks for the post today, during a hard time such as this. But I love the stories you shared about the two brave men who stared this tragedy in the face and chose to do extraordinary things with it. No one wants that choice, but your takeaway will be mine. I know that we can do it too, so thanks for the inspiring reminder.

Anonymous said...

Nice post.

How did we Americans, turn our society into one of violence and disrespect? I miss the innocence and neighborly politeness, that I knew as a child growing up in the 50s and 60s.

Take me back. Looks like we continue to be headed down a darker road.

JD Rhoades said...

I don't know that the times are entirely to blame, Joseph. Look at some of these older mass killings:

Andrew Kehoe-rigged a school with 1,000 pounds of explosives- 42 killed, mostly children-1927

Charles Starkweather-11 people killed-1958

Geroge Metesky (New York's "Mad Bomber")- 33 bombs placed between 1940-1956. 15 injured.
The Boston Strangler-13 women killed-1962-1964

Charles Whitman-14 people killed-1966

Richard Speck-eight killed-1966

And keep in mind, the mass murderers of the 70's: Ted Bundy, Dean Corrl, Charles Manson, et. al. grew up in those times of "innocence and neighborly politeness."

Anonymous said...

Many of those were psychopaths. Today I see everyone getting in "everyone's face," disrespect for any authority, Hell,lately you don't even see anyone hold a door for another person. We were taught to do things like that by our parents (and it was expected, the norm)

Maybe it's the demise of the family structure in our country. (but I'm just guessing here, I'm sure its many things)

I recently spent some time near Binghamton, NY. It is sad.

JD Rhoades said...

I'm a believer in the "many things" theory.

Anonymous said...


David Terrenoire said...

A few years ago, my wife's family was in the news. Every morning we would come out of the motel and see the headlines in the newspaper boxes, and it was about us. Every evening, the lead story was about us. We met SWAT teams in the motel bar. They were there because of something a member of our family did. It's a notoreity we didn't seek and certainly didn't welcome.

It was a strange time, something that separated us from the rest of society, and that dislocation is what you're feeling now, I suspect.

In a macabre postscript to this, my nephew and I just spent the past four days at the documentary film festival.

He's from Binghamton. My brother and his wife live just up the road from the killings there.

I've been thinking about you a lot these past few days, Dusty. It's good to read how you're grappling with all of this. I'm sorry that you have to. Hang in there.

Celine said...

Joseph, I don't know where you live, but I've spent the last 36 years (since I was 16) in Nashville and Houston. Yes, I see people being rude, but they are on the whole outnumbered by those who do practice ordinary courtesy. People (men and women both) hold doors for me, and I for them; people say "excuse me" when they need to get past you; people take their place in line and wait; people let you into a crowded traffic lane when you put your blinker on. And that's in a large city and a huge one, exactly the sort of places where people say there's no courtesy left.

I have become convinced that the whole hand-wringing "why are people so much RUDER these days?" thing is largely self-delusion, brought on by selective observation and probably influenced by too much time spent watching "if it bleeds, it leads" mass media. Try looking for evidence of politeness instead. You'll find it.

Gerard Saylor said...

Keep in mind that the rude ones always stand-out.

I heard that cops in Binghampton are getting grief because they waited for assistance before entering the building. They did the opposite of what the sole officer did there in North Carolina.

I pass no judgment nor give any criticism; I have no idea what was going on at the time and bet both the officer and the NY cops did their absolute best. I'm just passing on info.

nathan said...

People are shot and (occasionally) killed right outside my door on a fairly consistent basis. I've watched young men shoot each other in the face right in front of me. A number of my friends (who are not soldiers) have bullet scars -- some have several. I think it is encoded on the American DNA to respond to conflict of any sort in a violent way. We're always declaring "war" on things -- drugs, poverty, "terror" (whatever the fuck that means). As Carlin pointed out, we're the only nation whose national anthem mentions rockets and bombs. We are violent people by nature and we always have been.

JD Rhoades said...

Gerard: I do know that Officer Garner was the only officer on duty that morning (and if you've ever seen how deserted Carthage is on Sunday morning, you'd know why). So the wait for backup in his case would probably have been longer.

Got a very nice comment on the Pilot website, BTW:

As a citizen of Moore County and as Justin's uncle, THANK YOU for your story. What you say he was feeling on the 911 tapes, you got it right. From the moment he went in to the home, he was scared and who would not have been. But, it did not stop him from doing what he knew was right. We in the Garner family can not be more proud of this man.

We pray for those who were not as fortunate as we were on that day. We are lucky to still have Justin with us, and we feel for those who were not so fortunate.

God bless you.

William Garner

They have every right to be proud.

Gerard said...

I'm in complete agreement with you, JD. The dude did a great and brave job. I'm willing to throw out some Internet Know-It-All jabs about Binghampton but still won't.

I'm no criminal justice dude but, from what I can tell, the "active shooter" scenario has had a lot of emphasis ever since Columbine. Officer Garner did very well to attack and stop the threat.

JD Rhoades said...

Nathan: have you considered moving?

there are a lot of flaws in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, but he did make some excellent points that were lost in the hysterical and highly personalized backlash against him (a lot of which seemed to consist of variations on "Michael Moore is FAT! Huh-huh-huh!")

One of those points is that there are countries where people own lots of guns but they don't have the same problems we have with gun violence, at least not to the extent that we have them. He pointed out the difference, which was an American culture of fear. Fear+guns=bad combination.

Tom Panek said...

And the fear is spreading...anecdotal evidence here points to Carthage businesses (notably, nurseries - at the busiest time of year for them) seeing a drop in business because people in the county are afraid of being shot at. ???? Carthage as the new Dodge City?? How stupid can people be?

nathan said...

Dusty, I'd move if I could, but this is all I can afford or probably ever will. Hey, beats a tent city! : )

The whole culture of fear thing is right on, but equal to that is the culture of rage. The guns do make it easier to get the job done when there's a killin' a-transpirin', but the big problem is our collective psyche. I don't know if there's fix for that. I kinda doubt it.

Tom Panek said...

Nathan - count me out of your "collective psyche." I don't buy it. We are not a nation of fearful people whose only recourse is violent resolution. There is an element that is bent on gaining by intimidation and violence, and there are individuals who get twisted around enough to use violence as a means to an end. But there are far more of us who refuse to yield to fear and who understand that resolution can be gained through constructive dialogue; who believe our courts and our justice system exists to prosecute those who would wreak havoc in other people's lives.

If you believe the only place you will ever live is in the center of the violence you describe, then you will. I choose not to, so I don't.

Sarah Shaber said...

Memorable column, Dusty. I don't think it's "the times" either. Individuals throughout history have "gone postal"--it's a mental break that can be caused by any crisis--including economic problems, emotional distress.
My question is, what are we going to do about it? How about reasonable gun control? It doesn't completely end gun violence, but it does diminish it.

nathan said...

Tom, I count myself out of that collective psyche as well. Individual choices to rise above the fear are all well and good. It'd certainly be nice if more people did that.
However, this culture of fear and knee-jerk violence as the appropriate response to conflict is ingrained in the American experience. And it has been from the very beginning. It informs (some would say dictates) our approach to foreign policy, and it is present in our one-on-one interaction as well.
As far as my individual situation goes, I'm not tremendously worried about my personal safety (although maybe I should be). It is the violence that it woven into the larger Amercian fabric that concerns/interests me. This situation about which Dusty has written this article is just one small bit of a much reality.

nathan said...

Damn, grammar got sketchy there toward the end. My students started walking in and distracted me. [Grumbles]