It was Saturday and I was driving through the empty places of New York state, down I-88 — the four-lane detour around towns that combine all the features of “has been” with “never was.” It was the day after Jiverley Wong shot up the American Civic Center in Binghamton, killing 14 people, including himself. I was on my way to pick up my son from the University of Binghamton for spring break.
Somewhere between WTRY in Troy and the Whale, WAAL in Binghamton, there is a long space where one can only hear Country, Christian or Chartock. I had forgotten to bring any CDs, so I turned off the radio. Before long I was thinking about the shootings.
The thoughts that bubbled up from the swampy floor of my early morning brain were mostly questions and conjectures:
“Oh boy, the gun nuts and the anti-gun nuts are going to take to the airwaves and newspaper columns next week. I don’t own a gun, but I’m with the gun nuts. Tim McVeigh didn’t use guns; he used explosives made out of fertilizer purchased at a farm supply store.”
“And what about the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in 1886, which killed seven policeman and wounded 60 more? And in 1927, Andrew Kehoe, a disgruntled school board member, set off dynamite in a schoolhouse in Bath, Mich. killing 45 and injuring 58. And the Unabomber used bombs, as did George Metesky, the Mad Bomber, who terrorized New York City for 16 years in the 1940s and ’50s.”
“Then there are Australia and New Zealand, where the weapon of choice is a machete.” “People call these shootings random, but there is nothing random about them. They are the effect of a cause or causes. Why do they happen? Bad parenting, misfiring neurons, decline of religious values? Maybe Americans are inherently violent?” “After all, we were birthed in blood, unlike Canada, which gained its independence from Great Britain without violence. We also killed off the Indians and enslaved blacks, and even though Theodore Rex said “Walk softly and carry a big stick,” he didn’t really mind swinging that stick. And we spent four years in the 19th century killing a half million of ourselves in a fratricidal war.” My thoughts went on like that until I drove into the Whale’s broadcast signal.
At the scene
After I picked up my son, we headed to downtown Binghamton. I parked the car and walked to the scene of the shootings. Court Street was lined with satellite trucks from CNN and other media outlets. There were several police cars on Front Street, and the block in front of the American Civic Center was still roped off.
Except for the media, the police and a few ghouls like me, the downtown was deserted. It was as if the cold, fine rain that was falling had washed away all the evil of the day before.
I couldn’t help but notice the irony of the funeral home situated almost across the street from the center. The Congregational church on the corner stated that Sunday’s sermon title was “The Radical Jesus,” and that Jazz Vespers were scheduled for 7 p.m. A jogger ran by and didn’t even bother to look at the crime scene. When I went around to the back of the building to photograph the door that the killer had barricaded with his vehicle, I watched a Canadian journalist duck under the police tape to get closer to the building.
In spite of closely observing every detail of the scene, I felt no emotion — no horror, no disgust, no fear.
Twenty-five years ago, I reacted differently to a mass shooting. On July 18, 1984, James Huberty opened fire at a McDonald’s restaurant in Southern California, killing 22 people and wounding 19 others. I can remember it like I remember the day JFK was shot. I was exiting I-890 to Route 5S on my drive home from the University at Albany when I heard about it on the radio. As I listened to the news, I created my own mental movie of the attack, which I played over and over for days. For weeks afterward, I could not eat at a McDonald’s.
Since that day in 1984, there have been many mass killings. I only vaguely recall most of them. I don’t remember some of them at all. Obviously, I have become desensitized to mass killings, and I am not the only one. Some television stations showed the stock market ticker throughout their coverage of the Binghamton shootings, and by Monday, former Rep. John Sweeney’s DWI arrest had pushed the Binghamton shootings to the back burner on local news programs and talk shows.
While I have my own opinions about what the causes and cures of violence are, I doubt that anyone has the complete answer. I am sure of one thing — desensitization leads to apathy. If we are to find solutions to violence, all of us must find a way to regain our sensitivity to it. We must feel the horror of it. Otherwise we will do nothing about it.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.