On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was a high school student riding the Metro bus to school. There weren't cell phones, and the internet hadn't taken over yet. Those were the years of calling the movie theatre for showtimes, or looking them up in a newspaper. Of finding a payphone to call that girl you had a crush on. You called her home landline and suffered the embarrassment of speaking with her mother first. Remember that?
I noticed the other passengers, all adults, were talking about a disaster movie in very serious tones. It almost sounded real, the way they somberly detailed explosions and collapsing buildings. What were they saying?
9/11 was probably the last major historical event to be understood slowly. It took hours of watching the news networks just to comprehend the basics of what had happened, and most of us wouldn't be aware of the full scope of the event until the following morning's paper, with further details being illuminated only later, throughout the rest of the week.
Sunday night's Las Vegas incident took place in a different landscape. It's the same world now as 2001, with about the same emotions, desires, sorrows and goals, but they express themselves through different concerns and at a different speed. What took a week or more to understand in 2001 we already know, and more, about Sunday night. We have videos on social media from the crowd, minutes after the event. We have the recordings of the police response, and a clear, eyewitness-level understanding of the intolerably continuous duration of the shooting. The horror is that much closer to us.
How do we react to such an incident?
On that fateful Tuesday in 2001, the TV was on in our AP English classroom, but only for the start of class. Professor Arkle was a Vietnam vet, and for him, a man who had seen a lot of death– year after year of young, poor, tired men killing each other at the behest of their respective governments– the best way to deal with this atrocity was to get on with the business of living. At some point we have to just get on with it, he said.
Other teachers in the building reacted differently. They left the TV on all day, they talked and hugged their students, or they went home.
What is the right way to deal with something like this?
Massacres are always tragic, but the ones stateside have until now been numerically quite small when compared to my experience in 2015 Paris. This is the first time I've been reminded in a truly potent way of what those days felt like. This is one site rather than six, but the quantifiable magnitude and sheer, punishingly ugly nature of the Vegas event put it in its own category; and I'm not just referring to injury counts. We know that radical ideologies are no excuse for organizing mass murders in major western cities, but we recognize the explanation. They thought this, and so they decided to do that. Terrorism is an attempt to shift thinking through fear. It may be the worst form of communication in existence, but it's still communication. It has meaning– however repulsively misguided.
This lacks even that.
The utter and absolute meaninglessness of Sunday night represents a yawning void much larger to me, much more bewildering, than similar events. We don't even know if this guy hated the crowd he was shooting at. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he found it amusing.
One night on my 7 a group of teenage girls pepper-sprayed, at point-blank range, a homeless man who'd been minding his own business. I think they thought it was funny. It's the second-ugliest thing I've ever seen on a bus, and I think the reason I think so is because it had no meaning. Was the Vegas gunman's motive simply a hugely multiplied form of their violent apathy? The Great Universe doesn't explain itself, never shows its cards, and I find that confounding.
Kendrick, a passenger, rode my bus a few nights ago. "You a good man though," he said, after a discussion about his term papers back in college. "You steady doin' commercials, and I'm steady lookin' for 'em! When I see you on the side of the bus I say heeyy, that's my guy, that's my friend!"
I chuckled. "Can't get away from that dude!"
"Just like that!"
"Thank you so much. I'm so thankful,"
"Man. If you stay thankful and humble–"
"That's the key right there. It allows us to be so much more happy through life."
"If you stay thankful and humble, you'll always prosper, bro."
"You'll always have the perspective to see it."
"Just like that!"
I then finished my shift and caught fellow driver Ernie on our walk to the parking garage. Ernie spun around happily.
"How was your evening, good sir?"
"It was particularly fabulous," I exclaimed, returning his beaming persona. "Some really wonderful people out there."
"I echo the sentiment!"
"We're really living the dream out here."
"It's so true. We really are. I feel so fortunate."
"Humble and thankful," he said. "Humble and thankful. That's the theme!"
"It so is!"
"Humble and thankful. If we can do that, everything will fall into place. Everything."
"I'm gonna put that in my pocket!"
Ernie doesn't know Kendrick. They have no idea of each other's existence. Does the Universe really never show its cards?
Their words, so alike and in such close succession, reminded me of a best friend I once knew. After experiencing what was unquestionably the most horrific and brutally prolonged moment of her short life, I listened as she was asked what she wanted to do now.
She didn't hesitate to respond. To the degree that she was able to speak, she spoke quickly.
"Be more grateful to God," she said.
Such humility. Such thankfulness... in the worst moments of her life. How? I'll never forget it. These three people don't know each other, don't have the same belief systems. Their only commonality is they've each Been Through Some Stuff. And this is what they had come up with.
There is no right way to react to an incident like Sunday's. But embodying the ideas voiced by these three friends seems like a good place to start.
If you haven't read them already:
Paris, One Year Later: A Personal Perspective: reflections on my time in Paris with a focus on the Confounding Why, one year after the attacks.
Deserve, the Concept and the Song: further thoughts on thankfulness and the notion of being deserving.
The Soulful Stench: the Confounding Why, as seen from a cancer-stricken passenger.