It Tolls for Thee

Redux . . .

Too many martyrs and too many dead
Too many lies, too many empty words were said
Too many times for too many angry men
Oh, let it never be again.
Phil OchsA U.S. flag flies at half staff in front of the Reed Intermediate School in Newtown, Connecticut, following a shooting nearby at Sandy Hook Elementary School

I was in my classroom when the call came.

The school was brand new, a vast industrial, accidentally brutalist building, with long, silent corridors, poorly lit because bulbs were forever burning out.  Video monitors in every hallway streamed endless loops of Channel 1 News, but except at passing time, the halls were empty.  No one monitored the comings and goings at the multiple entrances and exits, and no stood watch to ask if a newcomer belonged there.

The day of our incident, just before the holiday, I remember many of my own students being absent.  The four or five present members of my drama class and I were watching a film, whiling away the countdown to early dismissal.  And then my phone rang.

“This is Principal M____.” My usually friendly boss spoke from what sounded like a great distance,  in a manner that was forced, cold.  She was actually talking to every classroom at once, trying to be quiet so that she stirred no reprisal, caused no reactions.  “You are to lock your door from the inside, sit with your students on the floor, and stay put until further notice.”  She paused.  “There is a gunman in the building.  No shots have been fired, but we are working to apprehend him without incident.”

As is my wont in crises, I did not feel any specific emotion right away.  I made light of the situation, sat with my kids playing a game.  I was distracted by the niggling, infuriating awareness of the myriad inconveniences this could portend.  My children required transportation to and from their destinations, my husband’s dinner needed preparing, and I had no way to let anyone know what was going on.  All the mundane chores of the day loomed ahead, and I chafed at being delayed while I fretted that the kids might hear reports of the disturbance and worry for my safety.  Only then did I even begin to think about the gunman roaming the halls.

A shot rang out.  Well, we assumed it was a shot fired. Through the institutional walls, the sound could have come just as well from outside and been a car backfiring, but we knew it was a gun.  The kids huddled close to one another and trembled.  Some of the girls were sobbing.  The two boys in the class were tapping their feet, drumming, flicking lighters imbedded in their pockets.  I was impatient, thinking about catching up with my life.

The end result was an anticlimax.  Altogether, we heard three shots fired, none aimed at human beings, and then no sounds at all.  After a couple hours, the person was apprehended, and we were released.  Physically released anyway.

Columbine had happened only a few months before, and as the realities sank in, the images of that day began to play over and over in every level of my consciousness.  By the time I got home, I found myself shaking.  I was furious, disempowered, terrified.  That night brought the first of many nightmare-disrupted sleeps, my dreams perverted by the many possible consequences my waking brain refused to acknowledge.

I left teaching soon thereafter, and I am sure that the afternoon of the gun propelled my premature exit from the profession; I couldn’t continue to face the terrible vulnerability that visited me in those horrific nightmares.   My then husband scoffed at my dread, reminded me endlessly that nothing had happened.  And that was how I knew I couldn’t live with him anymore.

My memory of that trauma haunts me still, and I am willing to bet that it haunts every person who was there that day.  Looking into the eye of violence is unforgettably agonizing.

I cannot imagine what it feels like to have survived in Newtown today.  I would be willing to bet that there is no one in that town or its environs who will go about his/her life unscathed.   The events in that elementary school, where a troubled young man killed the hopes and dreams of twenty-nine families in less than ten minutes are senseless, infuriating, immobilizing.  No words adequately describe any of it, though newspeople, texters, im-ers, FB subscribers, bloggers will keep trying to find some. Because to capture this giant poison and get it into a verbal jar helps us sort through, seek the peace we will probably never find.

What makes it hardest of all is that the solutions are not clear.  President Obama is criticized for giving lip service to the horror, but the truth is that that is all we have. imgres-1

The knee-jerk reaction of the liberals among us was to scream for gun control, to decry the hold the NRA has on the nation.  I’m one of those hippies who wouldn’t give my children toy guns; no one is more anti-gun than I am.  But the sad truth is that gun control would not have prevented Newtown.  The guns were duly registered in the name of the gunman’s mother, who was legally entitled to own the gun that killed her.

The second reaction among us was to blame the health care system.  A friend of mine, who is a health care professional with a family history of mental illness, sobbed, “The system puts these kids out of treatment, out of physicians’ watchful eyes as soon as they are 18, turning them into health care orphans.”  She is right.  Our health care system is terrible, but, again, in this case, the shooter was not without support and care.

The problem is deeply ensconced somewhere in our American psyche, perhaps in the cowboy/mafia/noir fetishes we have nurtured in ourselves, perhaps in our collective isolation from the civilizations across the waters.  I don’t know where it is or what causes it, but I do know that in other countries where citizens own guns, crimes like Newtown, like the Oregon mall, like Aurora are far less frequent, and the threat of violence is far less omnipresent.   I spent a month in Thailand, and at no time when I was walking did anyone point his car at me and threaten to kill me as a man did here in New York the other day.  There is an anger, a seething ire that bubbles forth in unthinkable ways.  And it explodes, kills our children and grandparents and uncles and friends not only with guns but with vehicles driven drunkenly, with fists wielded in stadium fights, with cruel words that drive the fragile to suicide.

What can we do to stop the violence when we hardly understand it and have no remedies at hand?

For one thing, we can admit that we are all in this struggle together and cling to one another in more loving, positive ways.  What happened in Newtown was not perpetrated by an “other” out there threatening us; the devastation was wrought from within our own ranks, and we need to look within ourselves for ways to create a more loving environment with less alienation.  I realize I sound like a character in Volunteers, and I should be singing “We shall overcome,” but shouldn’t we at least begin here?

Then, too, we can reach out to the people of Newtown and let them know that we acknowledge that every one among them is a victim.  Every one of them has been traumatized and forced to carry a burden no one deserves.  Every man, woman and child in that community has been scarred for life.  Because there is no way to quantify grief, it is not for any of us who were spared to judge whose grief is heavier.  The people whose families are in tact tonight can be in as much pain as those who must bury theirs.  Acknowledging all the sufferers, validating the throbbing ache each will endure from now on must contribute to their healing.  Everyone touched by today’s horror needs to be heard, needs to be comforted, needs to be reassured that they will face no malice, no recrimination for having lived.

Of course, we must begin to seek ways to heal the ills that afflict the misguided, violently solipsistic people who solve their malaise by pointing guns.  If they are ill, their illnesses need to be recognized and dealt with before they explode; if they are simply grotesquely entitled, they need to be educated in how to become citizens.

Further, it is vital that we point our attention to a system that gives money and time to gun lobbyists but takes money and time away from education. Many an alienated soul has been saved by an arts education program, has discovered therein a way to express the need to murder and create without bloodshed.

This is not going away.  The people of Newtown, the people of Connecticut, the people of the East Coast and by tomorrow, the people of the entire country will live in the shadow of this day forever.

Question is, how can we protect the other Newtowns to come?  It’s already too late to begin, but better late than never. . . .

Clash of the Titans

            You know why New Yorkers are so depressed?  (beat, beat) It’s because we have seen the light at the end of the tunnel,
and (sigh) it is New Jersey. Ba-dum bum.

As an undergrad at Columbia, I worked as a receptionist in the School of Engineering.   I loved my job for two reasons: first, because I had a lot of time to do my own work while I kept watch on the front desk and fielded questions; and second, because I could listen bemusedly to the idle gossip of the students and professors who were constantly milling about the offices.

A favorite topics of discussion, and one that kept the entire entourage laughing, was the preponderance of New Jersey residents who commuted to Columbia for work and study.  Considered an inferior lot by the resident New Yorkers, they became the butt of a favorite euphism.  “No, s/he’s not dumb; s/he’s from New Jersey.”

New Yorkers and New Jerseyans have always rankled  one another.  And for good reason: we’re a lot alike.  Despite some historical divergences, we come from a nearly identical background.  The Dutch and the English — followed by at least a smattering from every other nautical country in the world  — settled in both places and created a multicultural community conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all merchants are created equal to the task of making money.  New York and New Jersey have beaches and farms and cities and quaint small towns, and their people are reputed to be abrasive, loud and insistent.

Since the 19th Century, people have chosen to live in New Jersey in order to work in New York or have chosen to work in New York because that is where the jobs are. New  Jerseyans have been subjugated to service of the big brother state as well as the city, and the citizens of NJ have had to pay two tax masters for their incomes, one in a state that offers no benefits for the money charged.  When I was young, the resentment toward my city was palpable; today it’s more subtle.

New Jersey and New York have a lot in common and a lot to compete over, and the states have had a tradition of rivalry that has, at times, been less than congenial.

I often imagine what it might be like if one day the people of New Jersey felt that New York had dominated them long enough and signed a pact to obliterate the city and its environs, replacing it with Jersey City as the Big Apple.

It wouldn’t be a difficult task to target NYC for ill.  A few well-aimed scuds or rockets, and whole sections of the city would fall before any defensive measure might be taken.  The playgrounds in lower Manhattan would easily be destroyed, and the bodies of small children would make appropriate poster photos for use in the manipulation of public opinion. In no time at all, NY would return fire, and all too soon, the children of Secaucus and Newark would be lost in heaps of flames, and their photos, too, would adorn the banners of the righteously infuriated.

Whose side would the world take?  The people on both sides of the Hudson look alike, smell alike, sound alike — most people outside the area can’t tell the difference between a New Jersey and a New York accent.   To a Californian, residents of New York and New Jersey are roses that pretty much smell the same.

You can see where this is going, and I am sure you get the drift of my parable.  I apologize, but I can’t help it that there is an obvious, albeit overly simplistic, kinship between this scenario and Israeli-Palestinians conflict.

Both New York and New Jersey were populated by people who arrived from somewhere else with nowhere else to go.  They over-ran the locals and set up shop, creating a refuge for others in a land that had once been hostile but now offered succor.

Palestinians and Israelis are in the same place because they are unwanted anywhere else.  They live in a hostile environment that needs considerable adaptation before it provides sustenance, but both peoples have learned a way to get what they want from it.  Both peoples need to live in the land called Israel, and both peoples deserve to stay and call one another equal.

What they need from the worldwide community is assistance in finding a way to make peace, to find a way to live together without killing one another’s children.  Both sides have suffered greatly, both sides need to stop fearing the other. But instead of encouraging peace,  the world seems eager to cheerlead for a war. Television and the web casts encourage us to be spectators, to take our lunches to a hill and root for one side or the other while we watch them gouge one another.  And the attention does little more than to egg the violence on.  Facebook is covered in posts about the evil Jews — why is it still okay to openly hate Jews and women? — and the bloodied Palestinian children and  with retorts reminding the world about the so-called Holocaust (as though there haven’t been numerous holocausts in the past century and its successor) and the horrors wrought against the Jews.  Antisemitic diatribe, answered by indignant defenses, fuel the fires of dissension between the peoples, and the violence simply escalates.

Whenever I pass through the Columbia campus, I am reminded of how similar today’s students are to my classmates and me back in the olden days.  Much as we were during the Viet Nam War, students are out in varying numbers, marching with placards, chanting, demonstrating.  Only there’s a marked change in the sound and feel of the presentation today.  Most of the protesters on College Walk favor the violent overthrow of the Israeli government.

“Violence is justified,” chants one large group holding a poster bearing a Magen David (Star of David), an equal sign and a Nazi Swastika; “when the people are occupied.”  “How many babies will you allow Israel to kill?”  “How many babies will you allow Hamas to kill?” Someone answers from a shadow. The chanting gets louder, the peripheral voice is hushed.

I find myself nostalgic for the good old days of anti-war protesting on campus.  Whatever happened to “Give Peace a chance”?  Or “Stop the violence.”  “No war. Peace now.”

Where are the cheerleaders for peace?  Where is the outcry against the jihad to eradicate the Jewish people?  Where is the nonviolent pressure brought to bear toward an independent Palestinian state and the coexistence of two equally liberated, fully empowered peoples to live alongside one another . . . kinda like New Yorkers and their counterparts in New Jersey?

There’s enough vitriole out there.   No one wishes for war.  Ask a Palestinian mother what she wants, and she will reply the same way a Jewish mother will respond:”I want my children to be safe and to live in peace.”Shalom and Salaam are the same word.

Hey, neither New York nor New Jersey ever really needed to be the conqueror.