A “Thinkable” Tragedy and The Real American Carnage

I didn’t write my thoughts about the shooting in Las Vegas, my home for more than seven years earlier in my life. I fretted about that fact for a while. Why was I avoiding it? Was I dodging an issue that has driven people I once respected to distance themselves from me? Was it even worth the time anymore? I shouldn’t have been concerned; it was a bet as sure as the sun would rise that there would be another record-breaking mass shooting in the United States in short order. It took little more than a month. I greeted the news of the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas without shock or even much alarm. That is where we are in America now. Parishioners and law enforcement used words like “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” to describe this latest event. We all know it is neither. It takes no imagination at all to realize that this will happen again. It is not at all unthinkable. In fact, it is more likely than not. In the coming week in this country there will be another crime that qualifies as a mass shooting for those still brave enough—and still not numb—to research this kind of thing. In fact, while editing this piece, there was just another one, this time in northern California. This is the real American carnage, and it is a goddamn shame.

Mass shootings are killing more in a single event than we’re used to—yes, we are “used to” it—because the killers have access to weaponry that in previous decades was available only to law enforcement and the military. I won’t succumb to the ridiculous debate about what we ought to call them. They are weapons suited for war, and they were initially designed for one purpose, that is the ultra-efficient killing of human beings. Certainly, they can be used for other things just as the handle of a screwdriver can drive nails and a pair of plyers makes a decent wrench. My grandfather taught me better than that, and in doing so taught me not to claim a purpose for something it was never meant to do. No one can claim ignorance of the fact of these weapons’ design and be considered a credible voice in this discourse.

Forty-nine innocents died in Orlando. Fifty-nine in Las Vegas. Twenty-six in Sutherland Springs. But you know the rhetoric. Gun violence is a fringe problem. If you take out the events committed during drug or gang activity, it barely touches “real” America. If you stay out of inner-city Chicago—a gun free zone, the proponents of flooding our streets with ever more deadly weaponry will undoubtedly point out—or Baltimore, or Washington, D.C. then there is almost no effect at all. A friend of mine said during one of these discussions that “people like us” are hardly ever affected. People like us.

Las Vegas is still home to people I care about. No one I know was injured in that senseless attack, but people who some of them know were. No one I know was injured in Sutherland Springs either, but someone I know well has a brother who lost several relatives. That is also how it is in America now.

There are more than 300 million people in the United States. Our chances of being part of a mass shooting are almost infinitesimally small. That is one statistic the NRA gets right. That they still insist you arm yourself to guard against such unlikely events defies logic. Your chances of using a weapon in self-defense are nearly equally infinitesimally small. You are very unlikely to be killed in say, a church or a theater or a school or your office holiday party or a concert or your place of business or a football watching party or in the parking lot after a sporting event, but your chances of knowing someone who is affected by this kind of violence will continue to grow every day.

Consider this. If every person killed in a mass shooting knows just twenty other people and each of those knows just twenty more, then more than 10,000 people know someone who died in the shooting in Texas this week or know someone who does. That number is 23,000 for those killed in Las Vegas. If you include the injured from Las Vegas, the number is almost 220,000. The CDC says, on average, 93 people die every day to gun violence, nearly 34,000 every year. By the same conservative logic above—every victim knows 20 who know 20 more—13.6 million Americans this year will personally know a victim of gun violence or know someone who does. Odds are there are a least a few million in that group who are “people like us.”

In Las Vegas, a rich white man who owned 40 guns and modifications that made them behave like fully automatic rifles shot at a crowd of concert-goers. They were patrons of artists who wrap themselves in the culture of Mom, apple pie, and plastic-stock Austrian-made handguns. Statistics would say quite a few of those are not very much different than we are. Twenty-six people died in a Southern Baptist Church in rural Texas. That’s part of the largest Protestant denomination in the country. No matter who you are, these were all “people like us.” Gun violence is not something that only happens to someone else. This is an American problem; one for us all.

So, we find ourselves once again in the aftermath of a completely foreseeable, wholly predictable, in no way shocking mass shooting in the United States of America. These are utterly “thinkable” tragedies. Already you have heard the imbecilic refrain that new laws will not protect us from criminals. Already you have heard that now is not the time to “politicize” a tragedy by starting to talk about gun legislation. You have heard the president call the Texas shooter deranged, though you might not have known that he struck down an Obama-era order designed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable. Governor Abbott said he was asking for God’s “guidance” during this time of grief. One wonders if the governor will be perceptive enough to understand whatever guidance The Almighty provides. It seems He’s been working pretty damn hard to try to tell us something with all these acts of Old Testament-like violent fervor. Unfortunately, I do not have much hope that things will improve, or even that we will begin to acknowledge that we have a real problem to which there are real solutions. I am not however without any hope.

This year alone almost three times as many people than are on the rolls of the NRA will know someone who knows someone who experiences gun violence first hand. Next year will be the same, as will the year after that. It is an unfortunate—or ultimately fortunate—fact that more and more of us will be affected by gun violence each year than will buy into the radical agenda of the gun lobby. Every time the country music artists who were in Las Vegas take the stage they will wonder whether one person—just one—out of 30,000 has them or their fans in his sights somewhere out beyond those glaring lights. Maybe some will begin to think differently about ways to reshape our society and their responsibility in such an endeavor. Someone, just like us, will have to face the consequences of political expedience and decisions not made, of leadership deferred. Someone will slip through the cracks or exploit a loophole and acquire a weapon a Ukrainian defending his homeland or a Syrian fighting tyranny would envy. Someone’s brother or son or father will be killed in gang or drug violence. Someone’s daughter or sister or mother will decide to take her own life, and because of our near unfettered access to firearms, the chances she will complete that act is significantly higher. Someone in a conservative, mostly white town, will be forced to confront first hand this stain on our national character over the coffin of a loved one. It happened last week in a small town in Texas. And in each of these inevitable events will be an expanding web of those whose lives will be forever altered. When the abstract becomes real in a way we never thought it would, when “people like us” decide we’ve had enough of the killing, maybe we’ll find the courage to do the right thing. Maybe we’ll find the fortitude to confront this scourge on our republic as we have done with other public safety issues like drunk driving, sexual harassment, defective airbags, and the flu. Maybe.

Until then I hope you don’t learn of someone you know being affected by gun violence. I’m not betting on it though. I know you’ll take comfort in the thoughts and prayers of our politicians and in the knowledge they are working so hard to understand what God might want us to do in such ambiguous and trying times. If only He would give us a sign…maybe tomorrow. Actually, probably tomorrow.

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There Will Always be London

“Great. I meant what I said about hoping our paths cross while we’re on the road…We have way more in common than we have differences. I look forward to it.” These are the last words I ever expect to hear from someone I’ve known for forty years. They sound so cheerful. They came after he had, without any sense of irony, accused me of sanctimony, dismissed not only the product of my writing but the entire critical thought process that leads to it, completely contradicted himself on a major point of motive, and described how giving he is of his time to disparate people all over the world while taking extraordinary steps to “learn” from all he calls his friends. I had the audacity to take issue with a fact-free meme about the economic impact of the last presidential administration. What an ass, I was. I mean, why couldn’t I just go along with it instead? This is life in the 21st century.

I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to “lose” a friendship over something some idiot put on social media. These things happen every day, and my point here is not to lament or mourn it or to cry out for help. No, there is a case to be made that what I lost here is completely inconsequential. I will never see another Tweet he doesn’t really believe but thought funny. I will never see another demonstrably false feed and wonder what drives this particular person to send it along the information superhighway for other, possibly less discerning eyes. I will never have to wonder many things that will only take up my time and might have—before I took this opportunity to think it through clearly—colored my memories.

Of course, it is my fault. No one ever has to respond to the internet. I don’t have to respond even to the above. I didn’t (until this—but as he also pointed out, no one reads this anyway). I wanted to. I desperately wanted to. I wanted justice. I wanted to point out the hypocrisy and moralizing. But there is no justice to be found in social media squabbles, even with someone one has known for many years. That is because when you are engaging on those media, you are no longer dealing with people as they really are…or at least how they would be were you face to face. It is entirely possible that what you read on the feed is who they really are. That is the exciting and terrifying part of what so draws us to these platforms. It is what brings about the downfall of politicians and the Nazi next door. But that Nazi didn’t seig heil you on the front porch with a cup of coffee in his other hand as a way of saying “good morning” yesterday. If you want to know what people really think, get them drunk…or read their pages. The democratization of information on the web grants the possibility of great knowledge, but it also emboldens a lack of civility and false sense of anonymity I often find astounding.

In elementary school, my friend and I were inseparable. Back before helicopter parents existed, we hiked alone in the foothills of the Rockies. We wandered aimlessly over many of the 18,000 acres of the military base where our fathers had important roles, his father slightly more important in the chain of command than mine. We talked about flying fighter planes. We designed airplanes and dreamed about seeing our creations fly. We built a tramway between two rock spires forty feet above the ground and argued over who would be first to ride it. Then we decided to let GI Joe or the Six Million Dollar Man or Stretch Armstrong be the first—and I think only—passenger of our ingenuity. We built model airplanes. We built dams in a wash by the baseball fields, then let the water dig great canyons downstream after those dams were destroyed in huge battles of imagined heroes and superheroes. We talked about girls’ breasts.

Later, when both of our fathers were on different assignments in the UK, my mother sent me to London to stay with his family during spring break. His father was then an important person in the embassy, and his mother was dragged into all that entailed. His older sister, probably away at boarding school as is the fashion in Britain, had no time for her junior high brother and his friend even if she might have been around. London was our city for a week, unsupervised. We did whatever we liked. We jumped the Tube and busses, most of the time without tickets, to go where we wanted to go. We went to Heathrow to watch the Concorde take off and land. We sailed a model boat in Hyde Park. We saw “For Your Eyes Only,” a title that promised more than it delivered, in the West End cinema where the world premiere had been only weeks before. And we blew up models with fireworks as they zoomed down a zipline we rigged from a third-floor window to the back garden below. As I recall, we might have heard about that one after his mom was counseled by a posh Knightsbridge neighbor lady. I’m certain we talked about girls’ breasts, perhaps even the poshness of the neighbor lady’s breasts.

Then we began to grow up. We went to service academies just as we had planned, though we went to different ones. We flew fighters just as we had planned—the same kind—but we were never assigned together. We were on different career paths. I continued. He went to the Guard or Reserve. I don’t know which, maybe both. We never had a professional relationship as adults. We had rare personal contact. We married. We had kids. We’ve never met each other’s spouses or children. I’ve been married for 27 years. He found God or never lost Him. I don’t know. We didn’t talk about those kinds of things, the kinds of things that really matter in the being of a person. I find no comfort in the concept of the supernatural after years of trying hard to take hold of it. He wouldn’t know any of that. I retired from the military. He did too eventually. He’s a deep conservative. Maybe. Those memes and that social media platform? Just entertainment. He says he doesn’t talk politics or religion with people he likes, though he enjoys conversations about both. It’s hard to understand. We’re both still professional pilots. So much in common…

Those words from him above are the end of a rebuke. They followed a statement that someone as “multi-dimensional” as I claim to be ought to understand why someone I’ve known for forty years would rather talk about my family than our varying worldviews. It sounds so rational on the surface. Who could argue it? In reality, it ignores almost everything. The truth is we haven’t really known each other for forty years. We knew each other for perhaps five. After that, we have no idea who the other really became. Sure, we could get together and say, “how’s the family?” Those answers, though, are meaningless without the context of what makes us who we are. The experiences that lead him to place God as his number one priority and those that lead me to rank no deity on any list of important things in my life are the bases of an understanding about who we are. My long disentanglement with a party I no longer recognize in ideology or principle and his ability to either remain or have them finally come home to him are part of a story that explains how we approach everything we do in our very different worlds. These things that make up our being are precisely the things that must be understood before we can have any discussion, especially about family. How we relate to the world is how we relate to family. It’s how that family then relates to the world. These things must be understood lest we be doomed to rest on the false comfort of an imagined forty-year history. These are the very things that define whether we have anything of substance in common at all. And so, if one is unwilling to confront those parts of us in honest conversation, the best we can ever hope for is to have meaningless banter about superficialities. I do that all the time in my current profession as I’m paired for days of travel with someone I’ve never met. I have no intention of doing so as the basis of any kind of real relationship. Our time is too short to engage in such a façade.

The truth is, I didn’t lose a forty-year friendship. Part of what I lost is being confronted, in text and on screens, with the ideations of someone I haven’t known for a very, very long time. That is only a loss if one decides to let it be. The friendship, built on the wanderlust and dreams of youth, that existed during a five-year period will be there for as long as I have faculties to recall it. I will always do so with deep fondness, but it is only a small part of what made me who I am. It’s a shame not to be able to share the rest of it with someone who took part in it, but I cannot control the interests of others. I may wish it otherwise, but I am convinced of the surety of the statement and the futility of attempting to alter it. And so I go on, trying to live a life with meaning—in the way only humans are capable of doing—and trying to fill it with those who want to impact that life in a meaningful way. Our paths may cross sometime on the road, but I cannot look forward to it. Nothing fills me with a greater sense of purposelessness than reminiscing in the absence of any underlying interest or greater context in how I became the man—husband, father, son, and brother—I continue to strive to be. My time—and his—is far more valuable than to waste it only on stories of Stretch Armstrong’s daring or Barrie Ann’s ample bosom. What an empty pursuit that would be.

We have “unfollowed” each other. He doesn’t email, and though my number was on every one of the numerous Christmas letters he received from me over the years, he was “blunt” in his assessment of those letters. I have no reason to believe they survived first contact with any reader in his house. These things do not anger me. There are writers whose work I cannot stomach. Still, I’d give a lot to talk to Falkner and try to understand what made him tick.

Though I’m not angered, this incident has clearly affected me. I’m saddened by the lack of interest in doing the grunt work of sorting our differences. I’m saddened by the state of an internet that once showed such promise for humankind. The promise is still there, but the likelihood of using it to its full capabilities as a place to pursue fact, truth, science, and knowledge in the absence of judgement about race, gender, sexuality, identity, creed, nationality, etc., well, that’s all gone. I’m saddened by the nonchalance with which so many can pass off so much lacking any value for the betterment of our species. I’m saddened by the culture that says the one who points out the inaccuracies is the one deserving of derision. I’m saddened so many believe there is a place for derision where speech and truth are at stake. Mostly I’m saddened that someone I used to know implied he had no interest in really knowing me in the present. That’s a hard one to take; in the end, that is what is lost. It is never the friendship one had that one loses, it is only ever the friendship that might still have been. And while that part feels tragic, there will always be London and those years that were, on balance, far too few.

Farewell, my friend. You were then and therefore, in my memory, always remain so.

An Unshakable Weakness of Being

I spent the better part of a quarter century dealing with dictators and strongmen. I actively fought against one and still wish I could have done the same against another. In both cases intelligence officers, diplomats, world leaders, psychologists, and pundits all assessed their mental states from afar. Kim Jung Il, wearing Charles Nelson Reilly glasses straight from 1970s gameshows, was the crazy son of a communist deity. He was always thought to be striving for his immortal father’s love and was therefore continuously underestimated. Saddam Hussein was an irrational and homicidal maniac bent on nuclear superiority over his neighbors. He was infamously overestimated. Common thought simultaneously held the ideas that both men were detached from reality yet ultimately guilty of all we believed they desired. What other than irrationality could possibly explain their behavior? Perhaps the lessons of dealing with these strongmen can help us understand the actions of the one currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Saddam Hussein spent half of my career trying to convince the world that he was developing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMD). According to George Tenet, then head of the CIA, he led “…an active effort to deceive U.N. inspectors and deny them access.” He did so for sites he had previously allowed inspectors to investigate. He manufactured evidence of deception. He harassed inspectors. Finally, in 1998, he kicked them out of Iraq for the last time, a sure sign that his weapons program was on track and an enormous threat to the entire world. It wasn’t. It did not then exist.

Now we have a president who fired the FBI Director because of the “Russia thing.” He says he may fire the man now investigating the same. He is actively undermining his own Attorney General, the elf-like man first to prostrate himself before a then vile and unlikely candidate, for not protecting him from this alleged “witch hunt.” He is calling into question the service of the man he appointed deputy director of the FBI. He may pardon himself—though he claims complete innocence—because “everyone knows” he can. His lawyers are digging up dirt to tarnish the reputations and call into question the motives of the team the special prosecutor has assembled when the timing is right (this is the same man who claimed his opponent smeared the reputations of those accusing her husband of extramarital adventures). He uses Twitter to parry real issues and bully his own staff. Lately he has taken to privately calling and berating long-serving and generally respected senators and congressmen and women from his own party for not protecting him from the investigation into why Russia so wanted Donald Trump in the White House. Why would anyone say and do those things if they were not guilty of some high crime or misdemeanor? Why would anyone who has nothing to hide engage in such a way that nearly screams of a guilty conscience?

Saddam did what he did to play to an internal and limited external audience, by which I mean his own people and the microcosm of his Arab and Persian neighbors. He was projecting the only kind of strength a very weak man can. As with all weak leaders there is a bluster that accompanies overinflating every perceived sleight and overdoing every response. Saddam had to appear strong to the disparate peoples he ruled, all with centuries of mutual animosity lightly dusted over and just barely beneath the surface. He also had to appear as an equal to his Persian neighbor to the East with whom he’d fought a bloody, protracted war as part of his rise to power. He had to play the part of the representative Arab being persecuted by a West that was Zionist at its heart, all while appearing strong to the leader of the only cohort of fellow Arabs who had taken up arms against him. The twelve-year pantomime over WMD that followed Operation Desert Storm and ended with Operation Iraqi Freedom played perfectly to those three audiences. It was high drama projected by a rational actor.

President Trump also must play to an internal and limited external audience, both to his core supporters and to the microcosm of allegedly conservative voters who somehow found the dissonance required to vote for him despite what they claimed to value. The 20% of Americans who vehemently support him need to see his so-called anti-political correctness on full display. They are the kind that still show up to campaign rallies and would not change even if the president, as he famously claimed, shot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue. Still, they have to see him defy the norms of public office. They would not mind if he defied a law here and there because he would be sticking it to the Washington and East Coast Elites who are out of touch with “real” America—a remarkably elitist concept in its own right and one we cannot allow to stand unchallenged. He must continue to play to their centuries-old animosities, lightly dusted over and clearly no longer beneath the surface, that remain unenlightened by the progress the nation has made since its Founding, its near cleaving, and its more recent struggle for civil rights.

The president also must appear strong to the further 26% of voting Americans who cast a ballot for him but are moderately concerned about his Twitter habits and the effect they have had on an agenda they thought they voted for—one he never supported in whole and to which, they are now learning, he is in no way tethered. They, however, are so relieved at not having another Clinton in the White House that they are willing to overlook all the issues they said they despised about that possibility. Nepotism. Self-dealing. Foreign governments buying influence. Political corruption. Getting rich from government service. Dynasty. Russian contacts (yes, really). Leaking classified information for the benefit of adversary governments. Consorting with terrorists. And of course, incriminating emails.

The president must continually remind this fraction of the electorate that the “Russia thing” is keeping him from executing whatever singular policy drove them to vote for an old man with a declared sense of entitlement to manhandle women’s genitalia. He must continue to claim he is being repressed by “fake news,” an obstructionist left, and anyone getting in his way of making America great again. This sliver of the citizenry must know that he would be fighting for them if not for these pesky issues of campaign law and his advisors’ deep involvement in Russian state affairs. There is, of course, absolutely no evidence of intent to do the things he promised for this faction in any policy statement or official act to date, save a Supreme Court justice. That is, unless you also believe the killing of a terrorist by a transgender soldier is somehow less righteous than if done by someone with genetically bestowed private parts.

Finally, he must continue to remain aggressive about condemning the investigation into his alleged Russia ties, because to acquiesce and allow it to play out would show weakness in the face of the world leaders from whom he most desires respect—autocrats, dictators, tyrants, and goons. Despite western leaders’ lack of confidence and occasional open disdain for his actions, the West can no more leave the orbit of the U.S. than can the U.S. shake off its long and productive partnerships among the world’s liberal order. Relations will strain, the U.S.’s standing in that order has already been damaged and will fall much farther, but in the end the ties will bind. The president lacks both the background and intellectual curiosity to know or learn this, but he so wants to be respected by those “better leader(s) of their” countries than any previous president has been of ours. To be respected by a theocratic king, a KGB officer cum dictator, or a Philippine mobster is so much more personally satisfying for this president than to be known for his respect for human dignity, the Constitution to which he swore an oath, the rule of law itself, or even the people who put him in office. That is partially because he has no respect for the latter four at all. Remember, he is a man—a gameshow personality—who has spent a lifetime trying to live up to the hard reputation of a dead father. A father who could never show his approval grips a man from the grave in a way that should never be underestimated. That man may never have claimed to be a god but he certainly held that kind of aura for the son who inherited his sizable fortune.

Whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia is an important issue for the nation. The facts are certainly in doubt. That the campaign was more than willing to engage in such collusion no longer is. The president has the emails of his son to thank for that. It would be a sweet irony were it not so sick. Of course, it is still far more likely than not that the campaign, the Trump Organization, and maybe Donald Trump himself colluded with, have unseemly ties to, or are perhaps somehow so indebted to Russian interests that it presents a grave risk to the nation. It is still far more likely than not that individuals in Trump’s orbit knew of and actively encouraged Russian interference in the sanctity of the U.S. election process. But then it was far more likely that Saddam Hussein had a viable WMD program and Kim Jung Il did not.

Saddam’s duping about his weapons programs did not instill confidence in him as a leader of any substance. Neither does the president’s obfuscation and confrontation over his Russia ties. Such are the machinations of a deep and unshakable weakness of being. But they may be evidence of nothing else. In politics and high-stakes international brinksmanship, sometimes there is only smoke. Its source is an apparition, a façade against which frailty is cast as strength and then thrives far longer than it should. Unfortunately, that is the best we can hope for in the president’s obsession with claiming his innocence while acting as though he may have treason to hide.