Tuesday, September 17, 2013
The Morning After
It is the morning after the horrific and still unexplained shooting rampage at The DC Navy Yard yesterday. Just after 7 AM, I am driving carpool, trying as best I can for myself and my teenaged son, to return to normal and go on living life. As a Rabbi, days removed from Yom Kippur, the holiest, most reflective day of our year, it is what I expected to be doing today. But not for these reasons; not in this way.
My favorite radio station (that doesn’t play songs), is not helping – they are still in “total coverage mode” – only traffic and weather on the 8s, sports at 15 and 45, and commercials breaking up their non-stop focus on exactly one story. So I switch it off, and plug my iPod, on scramble, into the car’s sound system. I smile at the familiar melody – Maureen McGovern singing the theme from “The Poseidon Adventure” – until the words start to register:
There's got to be a morning after, if we can hold on through the night --
We have a chance to find the sunshine.
Let's keep on looking for the light.
Oh, can't you see the morning after?
It's waiting right outside the storm.
Why don't we cross the bridge together, and find a place that's safe and warm?
Nice, prayerful words, but clearly we are not there yet, I am not there yet. I snap off the iPod as well, and we drive on in silence. Maybe it is the heightened focus that the absence of talk and music provides, maybe it is me projecting my own troubled soul this morning. But it sure seems like more of the “drivers” with whom I am trying to share the road are being just a tad more aggressive than usual this morning. Or maybe I am being a little more cautious, unconsciously overcompensating?
A quick look at the numbers flashing from the dashboard of my still new Prius-V reassures – it isn’t me. If anything, I, too, am ignoring that feedback more than usual, driving a little more aggressively myself. It is scant reassurance, as the BMW pulls out to speed around me on the left as I drive north in the left lane of Rte. 197, endangering all of us with her selfish recklessness. I watch, bemused, as the only “normal” behaviors displayed on the drive are the slowing down for the speed cameras, and the compensatory drag-strip speeding to get to the single lane stretch of the road, seemingly on display from even more drivers today.
I look over at my teenaged son, reflecting on his reaction yesterday. Sure, it was triggered by being told that the Nationals’ game we had planned to attend had been cancelled, because the ballpark is right next to the site of the shootings, but he has been in a deep funk ever since he heard what had happened. I think to myself just how many times he and I had gone through yesterday’s drill – 9/11, the sniper, Sandy Hook, now yesterday – and too many other smaller ones in between to even remain distinct in my memory.
As I drop him off at school, and test news radio again for my trip home, I hear the questions about whether this shooter might have been suffering from PTSD, the concerns that those who innocently went to work yesterday, only to find themselves the focus of nation’s attention for the day through no fault of their own, might now similarly be impacted. I find myself wondering if David’s response was, in itself, a form of PTSD – the product of too many such exposures. And I find myself wondering how many others might be going through our day today, similarly suffering a low-grade form of the disorder. Am I? And what help is available for those of us who are? Will they do something at school to help the kids recognize and deal with their thoughts and emotions? Or will they, as I had earlier, try to make it just another normal day by ignoring it as best they can?
And then – what do I need to get myself back to normal? How can I get it? As a Rabbi, what can I provide for others? Suddenly, my inner dialogue is channeling Howard Beale – Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliantly written character in “Network,” and the iconic monologue brought to life by Peter Finch. I AM mad as hell, and I am NOT going to take it any more! And I want EVERYONE to go to their windows, open them, and scream the words out with me.
But then, I want us to actually DO SOMETHING! I find myself wondering if maybe, just maybe, this time, the close geographic proximity of Capitol Hill to the site of this tragedy might make it personal enough for our elected representatives to drop their partisan political stalemate, to ignore the craven efforts of the gun lobby to buy their votes, and FINALLY pass common sense gun regulation. Real, enforceable laws that might begin to save lives.
I find myself ruefully admitting that even I have lost track of how many innocent Americans have lost their lives in gun violence since the Newtown, CT tragedy, and vow to look it up when I get home. Slate reports the number is at least 8,238, but also notes the difficulties of keeping track, the historic underreporting of such events, and the comparison to the best CDC data, which suggests the actual number is three times as many, at over 25,000! In less than a year!
Another sound byte draws my attention, even through the reverie. As a more complete picture of yesterday’s shooter emerges, it becomes clear that he most likely acted alone. The hysterical over-reactions in the heat of the moment yesterday are now giving way to the awareness, as my radio reports, that this was “just” another workplace related shooting, that happened to occur on a highly protected military facility. “Just”? Like somehow that makes it less painful, less significant, less tragic? I want to call a VERY un-Rabbinic “BS” on that one!
But I listen to what else we have learned about the shooter over night. The bizarre 2004 shooting he was suspected of being involved in, and his father’s response at that time, when questioned, that he was concerned his son was suffering from post-9/11 related PTSD himself. The lack of an arrest in that case, which kept him free to purchase weapons. The lack of evidence that the shooter was ever treated for this supposed PTSD, or whatever other emotional issues he manifested. The equally bizarre incident in Texas a couple of years ago, in which a gun in his apartment discharged a bullet into the unit above his. How that incident had been dismissed as being a gun-cleaning misfire, even though the woman in the unit above testified that there had been friction between them, and she was fearful of what he might do to her one day. The long-term pattern of anger management issues, and difficulty accepting negative criticism from work supervisors and others he apparently evidenced, including the recent criticism of an installation job he had done at the Navy Yard. That job apparently provided him with the credentials that he showed to get onto the base, the credentials that cleared him through the gate without an inspection of his vehicle, or the discovery of the three weapons he brought with him.
And I cry a bit. WHY is it so easy to see the pattern through the tears shed in grief, when we look back, yet NOTHING prior to yesterday even raised a red flag that might have prevented yet another tragedy??? Once again, I realize, the high profile cases, like this one, even as they raise our awareness of the need for change, are actually the events LEAST likely to be prevented by any honest and enforceable changes in gun laws.
So I start to question what I can even say that will be of value. My mind goes to the President’s words yesterday: "These are men and women who were going to work doing their jobs and protecting all of us," Obama said. "They're patriots. They know the dangers of serving abroad, but today they faced the unimaginable violence that they wouldn't have expected here at home.” As I marvel at the eloquence, and the honesty, it dawns on me – he stopped too soon! There needed to be another clause or 2 at the end, delivered with appropriately dramatic ellipsis. “… but today they faced the unimaginable violence that they wouldn’t have expected here at home…. That they shouldn’t NEED to expect here at home…. That NO ONE should have to expect here in America.” Even Obama’s eloquent, heartfelt sadness failed to express our simple outrage that every life is too valuable to be sacrificed to political infighting and selfish lobbying!
Maybe it is the close physical proximity to me and mine this time. Maybe it is the impact I fear I am seeing on my son, or am starting to realize may be affecting me as well. If these are factors, then all too soon after the atonement for last year’s shortcomings, I find myself seeking forgiveness already again, for being motivated by personal and selfish factors.
Or maybe it is simply that proximity to Yom Kippur, during which my own sermon on the situation in Syria included a significant element on the dangers of remaining silent. A sermon which quoted Edmund Burke, Pastor Martin Niemoller, and Pirkei Avot, and the amazing, if too-often overlooked, remarks of Rabbi Joachim Prinz that served as the warm-up to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he shared:
“…When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence….”
It also included a remarkable text from Exodus, chapter 5, and a mini-drash by my colleague, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, whose father was, amongst an incredibly gifted and caring collection of religious school teachers in my youth, my favorite and the most inspirational. The younger Rabbi Creditor is also a tireless activist for gun reform, one who teaches and inspires me on a regular basis:
"[After Moses spoke to Pharaoh, Pharaoh increased the workload of the Israelite slaves.] Moses returned to God and said, 'God, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.' (Ex. 5:22-23)" -- When something is wrong, naming it usually makes it feel worse before there's any hope of things getting better. It's therefore tempting to not confront problems. But while acknowledgment is painful, living a redemptive life can begin no other way.”
Whatever the reasons – good, bad or indifferent; personal or inclusive – I can, I will remain silent no longer. Nor will I stop at simply speaking and teaching. I must act. WE must act. The ONLY way that needed change will come, the only way that this will be the LAST “morning after” one of these tragedies, is to change ourselves, to change our culture, to change our laws. To become MORE aware of those around us, more sensitive when a fellow traveler is in need of help, more courageous in breaking the silence, and helping them get the help they need to heal BEFORE they go out and harm others. To work HARDER, and more insistently, to change a culture that is more concerned with protecting the dubious right of an individual to hold weapons and ammunition that allow him to murder wholesale before he can be stopped than it is with our right to live our lives free from the fear of such attacks.
Because this morning I was reminded how blessed I am to have been once again spared direct, physical loss in such a tragedy. But I was also made painfully aware that I, and all of us, are never completely spared. This morning I grieve – for all the victims of this gun violence and their families. But starting this morning, albeit it on a different level, I refuse to be conned into denial that I – and all of us – are NOT victims. Until it stops, we are ALL victims.