“I’m so tired of hurting.”
The words, spoken by Emily, a mid-twentyish former work colleague, came as she and I sat at a downtown bar catching up. Our conversation was unremarkable until we both spied a CNN nighttime image of panicked people — throngs, actually — running down a palm tree-lined street in Nice, France. The television screen was punctuated by the word, “Live.”
It was me who prompted Emily’s response with, “It looks like another terror attack.”
More terror. More victims. More fear.
Purely by coincidence, this was July 14, the 50th anniversary of Richard Speck’s murder of eight Chicago nursing students, a crime that many consider to be the first random mass murder in U.S. history.
While I’m talking about the near ancient past, let me relate that less than three weeks after Speck’s crime, on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman killed 14 people and wounded another 32, shooting from the clock tower at the University of Texas in Austin, also the first mass killing of its kind.
I was nine years old when these horrific events occurred and, yes, I remember reading and hearing about them. They were so out of the “ordinary” for that time, a period that preceded even the first metal detectors at airports (something which didn’t begin until 1972).
“I’ve grown up with this all my life,” Emily said, reminding that she was ten years old when 9/11 happened. Later, she would write to me and say, “It’s gotten to the point where death is a pretty common, normal thing I think about. Like, I could be sitting on a bus and the thought crosses my mind that someone with an agenda and a lot of rage could just hop on and start shooting. And I wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it.”
Given that we invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, it’s understandable why Emily might think about death way more than I did at her age; hell, for more than half her life, this country has been at war, giving rise to mass terror bombings, shootings, and deaths with sharp objects across the planet. That’s in addition to the non-terrorist, dare I say “routine,” mass murders carried out at schools, colleges, shopping malls, fast-food restaurants, and gay night clubs in urban and rural areas, something which now occurs somewhere in the United States or elsewhere at least weekly.
Indeed, it’s getting to the point where we can’t raise the flag from half-staff because of the sheer number of mass killings here and abroad. I’m even writing about mass killings in back-to-back columns.
I’ve realized that the world of my childhood, where no one would even think to fear being gunned down riding a bus, no longer exists. The thought makes my heart hurt.
It also makes me indignant.
What the fuck are we doing to each other and our kids?
Sorry about my French (no pun intended whatsoever) but someone’s got to ask.
By the way, it’s true; there’s now a level of fear and mistrust that’s become the new normal. It’s like a low-grade fever, simmering in the background, and always at risk of blowing up into something life-threatening.
Humans, like all other living things, need to feel secure. It’s why we used to build forts and walled cities and why today, there’s a thriving business in deadbolt locks.
But what if you can’t actually feel safe? What if the daily barrage of death from across the world is enough to permanently flip a hyper-fear, super-insecure switch? What then?
Emily summed it up best: “I feel like I’ve lived through events that the news has called ‘the worst, most horrific tragedy of our time’ and then something happens the week after that is even worse. And again. And again. And again. And then I find myself scrolling through it on Facebook like it’s just another article about the weather. It’s messed up. Then I wonder what all of this trauma is going to do to our collective mind 30 years down the road.”
Thirty years? That’s an awful lot of the new normal. I truly hope you survive it, Emily.
Ellen (Ellie) Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change (2013). She frequently speaks and trains on diversity and inclusion topics; visit her website at www.elliekrug.com where you can sign up for her newsletter. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.