A Terror-filled Week, Saved by Life’s Little Things
Were it not for last Monday, the week that just passed from Sunday to yesterday, would have been newsy enough, and even in its cultural and we-are-New-York and world-class way, a pleasant and rich harbinger of a fall to be enjoyed.
On Monday last week, the thorn of Syria was still in the news, and there was turmoil in that region as always. During that week, the House of Representatives passed its own version of a budget bill which, among other things, would cause huge cuts in the Food Stamp program and was hitched to a measure that would either defund Obamacare or lay the ground work defunding it, a prospect that could cause a government shutdown. Locally, the D.C. Council could not muster enough votes to override Mayor Vincent Gray’s veto of its Living Wage bill, a bill some thought was aimed squarely at the powers that be at Walmart, which had initiated plans for several of its low-wage, low-prices super stores in the District of Columbia. On the same day of that vote, Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry—once the Mayor of Washington, D.C., who was once called mayor-for-life routinely—was censured (for the second time in three years) by the council for taking money from contractors, which he had already admitted. They also stripped him of his only committee chairmanship.
These things alone were big news—an ongoing foreign policy crisis in the Middle East, actions by Congress that threatened a government shutdown amid the usual partisan blame game and paralysis, major political and policy issues in Council actions. But this was Monday’s week and none of it, not even in the midst of gala season, the floundering Redskins and triumphant-sad plight of our baseball team or the thriving panda much mattered.
On Monday, a lone gunman made his way into the Washington Navy Yard and Building 197, which housed the Naval Sea Systems Command, and shot and killed 12 employees and workers there in a spree that ended with his own death at the hands of police. His name was Aaron Alexis, an apparently mentally disturbed man who only recently called police in Rhode Island to tell them that he was hearing voices, a former member of the Navy Reserve, with a checkered, but apparently not alarming enough, past of gun incidents and reported incidents with the law that stopped just short of being criminal.
Alexis and his killing spree blotted out the media sun Monday and for a good part of the rest of the week here. He brought “This Town,” back to the status of “Our Town”, in the sense that everybody was consumed, shocked, floored, and eaten up by the news, as the District of Columbia joined other cities and places like Aurora, Newtown, Virginia Tech and the list-goes-on-places in being overwhelmed by the senseless and the random, humanity’s version of nature’s disasters.
“Rampage at the Navy Yard” was the big Washington Post headline across the top beneath the familiar mast-head with a bone sharp photograph of a police officer with short-cropped to the skin hair with a fierce expression on his face, holding a gun that looked like it could kill dozens in seconds. The rest of the page was filled with categories: the victims, the suspect, the scene , a picture of the suspect staring into a camera, a map of the Navy Yard, a time line, and various columns and stories on the inside, including one that asked “How Much is Enough?” It suggested that maybe these shootings were the ones that would lead to better gun laws.
As to that, fat chance. Only Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and a few other officials raised the question, and even President Barack Obama, in his eulogy for the victims on Sunday, worried that these shootings, like others had become “the new normal.” “Checks failed to flag gunman’s past,” was the second day across the front page, underneath a list of the names of the victims, which we can repeat here, lest we forget so soon or sooner:
Michael Arnold, 59; Martin Bodrog, 54; Arthur Daniels, 51; Sylvia Frasier, 53; Kathleen Gaarde, 62; John Roger Johnson, 73; Mary Frances DeLorenzo Knight, 51; Frank Kohler, 50; Vishnu Pandit, 61; Kenneth Bernard Proctor, 46; Gerald Read, 58; Richard Michael Ridgell, 52.
The week was dotted with videos from funerals, people in line at churches, memorials, memories told like stories. And yet, as noted elsewhere, including by the president in his eulogy, more, and, arguably worse horrors awaited during the week: shootings at a basketball court in Chicago— the kind of gang violence that is a major plague in Chicago and which continued through the weekend —a murderous assault on the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, by members of al-Shabab, a terrorist group associated with al Qaida, in which nearly 70 shoppers were killed and in Peshawar, Pakistan, the All Saints Church was hit by suicide bombers, killing more than 80, the single worst-ever attack on Christians in Pakistan.
In his eulogy at the navy yard, President Obama said he felt a “creeping resignation” in the country about gun violence, that it had become the new normal. “There is nothing normal about innocent men and women being gunned down where they work.” But by Monday, while the world absorbed the news of the Navy Yard, Kenya or Chicago, other talk floated through the year, including the dread of going over the cliff, urged on by congressional Tea Party members, and the prospect of a government shutdown, a prospect that sent a rush of anxiety through this city as well as our town.
In times like these, you take a deeper interest in the visit of the President of Iran to the United Nations where he is scheduled to speak as is President Obama. You take hope from the ongoing ability of Pope Francis to surprise with his gentle, expansive vision, which includes chiding the church for its obsessive attention to gay marriage and abortion.
In these times, you take solace where you may—the way the sun lit up and made almost holy the colors of apples and peaches in brown boxes at the Dupont Sunday market, the sight of six or fawns and does on a visit to Olney, the modulated, almost musical voice of National Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey as she read from her poetry in a crowded tent, men, women and children, old and young, black and white, and all the rainbows, listened raptly at the National Book Festival. Even with a heavy rain storm, it was attended, according to reports, by some 200,000 people over two days -- more than those who attended the Redskins’ or Nationals’ games this weekend.
Now, it is a new week, and the headlines are thankfully small, making room even for the status of that sorry race for Governor of Virginia.