Dallas eateries are quite democratic cross-sections of Americana. The Poet’s Eye was reminded of this recently in an Oak Cliff Mexican bistro. The tables were customarily close together and on one side of me was a group of working men, I’m guessing wire twisters in tele-com or construction management on lunch break. On the other side sat a bevy of 40ish gals shopping the Arts District. Their husbands were at work, thank god. That’s what they said, ‘thank god our husbands have jobs.’
It was pretty much man-talk on one side and girl-talk on the other. This was several days after the assassinations in Tuscon, so one topic that came up at both tables was the shooting. From the girl’s side it was, “She is so brave!” and “I can’t believe it about the nine-year-old girl. So sad! Did you see his eyes?” And from the boy’s side it was, “They oughtta draw and quarter the bastard, shootin’s too good for him.”
Of course everybody has their take-away on the tragic event. Some say it shows that democracy is working, some say it indicates that our democracy is broken. Some say it’s about gun laws and some say that it’s about our treatment of the mentally ill. Some people think that all our problems would be solved if we banned guns and some people think that things would be set right if everyone carried a gun. Of course they are both right. But these two viewpoints also imagine ideal worlds that will never exist. What we have is a society that is steeped in an ideal of violence, with its average statistical share of nut-cases, many of whom are armed to the teeth. Then we are amazed and bewildered when things like the Tuscon or Virginia Tech or the Ft. Hood massacres happen. What amazes me is that they don’t happen more often.
The Poet’s Eye had the unfortunate but revealing experience of being present to witness a similar senseless massacre. I was on Guadalupe St. in Austin, just across the street from the UT campus one sunny August afternoon in 1966 when shots started popping in the distance and people began falling or ducking behind cars. I don’t have to reach far to understand the terror and helplessness felt by the people in the Safeway parking lot in Tuscon. All the same questions were asked about Charles Whitman, “What made him do it? Did he have a political agenda? With whom was he angry? Was he just crazy?” etc. I met a young woman named Claire in Austin that day who had her baby shot and killed in her womb. I held her hand for a few moments until the paramedics arrived to save her life. She didn’t ask any of these questions.
Much has changed in the 45 years between Whitman’s rampage and the Tuscon assassinations and much has not changed. The weapons are deadlier but death is the same ignominious, embarrassing end that it has always been. Our hearts, like always, cry in pain for the innocents slain and we still don’t understand why and we never will. Ask the guys who did it and they won’t understand either, won’t be able to give you a reason why. We can sift through their lives for artifacts of abuse and rejection and we will find them as we would in anyone’s life and not even those things will tell us why. Besides, it would do us no good if we knew. This is why Claire didn’t ask.
The experts will no doubt spend years trying to retrace Mr. Loughner’s footsteps to alienation. One thing they have already discovered is his fascination with nihilism. One of the philiosophical pit-falls of nihilism is that at some point nothing matters. When this happens, compassion becomes impossible. Since compassion is the grease in the gears of the universe, nihilism is doomed by entropy. It ends with the cold stillness of a universe frozen for lack of love.
Several years after the Austin shootings, I met Claire again. I didn’t recognize her and she didn’t recognize me. We were just two people in the park and we began to talk. In the course of the conversation, she mentioned that day in Austin by way of explaining how she lost her first child. That’s when I recognized her but she didn’t recognize me because she was semi-conscious when we first met. We talked about that day and about how it had changed both our lives, but Claire never wondered why Whitman had done it. Those reasons would have been no comfort to her or her murdered child.
As I recall, they cut into Whitman’s post-mortem brain and determined that the reason for his aberrant behavior was a tumor. Claire didn’t care. Her pain would not be lessened to know that the reason her child never made it into this world was a mass of wildly growing tissue in a stranger’s brain. No more would it help Congresswoman Giffords and her family to know that Loughner’s tumor, the reason for his violent spree, was Death-Rock or nihilism, right-wing cant or his own lonely anonymity.
Claire did not ask, but The Poet’s Eye cannot help but reflect on the matter of gun-violence in a culture which secretly extolls it and how we fail to deal with those among us who become untethered from the social body due to mental sickness or simple lack of meaningful social support. How do we reel them back in before they become projectiles, bullets of anger and frustration aimed at the bosom of the mother/family/country that they really want to embrace?
When we get crazy,
it just ain’t to right,
(try to keep you head, little girl)
Girl, I get lonely, too
You don’t have to worry
Just hold on tight
(don’t get caught in your little world)
‘Cause I love you
Nothing’s wrong as far as I can see
We make it harder than it has to be
and I can’t tell you why
no, baby, I can’t tell you why
I can’t tell you why
No, no, baby, I can’t tell you why
I can’t tell you why
I can’t tell you why–The Eagles