I Googled “shooter” and found the Cambridge Dictionary describes the term as “mainly US.”
It wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted to see. The cabin doors closed. The aircraft pushed back, engines started. I figured it would take 70 minutes or so to fly from Virginia Beach to Detroit. Then, ten or twenty feet out, we rolled to a stop, the nose of the plane still pointed at the gate. The engines powered down. We sat for five minutes or so, in silence, until finally the pilot came on the intercom, apologized, and reported that a small repair would be necessary. It was a little thing, he said, but he was required to have maintenance take a look.
At times like this, I tend to glance around.
I made eye contact with anyone who cared to silently engage. The person across the aisle from me, visibly pissed, said, Great. He probably flew more than I did, put up with more delays. I don’t think he wanted to get home more than I did. Everyone just wants to get home. He yanked the flight magazine out of the seat back, lowered his tray, and swore at the airlines.
But wasn’t it great? They were going to fix something before we reached our cruising altitude of 30,000 feet.
It was a Saturday. Maybe maintenance wasn’t out in full force, because it was 20 minutes or so before a van stopped next to the plane and two guys in overalls got out. They set up a stepladder in front of the left wing. One guy climbed up and went to work. You could almost feel the plane lean to the left as everyone on that side of the aisle stretched themselves toward the windows, trying to see. What was it, an oil leak? A burned out light bulb in the wing? A dead bird blocking a vent needed to cool an engine?
In hindsight, I think it would have been prudent if the pilot or a flight attendant had said, Ladies and gentlemen, please lower the shades on your windows. Don’t look. The guy on the ground, after a short dialogue with ladder man, went to the van, came back, and handed him a roll of duct tape. An ordinary fix to what was probably an ordinary problem. But still, duct tape? Later, at 30,000 feet, you couldn’t help glancing out the window, wondering, Are we safe?
It got me thinking about ordinary peril. Statistics tell me I am extraordinarily safe at 30,000 feet, safer than when I drive my car. Every morning I walk down a stairway in the dark, unconsciously counting steps, sometimes not. In the kitchen I use a Japanese knife so sharp I could lop a fingertip off in the blink of an eye. We live in ordinary peril, so ordinary we are accustomed to it. And most of the time grace has a habit of protecting us.
Some years ago my kids watched the movie “Kindergarten Cop,” a leaden thriller not worth watching except to hear Arnold Schwarzenegger, an undercover cop in a classroom, interpret children’s literature. The film features an ordinary villain—he’s a crazed husband, a drug dealer and a killer–who invades an elementary school and attempts to kidnap his son. When he starts a fire and nabs the boy, Arnold takes charge. Shots are fired, a baseball bat is deployed, and order is restored. More comedy than tragedy, I think the film ends with the promise of a wedding.
The movie was made in 1990, before Virginia Tech (2007), where Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people, before Sandy Hook (2002), where Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six staff in their school. Emergency responders at Virginia Tech told of the terrible pathos of cell phones ringing in the pockets of dead students, parents calling their children to make sure they were okay. At Sandy Hook, children who survived the massacre, when led from the building, were told to hold hands and close their eyes. Responders recalled entering the building, finding unspeakable horror: bullet-riddled bodies of small children in the hallways and classrooms.
My son does a fine Schwarzenegger impression. “Where’s the shooter?” he’ll say at the dinner table. The accent is funny. I admit it: I encourage him. But I’ve wondered about that awful term, “the shooter.” I don’t think it existed when I was a kid; maybe not even at the time “Kindergarten Cop” was made. When I asked him recently, my son said he thinks Arnold says it in “End of Days.”
I Googled “shooter” and found the Cambridge Dictionary describes the term as “mainly US.” The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary provides this definition: “North American English. Used especially in news reports. A person who uses a gun to kill people.” And these examples are provided: “Five students died and then the shooter killed himself.” “Two high school shooters [are] serving life sentences.” The implication, inescapable, is that in other English-speaking parts of the world, the term does not serve a purpose; also, that school is a perilous place. As an American, I want to find the Oxford entry guilty of snark. But there it is: it’s who we are. It’s shameful that the term is now common parlance.
The day of the Sandy Hook slaughter, my wife and I were in Sudbury, Canada. As detail emerged, one relative and acquaintance after another expressed horror and disbelief, asking us, What in the world is wrong with your country? The other day I saw a statistic of mass killings in the year 2015, hundreds of them, so many that they seem an ordinary peril. We say we’re sorry. We say we pray. American life goes on, except for those who are dead, except for those who knew and loved the ones they had to bury.
In the aftermath of the murder of newscaster Alison Parker and her cameraman Adam Ward, the assailant’s video of himself committing senseless murder was briefly shown on television and the Internet, until responsible editors and publishers chose, out of respect for the families, not to show it. It was the right decision. In an opinion piece the following week, however, a writer argued that we need to see the footage. We need to see the look on a woman’s face when she notices a man walking toward her with a gun and she realizes she is about to die. We need to see, he argued further, the terrible carnage wrought by weapons easily acquired in the U.S.—torn flesh, bodies exploded, real brains splattered, the unthinkable aftermath of ordinary mass murder just down the street.
We need to look. To confront our country’s mayhem maybe we do need to see.
And then not do nothing.
We need to do something to address the increasing peril, to assert our sanity, to get a purchase on safety.