Three events sent me into a tailspin of despair this past week. I know many who felt this way judging from Facebook and personal emails. The terror attack in Boston, the lack of enough votes in the senate to make some progress on gun control, and the fire in West, Texas happened in quick succession.
In Boston, I felt the way you feel when observing an attack so random and so horrible. In this case the landscape was familiar and dear to me. I also have a nephew and niece who live in the city. For two years I went to college outside Boston and spent my weekends at Copley Square or MIT or Cambridge. Even without those personal connections, the bomb explosions would still have reverberated in my dreams. I wanted answers. I wanted the why, the how, the who. I wanted to know what kind of human being could set down a bag next to an eight year old boy and walk away, knowing this child would most probably die by being ripped apart. So the anger I felt was immediate and frustrated, astounded and intense.
The vote against background checks for guns was one that caused me to experience utter fury and then hopelessness for the sanity of our country. Oddly enough, the marathon had not left me with the same despair for the United States. It struck me as a personal, idiosyncratic attack by individuals, not a collective action. I may be proved entirely wrong on this point, but I am trying to dissect my reaction here.
The explosion in Texas where twelve died, houses were demolished and many were wounded, made me feel a similar despair for our country as I did when the vote to keep shot guns out of the hands of those who were criminals or insane did not materialize. For years we have been governed by those who have believed that any regulation is a bad regulation, that the interest of big business must take priority when considering and weighing possible consequences of a piece of legislation. So we have not funded inspections and safety measures with any kind of realistic hope that they will provide a safe working environment for our citizens. Lobbyists for all kinds of investors and CEOs have access to people and offices in our Capitol that hard-working men and women simply cannot imagine having.
I am convinced that the explosion in this town could have been prevented and lives saved.
The next time a shooting happens, starting today, Sunday, I will know that we might have done something to prevent it, that our representatives who had any willingness to put their jobs, their salaries, on the line might have passed legislation before this moment that could have prevented the shooting I will read about in the newspapers in the next day or two. I believe that with the right checks and with the right limits on magazine size and assault capacity, Newtown might have been prevented. And this drives the anger I feel toward our Congress. This drives the pessimism I feel in regard to any substantive changes to end the reign of mentally ill and dangerous terrorists in the US: the Michael Lanzas, the James Holmes, the Jared Loughners. It is clear to me that the deaths of children and elders, congresswomen and social workers, practical nurses and students must rest on the consciences of timid, cruel and politically obsessed members of the House and Senate in this country who refuse year after year to take up this issue and fix it.
In some contrast to the fury around safety for us all, is my grief for those who died at the hands of two men from Watertown, Massachusetts. The anger that accompanies my grief is one grounded in astonishment at the evil single humans do to other humans. It was a grief I felt after 9/11, again connected to the event in the geography of New York where I spent so much time as a child and college student, and the proximity of my son to the site and from whom we did not hear for five hours. Missing from this reaction, however, was a feeling of betrayal. Perhaps I feel some general sense of being betrayed by the human race, by its proclivity for perpetrating such destruction on those who simply want to live their lives in the best way they know how, by serving coffee, going to school, or running in a race.
Those in Texas wanted to go about their lives in this way too, by buying groceries and taking care of their children, by staying late at work or by taking the afternoon off to visit their elderly parents. Their deaths, however, might have been prevented if we made our country responsible for their safety. The children with their gap teeth and their love of the color pink, with their remarkable energy and their love of a silly joke, might be alive today if those we sent to the Senate or the House, the state legislatures or the city councils, took direct action to inspect plants, to limit the sale of guns, to monitor every buy and every sale of a gun in this country.
So who are the terrorists here? Surely the two men in Boston. Surely those who flew planes into the World Trade Center. Surely Timothy McVeigh who killed so many with his bomb in Oklahoma, surely the men who shoot up schools or kill randomly with sniper fire. Yet I believe there is a category of destruction by omission, of deaths by neglect of duty, that applies to the men and women who are entrusted to enact laws in this country that will keep children safe, that will provide a reasonable restriction on lethal weapons so that we can sit in a Starbucks, or work in a classroom, or catch a quick sandwich to bring back to our office to work there over our lunch hour. I am not sure what to call those who shirk their duty to enact just laws. Is “passive aggressive terrorist too strong”? Is “malicious neglect” an unfair description of what is going on in Washington? From the point of view of a Newtown parent, or a West Texas spouse, what is the right way to describe those whose inaction led to the deaths of their dearest ones?
Perhaps the confluence of Boston with the other two events in one week sharpened my sorrow, my righteous anger. Perhaps in my search for blame I have winnowed the true cause of this anger down to the two events that could have been prevented by those in power. I am tired of the language that excuses or hides those who have the ability to act for the common good and do not use it thus causing death and destruction. Because I am a person who relies on words, on language and image, I am on a quest to define what happened last week in terms I can understand.
Because I know, as sure as snow in April in Minnesota, that some politician who refuses to limit guns, who refuses to provide inspectors into plants where hazardous material is present, will try to blame those in the White House or those in the opposing party for what happened in Boston. All the while he or she will be ensuring that more Newtowns and Columbines and playground deaths, will continue because of a lack of courage and compassion on his or her part. What do we call this? Terror in absentia? Terror by proxy? I am not sure.