Thursday, December 3, 2015

They are interviewing people on the scene of a still active mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. One man says, “My loved ones are safe.” Another man says “I’m a person with a disability and I heard pow, pow, pow, pow.”

The news anchor says that the SWAT team is coming up with new strategies for what is becoming a “common occurrence.”

There is a mass shooting on the front page of the New York Times today, but it’s not the one that happening now, in real time, on a tiny window on my computer.

Last week I went to the movies. I saw “Carol” with a friend. It was eleven in the morning on a weekday and the movie was an arty film about two gorgeous lesbians in the 1950s, so I figured my chances of being killed in the theater were a little smaller than they are when I’m at an action flick with my thirteen-year-old son on a packed Saturday night.

The kind of movies my son likes to see are filled with young dudes in hooded sweatshirts and long coats. The kind of movies my son likes are so loud, it would be hard at first to know if something was happening in life or on screen.

I pay careful attention to the exit signs when I go to these movies. I watch people and chart escape routes. It’s amazing to note just how many people can’t sit all the way through a two-hour movie. They get up and come back and shift in their seats. I try to decode their nervousness. Are they antsy because it’s a bad movie or are they anxious because they are carrying a duffel bag of ammunition?

I don’t like to sound paranoid. I don’t consider myself a particularly nervous person. But lately, I like to have a plan.

I saw “Carol” at the Arclight Cinema. Before each showing, a nice usher comes to the front of the theater and says a little bit about the film. At “Carol” the usher was a young woman with curly, dark hair. She pointed out the exits and let us know that she would be checking in to make sure that the sound and picture quality were up to the standards of the theater. I have heard this speech many times from many different ushers. But on this day, there was a new ending. The curly haired woman said, “If you see something, say something.”

If you see something. A gun. A bag of ammo. A knee shaking with anxiety. A wisp of smoke.

Say something. I want to say something. What is there to say?

When I say good-bye to my husband and my kids in the morning, I try always to tell them I love them.

My loved ones are safe.

But if someone.
If we didn’t see it.
If we didn’t say it.

I’m seeing something today. I’ve been seeing it for awhile.
I want to say something, but when I open my mouth only sounds come out. Crying sounds. Animal sounds.

I need some help.
I need some help to understand what is happening.

At “Carol” there might have been a shooter who didn’t like lesbians. A shooter who didn’t like art. There might have been someone who didn’t like movie theaters or ushers. Or the smell of popcorn.

It’s getting that random.

The newscasters are calling the Inland Regional Center a “soft target.” The “bad guys” have escaped in a black SUV. They might be looking for another “soft target.”

We are all soft targets. My kids have soft arms. Soft hair.

The newscasters are saying, “it’s just so easy to get what you need online. You can buy the body armor; you can buy the ammo…”

How much do we have to see?
I just want to say stop and stop and stop.

The newscasters are talking terrorism. They are talking ISIS and ISIL and Paris. In Paris, there were three attacks. Will there be another attack in San Bernardino?

There is no proven connection to ISIS in the San Bernardino shooting. And the newscasters say this, too, but then they go back to talking about ISIS.

“One day, a bell will go off in the head of the bad guys,” one newsman says, “You can just go shoot people.”

“We’re flying blind, here,” another says.

Terrorists. Madmen. Bad Guys. Anyone. Anywhere.

In February of this year, I flew to Jordan. I’d planned the trip nearly a year earlier. “The Middle East,” people said, “why do you want to go there?”

Why did I want to go there? I wanted to see Petra. I wanted to sleep under the stars in Wadi Rum. I wanted to go there for the reasons I want to go anywhere: to meet people, to share stories, to return home with a mind expanded and the the world made smaller through familiarity.

“Isn’t it too dangerous?” The question came up again and again.

“We have a pattern of mass shootings here in this country that has no parallel in the world,” says President Obama. He’s speaking to reporters just after being briefed on the most recent mass shooting, the one happening today about an hour east of my house in San Bernardino.

On Feb 3, two weeks before I was due to board a plane to Jordan, a video was released showing the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh being burned to death by ISIS. The video could be brought up with ease in a window on my computer. I didn’t look at it.

Flaming images pulled me from sleep. At three in the morning I searched the phrase “safe travel Jordan.” I scanned Twitter feeds and read reports of Fighter Planes and sadness and quiet streets. Words spiraled out of my tiny glowing screen: Mourning. Hopeful. Peaceful. Waiting. Watching.

The newscasters are talking about ISIS again. They are still talking about Paris. They are comparing Paris to San Bernardino. They are always careful to admit they don’t know anything yet. They don’t have any facts. But, then they go back to talking about terrorists. About the possibility of another attack. There is no known motive. We don’t yet have the whole story.

“These people are searching for some… thing,” a newscaster says. “They are seeking for some meaning in their life. Killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible may be that thing.”

On February 11, Craig Stephen Hicks shot three young students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and Deah Barakat were Muslims. Craig Stephen Hicks was a White American. He didn’t care much for any religion. His motive for killing three young people was believed to be a dispute over a parking space. He took a gun and walked into their apartment and shot them in their heads. But it wasn’t about their religion. It was about a parking space. In articles about this incident, Mr. Hick’s wife mentions that her husband had been on the side of gay marriage and abortion rights. But he shot three people over a parking space.

I am seeking meaning.

I can’t turn off the broadcast. I’m not looking at the screen, but I can hear the voices. I type their words because I can’t believe what they are saying. I am trying to make sense of this, but writing it down only confuses me more. The newscasters are talking about the variety of settings for shootings. Movie theaters, schools, Planned Parenthood. It could just be anywhere, they conclude. All they know is that there is “a steady spate of active shooters.”

I imagine a line of people dressed in dark clothes, carrying duffels of ammo, pulling numbers the way you would at the deli counter. A steady spate of active shooters. An average of one each day. That doesn’t take into account all the other shootings. The intimate shootings of wives and children and boys and girls and men and women. One at a time. On purpose. By accident. The guns going off like fireworks on the fourth of July – the sound so regular, we just stop flinching.

On February 19th, I flew to Jordan in the company of two friends and my stepmother, Carla. We carried a GPS tracker. Each day, we sent a signal to our family to let them know where we were, to let them know we were alive. My husband and children and my mother and brother could track our trip on the screens of their computers. They could click on a satellite map and pull up our location. Somehow this made everyone feel better.

My son and I attend the Parent Association Meeting at his middle school. A policeman has been invited to speak on the issue of homelessness around the campus property. There are people living in tents on the sidewalk. The parents would like there to be a “clean up.” One woman raises her hand and says, “in light of what happened in San Bernardino today I’m wondering why more can’t be done to secure the area.”

We still don’t know the identity of the San Bernardino shooters. Homeless. Terrorists. Madmen. Other.

The officer assures her that it’s his experience that most homeless people aren’t criminals. “They’re drug addicts or mentally ill,” he says. “But they aren’t the ones breaking into houses and cars. They aren’t the criminals.” He goes on to say that the criminals are boys, ages 16-25. “If I see a kid in a hoodie, carrying a backpack, not in school, he’s a suspect,” the officer says.

My son turns to me and widens his eyes. He makes a tiny gesture to his hoodie and to the backpack at his feet. 

In a shop in Jordan, I bought several small wooden figurines.
“This one is a teacher,” the shopkeeper told me, pointing to the painted flowers on the figure’s dress. The shopkeeper wore a black headscarf as did the tiny figure in my hand.
“You are American?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
The shopkeeper was an English major. She wanted to study writing in America.
“But I’m afraid,” she said. “Is it safe?”

“Our first priority is keeping the children safe,” says our school director. “As far as I’m concerned, that comes before their education.”

My son and I leave the meeting early. I tell him that I will explain San Bernardino when we get in the car, but before I begin, he says to me, “You know, there are more than two reasons to be homeless.” He says, “What about domestic abuse? Economic issues? Bad luck?”


It is the day after the shooting in San Bernardino and I am at my desk again. Classical music plays on the radio. There are no voices of newscasters because I am not letting them speak to me today.

The suspects in the shooting are dead. They were a man and a woman. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. An FBI search of their apartment has turned up hundreds of rounds of ammunition and a dozen pipe bombs. I don’t need to tune in to know that the newscasters are talking about terrorists.

There is a steady spate of active shooters. The location changes. The movie theater, the schoolyard, the holiday party. Terrorists. Madmen. All they have in common is the gun and the willingness to kill. One day (every day) a bell will go off in the head of a bad guy…

In Jordan, our driver was a man named Zyad. He claimed to know the country “like his own pocket.” When we asked him what it was like to live in Jordan at this time in history, he described it as “living between two fires.”

Fires are burning in our country, too.

In the media many call for gun control and just as many call for more guns. People on Facebook “de-friend” at a rapid rate on days like today.

Some people argue that if a person is licensed to carry a gun and they carry that gun into our movie theaters, our schools, our playgrounds, holiday parties and health centers then that gun will keep us safe. I respectfully disagree.

In Jordan, everyone wanted to talk about ISIS and ISIL. “What these people are doing is not human,” Zyad said. It is human to understand this to be true.
The desert of Wadi Rum was silent and vast. There were no roads in the sand, only tracks left by the tires of jeeps. The sand was fine and reddish and marked by the feet of insects and the tails of lizards. In the last light of day, the whole place glowed like an ember. In a tent woven of camel hair, we feasted on chicken and rice and drank tiny cups filled with sweet, black tea. My sweater held the scent of wood smoke. One of our guides told me of his time in the war. The things he’d seen. Rocks used as weapons. A head turned to bone and blood pulp. He told me that the nightmares persisted, but that being outside in the world helped. “I like to feel very, very small,” he said.

In the company of my two friends and my stepmother, Carla, I walked past the dim lights of our camp and into the great, dark night. The big dipper poured starlight down over us and eventually, tired of craning our necks, we all stretched ourselves out in the sand to take in the whole of the sky. It was possible, for a moment, to feel the weight of my body round against the earth. I imagined I could see the curve of our planet for in that moment, it had become small enough to fit into the curve of my spine.

Is it safe in America?
For the fourteen people killed in San Bernardino, the answer today is no.
For the rest of us, the answer is maybe.

In Paris the attackers decided to strike without reason. Not a government building. Not a military target. Just a café. A theater. The strategy of the terrorist is to keep everyone on edge; keep everyone living in fear.

In America mass shootings have occurred in classrooms, movie theaters, college campuses, clinics and during holiday parties. Terror is waged every day.

A little bell goes off in the head. And the trigger is pulled.

I want to ask the gun rights activists why their need to feel safe outweighs the safety of others?

I do not want to give in to fear. I do not want my children to be afraid.
I see these things and I need to say something.

On my walk this morning, everyone said hello. We all made eye contact and stopped to let the dogs touch noses. No one mentioned San Bernardino. But we said hello because our world had become a little smaller. Or we said hello because we were trying to make our world a little smaller.

See something.
The sky.
A neighbor.
The perked ears of a dog.

Say something.
Good morning.

Work to make it better world.