Hopefully I will not continue to be so bad about journaling as I have been the past few weeks. I spent a week in Norfolk, Neb. where five people were shot and killed in an apparent bank robbery. Later, a state trooper involved in the case committed suicide. Just when everything started to become routine, it was found that a roommate of one of the suspects had been missing for more than a month….with his wallet left behind.
Here are three photos I made on Friday, the day after the shooting. Afterwards is a retroflective look on some things that I hope you will read despite its length.
His image still haunts me.
I was a couple minutes away from photographing a bilingual prayer vigil Friday, the day after five people were shot to death in Norfolk. The sun was going down, making the light lovely, much better than it had been all day. I had spent several hours near the growing pile of memorial flowers, notes, balloons and whatever else people left in front of the U.S. Bank, where the murders took place.
Rushed for time, I tried to get a nicer photo than what I had made before. But I had to do it and do it quick; the prayer service was mere minutes away.
That’s when I met him. I don’t know his name. I never took the time to ask, but I wish I had.
He seems like a Joe to me, and I feel compelled to call him by name. So for now it is Joe. Joe appeared to be mildly retarded. He seemed to me to be the kind of person that probably requires some assistance in many daily tasks. An older fellow than myself, maybe in his 40s, unshaven and short. I didn’t even really notice him in the small crowd of people gathered around the flowers, even though he was standing right next to me. Then he started talking to me.
“I just don’t understand,” he said, red eyes glazed over. “I just don’t understand.”
There are probably a lot of things that Joe doesn’t understand. I bet Joe has never been allowed to drive a car in city streets. He probably can’t cook anything more complicated than a pan-full of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. And he couldn’t do his banking without assistance, something that over time he had come to rely on by Evonne, one of the shooting victims.
“She was the first person you see when you go into the bank,” Joe told me. He would go into the U.S. Bank branch, and she would help him cash his check.
“She was so kind.” He repeated that. And again, shaking his head in disbelief. “She was so kind.”
I did my very best to keep a trained balance of humanity and professionalism. Certainly as a member of the media I know I’m being watched. Judged. It is important for me to be respectful of other people’s feelings, to try to keep people’s dignity in tact. Sometimes I fail.
But with Joe, I didn’t really have time to listen. I couldn’t help him with his grief because I had to go to the church. It was assigned; half the media outlets in the country–it seemed–had somebody representing themselves at that church. I couldn’t miss it to talk to Joe.
Now I think about Joe. I think about the courage it will take for him to walk into that bank again, knowing that he will not be greeted by Evonne’s smile, but by a complete stranger. No doubt the person will treat Joe well, and no doubt they will help him successfully cash his check, but it is just not the same.
“I just don’t understand,” Joe said.
I moved to Idaho in the ninth grade. There, 9th grade is in the junior high. Most of the students there were well established in their groups with lots of friends.
Chris Spokley ran with the popular crew, the same that I aspired to hang with. Chris was a big guy. In high school he was the star linebacker for our state-championship team, responsible for probably half of the defensive team’s tackles our senior season.
In the 9th grade he was somebody to be feared. He liked to pick on people and he knew he could. Nobody could physically stop him and he had the support group of all the school’s “cool” kids.
I got picked on a bit. Not too much, just a bit.
Trying so desperately to be cool with the other guys one day, I was outside during lunch when the crew was throwing a football around. Finally, the ball made it’s way into my hands. I could throw it across the field to another guy and everybody could see that I could be cool with them.
But Chris Spokley was standing right next to me and said, “Give me the ball.”
I had to stand up for myself. He couldn’t take my thunder and he couldn’t bully me. I’m a person, goddamn it, and it’s my turn to throw the ball.
I wanted him to see my side of things. So the best way I knew how I responded to him, gentle yet assertive.
That didn’t exactly make Chris Spokley fond of me. He tossed me to the ground yelling, “What did you say to me?”
I got up, my heart a racing, adrenalin pumping through my veins. “I said fuck off.”
I couldn’t believe my own ears. I just told Chris Spokley–of all people–to fuck off a second time. I was quite proud of myself.
Well my pride dropped about just as quickly as my body when this brut threw me down a second time.
“Don’t tell me to fuck off,” he instructed me.
I got up again and told him I wouldn’t.
“You just did,” Chris Spokley yelled and threw me to ground a third time.
“I won’t again,” I said, completely humiliated. My butt was bruised and my pride was broken, but my wits came about me and I didn’t stand up again.
Chris Spokley walked away. He was indeed cool. Everybody cool saw the whole ordeal. I didn’t become cool that day.
He picked on me only a little bit after that day; for the most part he left me alone. There were no life-scars created that day. I’m perfectly well adjusted; I bring this up only because it was my only experience trying to stand up to a bully. Chris Spokley was bigger and stronger than I. Had I kept fighting, he could have wiped me out.
Matt LaHann and myself had both just moved to Idaho from states more advanced in sciences that same 9th grade year. That year we spent our first hour of the school day at the high school taking 10th grade science and then went to the junior high for the rest of our educational day.
Heather and Cathy were in our high school biology class. They weren’t cool; they were weird.
That was the same year of the Gulf War. Heather and Cathy, head honchos of the nerdy debate team, each came to school a wearing a cloth band around their right arms with the message, “No blood for oil.”
In my mind, we were fighting Iraq because we were international heroes. America stood strong and proud, fighting for the liberation of Kuwait–not for oil. Heather and Cathy were idiots.
My freshman year of college my idea of cool changed. I became a person with a huge social conscience, somebody like Heather or Cathy. Weird.
I delved into philosophy and I was very idealistic. My eyes had opened and I became critical of so many things that I had never before noticed. I thought a lot. I talked about things a lot-things like poverty and war and racism and the environment. And of course I preached to whoever would listen about how the drugs I was using at the time should become legal.
More than anything, I became angry.
That’s how it was most the time: I was angry. Pissed off about clear-cutting of trees in the Amazon. Upset about the socioeconomic discrepancies in our country. You name it, dwelled on it.
Finally after a spell of being like this all the time I realized that life is way to short to be mad. That realization made me a much simpler person. I’m not as smart as I used to be, but I’m okay with that. I smile a lot, and I make other people smile a lot.
And then there was September 11th, 2001.
Almost 3,000 Americans died from terrorist attacks. It was a truly tragic event that left many angry Americans wondering, “why?”
Why would anybody want to murder so many innocent people? Why would they want to level our tallest buildings? Can they really hate us so much because of our affluency? Can they really hate us that bad because we educate our women and believe in a different god?
And so time goes on and we never really heard the motive. Nobody said, “We attacked you because we don’t like your foreign policy.”
Paybacks are a bitch and goddamn it, and somebody is going to pay. Now we have a war on terrorism. We have toppled the Taliban government who mistreated their women and sponsored terrorism in Afghanistan. We have our eyes on the “axis of evil,” especially Iraq.
Iraq hates us. We know they hate us, calling us the “Great White Devil.” If they were making weapons of mass destruction, they would become very dangerous.
Wanting to avoid the danger, President Bush is trying to garner support to send Iraq deeper into the stone ages. We’ll send them a military message that will make it plain and clear-Fuck with the best, die like the rest.
So back in Norfolk there is a lot of anger and a lot of questions. Why did these three guys open fire on the people in the bank? Tears will be shed for years to come. Kids will grow up without one of their parents-criminals took their moms and dads away. They will eventually grow up; all will have serious emotional issues.
Most all their hearts will be filled with hatred. Hatred towards the perpetrators who took something away that can never be replaced.
I’m no genius, but I think I know some of the answers.
September 11 happened because of hate.
The United States cannot continue to carry out military operations around the world without expecting a certain amount of hatred towards us to be brewed. Whenever a bomb drops from a U.S. warplane, people inevitably die. When that happens, those people’s sons or daughters, mothers or fathers survive. Hate becomes spawned; hatred so deep that some of them are willing to take their own lives for what they feel is justice. September 11 occurs.
This deal in Iraq is ridiculous. We want to pummel them for doing the exact same things we do. We build weapons of mass destruction. Hell, we’ve used them. We are the Chris Spokleys of the world, bullying our version of capitalism onto the world. We are the cool ones. We think we are right, and we have the might to prove it.
Our military can kick their military’s ass, so we can demand that they give us the football. If they are defiant we can just push them down, over and over again until they change their tune. Just like Chris did to me.
But what saddens me the very most are all the Joe’s we leave wandering the earth.
Joe was crushed because some punks came into a bank where they had no business being. They pointed their weapons, and they fired. Because of a crime that took 40 seconds to commit, eleven children are without one of their parents. At least eleven people will grow up with hate.
In the wake of September 11, our country has taken countless of similar lives. As the body count continues to rise, so will the number of people who are a danger to our contry.
What is a man to do?
I can’t go back to the days like my freshman year in college when I walked the streets pissed off all the time about issues that were out-of-my hands. I can, but I won’t. Anger also creates the very hatred that I despise.
I don’t really think I can make a difference as a political activist. It’s just not the person who I am. Besides, who would listen?
In this world filled with chaos and hatred, some how I remained full of love and compassion. I like people. I like watching them. I like learning what makes them tick. And I like helping.
I like making this world a better place one person at a time. Random acts of kindness go a long ways towards healing. A poor person with a smile lives a better life than a rich person with a frown. I’m sure of this.
This is reason number three why I want to join the Peace Corps. This is why I want to get away from all that I know now for a while. So I can sit and listen. So I can watch and learn. So I can teach and help. So I can spread the love.