When Storytellers Become Targets
Last month, the awful news of the murders of five journalists and the wounding of two more in Annapolis, Md., evoked flashbacks.
I have experienced forebodings of such carnage.
But my first thought when those things happened was not, “I wish I had a pen.” There is another reflex, instinctive, that is more powerful than the acquired reflexes of 50 years of telling stories.
“I wish I had a gun,” were my first thoughts back then.
On one occasion, I intently watched a black sedan drive back and forth on Jeffers Street, turn east onto Beaver Drive, then circle back west and south along the same route, with the driver staring fixedly at the window to my office.
“I’m coming to get you!” a man had screamed into the phone a half-hour earlier. I don’t recall what was at issue. Perhaps we had published his drunken driving arrest, and that news had caused his employer to fire him. Such things happen. Some people blame the news stories about the drunken driving, instead of accepting the reality that it was their own conduct of putting themselves into the news by getting arrested that gave rise to the consequences.
The long-ago telephone call had been brutally confrontational — on both ends. At work, I always tried to stay civil with agitated callers or visitors. But there are limits. When conversations turned personal, aggressive or obscene, well, I sometimes got personal, aggressive or obscene in return.
That was not professional. It also was not smart. In today’s politically correct world, my reciprocal anger could also be grounds for disciplinary action or even being fired.
“Blowing my stack” was wrong, but understandable. Most of us will take only so much verbal abuse.
So I yelled back at that guy.
That was followed by the black sedan moving slowly across my field of vision from my office window. The caller had accurately described the location of my office and that window.
I called the police.
Then I looked around, mentally cataloguing where to duck and dive, and what I had by way of weapons. I settled on a knife-like letter opener, and waited. Not for long.
DuBois police were there within one minute. Within that same time frame, the black sedan vanished.
I breathed normally again. The same guy who had called? I never knew.
One never knows.
Those five dead people in Annapolis didn’t know, either. They had no warning at all that a man whose anger at perceived wrongs had boiled into evil was coming to kill them.
It is not supposed to work that way.
The occupational clichÈ has it that, “Journalism is a spectator sport, not a contact sport.” We are not supposed to become part of the story.
But hatred does not respect “supposed to.”
There is only one reason to kill someone else. That reason is defensive, to guard against the actual killing or injuring of us or others.
That is the hallmark of our civilization, and the foundation of our “communities,” defined well enough as people who decide to live peaceably together to pursue individual interests in a common setting of mutual benefit and safety.
Civilization is sometimes only skin-deep. Beneath it lurks the jungle and its “You wrong me, I kill you!” mantra.
Americans and other civilized people try to reject that mantra so that all of us might trust in our ability to live peaceably among our neighbors, resolving our disputes non-violently.
Those five dead people in Annapolis were non-violent.
One man was not.
Five families’ lives were shattered beyond repair. Hundreds of people who work in or near that newspaper office probably hunched their shoulders and ducked a day or more later, when the blasts of unexpected fireworks punctuated our Fourth of July frivolity.
The effects of such shootings are even more far-reaching than post-traumatic stress for individuals.
Such shootings rip holes into the very fabric of our society.
When police officers are wrongly shot and killed, similar holes are ripped. When people asleep in their homes are shot or beaten to death, more holes ensue. Even when, though we work against it, law enforcement wrongly kills someone, the fabric of our society is so torn that it no longer permits peaceful existence in communities. Instead, fear and anger rule.
We try, as friends and neighbors, as fellow citizens, to sew shut the holes, to repair the fabric, to restore the peace, to punish the guilty and reassure the innocent.
Sometime, we succeed.
Then, another story of murder and mayhem in what is supposed to be a nonviolent setting bursts forth.
We look inward again, revisiting our own office window, watching our own black sedan slowly prowling, probing our weaknesses, threatening its invasion, sowing fear, sowing anger.
“I wish I had a gun.”
Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.