Extending the area of freedom

To be caught happy in a world of misery was for an honest man the most despicable of crimes

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Around 12:30 on a Tuesday at Westside Middle School just outside of Jonesboro, Arkansas the fire alarm went off. Andrew Golden an eleven year old student who had pulled the alarm raced outside into a field near the school where he found his friend thirteen year old Mitchell Johnson. Johnson was waiting there with nine weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition they had stolen from their families.

There had been construction going on near the school at the time so when the loud noises started many of the students and faculty who had dutifully marched outside were slow to realize what was going on. Why would they have any idea? When people started falling to the ground they still didn’t immediately put it together survivors have since explained.

It was twenty one years ago and while it wasn’t the first school shooting bullet-riddled children’s bodies weren’t a perpetual specter in the national consciousness as of yet. It wasn’t the grim ambient horror we take for granted today. That wouldn’t happen until Columbine which was a little over a year later. The school shooting when everything changed and then nothing much changed.

On the anniversary of the Columbine shooting in 2018 millions of people in hundreds of cities around the world gathered for the March For Our Lives a student-led demonstration in support of gun violence prevention. The march was inspired by a different school shooting which happened the month before in Parkland, Florida in which seventeen people were killed and seventeen more injured. The school shooting when everything changed and then nothing much changed.

And thus the shooting at Westside felt like it was being overshadowed once again by a larger one as some of the survivors said last year according to NPR.

People often say after attacks like this and the shooting at two mosques in New Zealand in March of 2019 that we’re not supposed to publicize the killers’ names. That’s what they want people say and that may be true but there are so many of them now who could ever keep track? Have I used that line already in here? I think so but there are so many stories like this we have to write after shootings who can keep track of our clichés? Try to name as many shootings as you can. Wrong there were way more than that. How many shootings like this can any one person be expected to hold inside of them forever? Unless you were there of course in which case you likely never forget a second of it.

“It has bothered me ever since, and I’m sure it will haunt me the rest of my life,” Dale Haas told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette last year. Haas was the county sheriff at the time of the Jonesboro shooting. He’s retired now and he homeschools his fourteen year old son but his wife still goes to work every day as a teacher in Jonesboro.

“It just kind of makes you sick at the pit of your stomach that it keeps happening,” Haas said. “I don’t see it stopping anytime soon. I think the moral compass of the country needs to be reset.”

By the time the little boys in Arkansas were done massacring everyone five people were dead at Westside including four students and a teacher named Shannon Wright who people later said stepped in front of a child to shield her with her own body. Ten others were injured.

Golden and Johnson attempted to a flee to a van they had parked nearby with ample supplies but were soon caught by police. They were found guilty and sentenced to prison until their twenty first birthdays due to the fact that Arkansas law at the time did not yet allow for juveniles to be sentenced to life.

During the trial both boys attempted to show a type of remorse. “My thoughts and prayers are with those people who were killed, or shot, and their families,” Johnson said, which is nice of him because in that apology as the killer he inadvertently wrote the script for politicians when these types of shootings happen. Thoughts and prayers. “I am really sad inside about everything,” he said. “My thoughts and prayers are with those kids that I go to school with.”

Both were released at twenty one. Johnson went on to have more trouble with the law and Golden largely disappeared but what’s curious about that is that they actually lived. The familiar beats we all know about how this type of story is supposed to go hadn’t yet been established. They’re supposed to kill themselves shortly after the attack right? It’s like going back to the early days of a now familiar genre of story and seeing that the reliable structure hadn’t been solidified.

We know what happens now after the killing though which is nothing much. Not in America anyway.

There have been at least fifteen fatal shootings at houses of worship since 2012 including a shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh in October of 2018 in which eleven were killed and six were wounded.

There were at least 103 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in America in 2018 according to Everytown For Gun Safety. That meant 60 deaths and 88 injuries — numbers that have been steadily rising since they started keeping track in 2013. That was shortly after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut when a couple dozen babies were shot to death. That was the one that was well you know how it goes.

Many of the survivors of attacks like these go on to struggle with one important question which is the question that all of us ask anytime there’s a mass shooting: Why?

Bobby McDaniel was the lawyer for the Jonesboro families and he helped secure a civil verdict against Johnson and Golden in 2017. The families were awarded $150 million which is money they knew going into it they would likely never see but was nonetheless a symbolic gesture. Symbolic gestures are always in ample supply because nothing else is ever available. Not in America anyway.

“This effort was never about any money for us,” Pam Herring whose child was killed told the Jonesboro Sun. “We had to honor our loved ones and tell the court how much it hurt to have them taken from us, even all these years later.”

“We also hope something can be learned from their depositions which may help prevent a similar situation in the future.”

“The real important aspect of this case is the why was it done, what did we learn from it, and how can we implement what we’ve learned?” McDaniel said.

So what have we learned? Nothing much.

Two days after fifty were killed in New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed the country and the world. “There will be changes to our gun laws,” she said. Changes in gun laws including a likely ban on semi-automatic weapons which came six days later.

“I absolutely believe there will be a common view amongst New Zealanders, those who use guns for legitimate purposes, and those who have never touched one, that the time for the mass and easy avail- ability of these weapons must end. And today they will,” she said.

She also said that the country would be putting together a generous buyback program for citizens who already own such weapons in an effort that will cost between $100-200 million and doesn’t all of that sound so reasonable it’s almost hard to believe it’s possible? Australia did something similar after a mass shooting in 1996 buying back around 650,000 guns and then something super surprising happened once there were fewer guns around in that suicide and homicide rates plummeted.

“The average firearm suicide rate in Australia in the seven years after the bill declined by 57 percent compared with the seven years prior. The average firearm homicide rate went down by about 42 percent,” according to Vox.

Here’s another crazy and true thing. The opposition leader in New Zealand Simon Bridges who is the head of their center-right National Party there agreed immediately with Ardern that this was the right and just thing to do.

“We agree that the public doesn’t need access to military-style semi-automatic weapons. National supports them being banned along with assault rifles,” he said.

What the fuck.

That part above there was adapted from a column I wrote in the Boston Globe in March. One thing I would not recommend you do is read any of the comments on the Globe piece in question or any of the others for that matter due to they will make your brain get real red and hot. You’ll just get in this foul mood and someone will be like hey man what’s wrong and you’ll have to say something like ah my brain is just feeling a bit red and hot at the moment.

My editors there have asked me a couple times already to take it easy on Twitter on account of scenarios such as how I responded to an obvious bad faith troll last week with a picture of Garfield with a huge orange cat boner and he snitched on me to all the editors there. I’m going to try my best to be a good boy but sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it feels like a conundrum purposefully designed to test my professional mettle. [UPDATE: whoops lol]

Unsurprisingly among the people to point out the rot at the heart of this deeply shameful country and our love affair with playing big strong army man who everyone wants to hug and kiss was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who tweeted recently that “Sandy Hook happened six years ago and we can’t even get the Senate to hold a vote on universal background checks,” and that is very true and a good point and all but did you realize Sandy Hook was only six years ago because to me it feels like it was a lot longer than that. It feels like it’s a story that we were born with. It’s like the thing about how Romulus and Remus were raised by wolves and then went onto found Rome but in our case it’s about how a guy with a gun massacred a school full of tiny little babies hundreds of years ago and we decided to build a country on the very spot to mark the occasion and weave its inevitability into our patriotic mythology.

If we ever end up redesigning the American flag it should probably be a third grader with a bullet hole in her face and then you could have an eagle or something in the background so everyone still thinks we’re tough.

Sometimes I get up and say ok I’m gonna go write the fucking newsletter now and I close my eyes and open my computer and wake up an hour or three later and it’s there written like I blacked out and sometimes I sit here all day saying fuck fuck fuck and nothing happens. Today I tried to electrify my brain worms by paging through To the Lighthouse and it made me depressed because how could anyone ever hope to write something that beautiful. I have a really old dusty copy of it on the bookshelf and there are two different sets of notes scrawled in the margins one in a woman’s hand but I have no idea who I don’t remember and one in someone else’s hand that I guess is mine but I don’t recognize it or remember doing it so maybe those were written by someone else I no longer recognize as well. I stopped on this part which me or someone else like me had highlighted.

...as if to be caught happy in a world of misery was for an honest man the most despicable of crimes...

I don’t remember all the details but I’m pretty sure Ramsey is a big time shit head in the book so maybe I don’t want to identity too much with him but that’s what it feels like sometimes when I am not thinking about how bad everything is and then something will come along and snap me back into reality.

One thing I think about a lot is how insane it is that writing things and talking to people and reading is my job when I watch Michelle come home at 5:30 after leaving at 7 am to go teach kids all day how to be a person. A lot of people tell themselves they worked hard for the nice jobs they have and sometimes people tell me I’m a hard worker and it’s really embarrassing because it’s not true or maybe it is I don’t know it’s like how you can’t ever see your own eye ball. I stole that line just now which is one of the things a writer can do to become successful quicker than normal and then lose their job quicker than normal once you get caught. Or at least you used to people don’t seem to get all that red-assed about plagiarism anymore at least not when it’s someone powerful doing it.

Here’s where I stole it from:

Most people don’t have to think about what their faces mean the way I do. Your face in the mirror, reflected back at you, most people don’t even know what it looks like anymore. That thing on the front of your head, you’ll never see it, like you’ll never see your own eyeball with your own eyeball, like you’ll never smell what you smell like, but me, I know what my face looks like. I know what it means. My eyes droop like I’m fucked up, like I’m high, and my mouth hangs open all the time. There’s too much space between each of the parts of my face—eyes, nose, mouth, spread out like a drunk slapped it on reach- ing for another drink. People look at me then look away when they see I see them see me. That’s the Drome too. My power and curse. The Drome is my mom and why she drank, it’s the way history lands on a face, and all the ways I made it so far despite how it has fucked with me since the day I found it there on the TV, staring back at me like a fucking villain.

It’s from this book I read called There There by Tommy Orange which everyone seems to have lost their shit off of. I usually am pretty skeptical when everyone loses their shit off of a book but boy were people right in this particular case because I was hooked at the epigraph.

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

— BERTOLT BRECHT


And goes on like this...

Some of us grew up with stories about massacres. Stories about what happened to our people not so long ago. How we came out of it. At Sand Creek, we heard it said that they mowed us down with their howitzers. Volunteer militia under Colonel John Chivington came to kill us—we were mostly women, children, and elders. The men were away to hunt. They’d told us to fly the American flag. We flew that and a white flag too. Surrender, the white flag waved. We stood under both flags as they came at us. They did more than kill us. They tore us up. Mutilated us. Broke our fingers to take our rings, cut off our ears to take our silver, scalped us for our hair....

Oh right. I guess we do actually have a specific violent mythology about the founding of America now that I think of it. We don’t need to update it to the Sandy Hook thing we already have blood in our bones.

They didn’t call them mass shootings back then though they called it manifest destiny. Andrew Jackson called it “extending the area of freedom.” Some other stuff he said around the time of the Indian Removal Act were things like “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?”

One of the things Michelle has to do at her job that is an actual job is to prepare the tiny little children whose brains she is responsible for to know what to do in case a guy comes along and wants to extend the area of freedom which is a reality that teachers everywhere have been forced to contend with.

In January during active shooter drills at an elementary school in Indiana what the police there did is they rounded up the teachers and brought them into a room in groups of four and staged mock executions.

“The incident, acknowledged in testimony this week before state lawmakers, was confirmed by two elementary school teachers in Monticello, who described an exercise
in which teachers were asked by local law enforcement to kneel down against a classroom wall before being sprayed across their backs with plastic pellets without warning,” according to the Indianapolis Star.

“They told us, ‘This is what happens if you just cower and do nothing,’” said one of teachers. “They shot all of us across our backs. I was hit four times.”

“It hurt so bad.”

“It’s a soft, round projectile,” White County Sheriff Bill Brooks whose department was pretending to shoot the teachers said. “The key here is ‘soft.’ ”

So stop being such fucking babies I guess is what he meant.

“They all knew they could be [shot],” he said. “It’s a shooting exercise.”

Does something about the term active shooter bother you because it has always bothered me and I don’t know why. You hear it on the news whenever someone is going around extending the area of freedom and it always seems like an unnecessary qualifier to me. What would the opposite of an active shooter be you might ask and it never really occurred to me until now that it would be a passive shooter which sounds like something that couldn’t exist but that’s technically the term reserved for when police kill somebody.

I wrote somewhere in here what a terrible idea it is to call the police on someone going through a mental health crisis because surprisingly they show up and after about thirty seconds of standing around playing with their dicks they usually end up pissing their pants and shooting the guy to death. Well it’s not the police who shoot them it’s some nebulous unknowable causality that transpires whereby the bullets located in the cops’ guns teleport into a new form inside of the victim’s body. A local news report about the man in Pennsylvania demonstrated how this magic works.

“A man is dead after a shooting this afternoon,” one of the anchors said by way introduction. “Police aren’t saying much else only that officers became involved in a shooting that left a man dead,” the second added.

He was black just so we’re clear. I know you were already thinking it but wanted to make sure we were on the same page.

Or try another report on the same shooting from a different local station.

“One person is dead following a shooting,” the anchor said before throwing to a reporter on the scene. “One person has died after an officer involved shooting,” she said and then the police chief came on to to call it an officer involved shooting which the reporter dutifully repeated once again.

I’m not sure if this is related to any of that stuff above but for two days in a row schools in Charlottesville, Virginia were closed in March after someone made a racist death threat.

Someone “claiming to be a student at Charlottesville High School, one of the region’s largest schools, warned white students to stay at home so they could shoot dead non-white students in an act of ‘ethnic cleansing,’” Reuters reported.

What do you want to do when you see something like that? You want to find the person and grab them by the neck and scream in their face that we don’t do this sort of thing here. This sort of thing does not happen and we will not allow it you’d say but somewhere inside you’d know you were lying because it always has and we always do.