On Groundhog Day, 2023 there were 68 reported gun assaults in America with 30 people killed and another 33 injured. The recent mass shootings in California were quickly replaced in the news cycle by mass shootings in North Carolina, Texas, and Florida. And, hey! Is that a Chinese spy balloon? Are they watching us kill each other, too?
Another day, another two mass shootings. According to the data kept by the Gun Violence Archive (gunviolencearchive.org) there are an average of 1.87 school shootings a day in America. Add that to workplace shootings, gang violence, and domestic terrorists shooting up power stations and it’s just hard to keep up. These shootings have become so common, only the most extreme cases rise to the tired rank of “Breaking News.” And when they do, we are more than likely to see it as another passing headline, unless it occurs in our community. Have we become immune to the carnage? Are we no longer shocked by the body counts? Is this just normal life now?
Pioneering sociologist George Simmel, in 1903, defined the “blasé attitude,” a state of absolute boredom and lack of concern caused by life in the metropolis. For Simmel, this was a defense mechanism, an adaptation of our nervous system to the intense stimulation we experience from the explosion of stimuli in modern society, But in 2023, that defense mechanism may be helping to facilitate the death toll from gun violence. What’s the point of trying to prevent today’s mass shooting when there will be two more tomorrow? In reality, our growing immunity to gun violence all but ensures the trend will continue and spread like a contagion. We certainly have seen this dynamic in other epidemics, including AIDS and COVID.
But when people begin to act together those seemingly unstoppable pandemics begin to slow their rate of infection. They didn’t disappear but death rates dropped. In 1995, the peak year of the HIV pandemic, 45,213 Americans died of AIDS. By 2000, that number fell below 20,000 (16,072 deaths) and has declined every year since (7,053 in 2019). Part of what led to the change in our collective response was seeing the victims as disease as “us” and not “them.” When people began to see friends, neighbors, workmates, and family members contracting coronavirus, for example, the masks went on. It was no longer an abstract news story happening somewhere else. Action was required.
The contagion of mass violence has a similar trajectory. You don’t have to tell the parents of Uvalde or the African-America community in Buffalo or Asian-Americans in Monterey Park that action is required. However, to the rest of us, the urgency of another mass casualty event blends into the background noise with all the other pressing issues, and takes a backseat to our own economic, family, and social struggles. Added to this mental malaise is the hyper-vigilance we also experience as fear of our own potential victimization becomes part of that background static. “I’m not really paying attention to the upward trends but I know that I (or the the people I love) could fall victim to the random nature of gun violence.” Paralysis sets in.
So what’s the solution?
We make it personal. The high school students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School organized the March for Our Lives movement after a gunman killed 17 of their classmates in 2018. They realized the school shootings weren’t just news stories, they were a part of a constellation of gun violence in America, not an isolated incident, requiring thoughts and prayers. They organized to highlight the vulnerability of all Americans to this disease of violence.
We need to shift to a state of radical empathy. The hedge against the blasé attitude is to see all gun violence victims, including those killed and injured in today’s 1.87 mass shootings, as members of our community. They are all our family members and action is required.
On Christmas Day, four utility substations were knocked out in Pierce County, Washington, shutting off electricity to more than 14,000 homes on the holiday. The previous month, on Thanksgiving, there were similar attacks on utility substations in both Washington and Oregon. Officials and customers are concerned that these attacks, following a similar but larger attack in North Carolina, are part of a new trend of domestic terrorism.
The extreme right has long had the soft-targets of America’s infrastructure in its sights. For decades, their guidebook has been The Turner Diaries, a novel about a future fictional race war in America. It was a crucial part of Timothy McVeigh’s planning of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. The book, and subsequent right-wing manifestos, call for “patriots” to attack infrastructure to destabilize society and “accelerate” the chaos that will lead to a civil war. In the late 1990s, there were numerous militia plots to attack power stations and dams leading up to Y2K and the gang of extremists who plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitmer in 2020 also plotted to blow up a bridge.
With the advent of social media, shifts in demographics and the economy, and the influence of right-wing celebrities like Donald Trump and Alex Jones, more and more Americans have fallen into the conspiracy theory-driven counterculture of violent extremism. But each of those individuals is a person acting on the information and influence that surrounds them. Those forces can be countered and the subsequent violence can be prevented. According to the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, at the University of Chicago, 87% of the individuals arrested for attacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 were not members of any identifiable group, like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers. Most were just swept up in the moment.
This gives us a vector for intervention. If those ramping towards violence, either because they read The Turner Diaries or watched one too many episodes of Info Wars, as well as those MAGA followers who are angry the midterm elections didn’t go their way, can be reached, deescalation is possible. Nearly every future domestic terrorist has a person in their orbit that can talk them off the ledge of violence. These “credible messengers” might be friends, family members, co-workers, or neighbors, who just take the extra time to appeal to the individual who is inching toward violence. This intervention could be a heartfelt conversation about the real damage of violent actions, or it could just be grabbing a coffee and having a chat about the value on non-violence. According to research, even watching cat videos can reduce violent impulses.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a bulletin in late 2022 stating that infrastructure locations will be likely targets by extremists in the coming years. Attacks on the relatively accessible targets can have a massive impact on civilian populations. At least 2.5 million Americans rely on durable medical devices that can create life-threatening situations during power outages. Many millions more rely on the power grid for work, communication, and keeping the lights on in our homes. Extremists’ desire to create chaos to force their insurgent revolution make this issue, quite literally, one of life or death.
It’s time to activate the credible messengers in our communities. Instead of shying away from uncomfortable conversations with folks that seem to be “crazy radicals,” we can train people on how to better engage with those who are ramping up to violent action. The approach might not prevent every instance of domestic terrorism, but it can surely lower the body count. So if you’ve got a family member who loves guns and hates the government, invite them over to watch some cat videos. You might be saving lives.
Fifty-four years ago this week, the dramatic violence outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago (August 23 to 28, 1968) defined an era of protest. It is now generally viewed as a “police riot.” The Chicago Police violently assaulted peaceful demonstrators, leading to numerous arrests and injuries, escalating the bloody street clashes. The mayhem was mostly broadcast on live TV, with the young protestors chanting, “The whole world is watching!”
In 2011, 43 years later those who studied the carnage from Chicago ’68 put those lessons to work. As the Occupy Wallstreet protests spread across the country, especially here in Portland, police utilized a new tactic – de-escalation. The old method of police knocking hippie heads tended to backfire and bring more civilians into the battle (and spurred increasingly costly lawsuits against police departments). In 2011, I spent many long nights in the three downtown squares claimed by Occupy protestors. The police kept their distance and let the people air their grievances. Eventually the protest ran its course and everyone went home. No teargas. No violence. The opposite was the case in 2020 when federal law enforcement arrived to quash the Black Lives Matter protests and turned downtown Portland into a war zone. I will never forget hiding behind concrete columns as feds, in heavily militarized gear, shot their weapons randomly down 5th Avenue.
Following the January 6th riot, we’ve re-entered the debate about de-escalating the violence. A 2022 University of California, Davis survey found that 1 in 4 Americans think violence against the government is sometimes OK and 1 in 10 feel political violence is justified right now. (Not surprisingly, these numbers are much higher among Republicans.) This call to violence has only escalated in the wake of the FBI’s warranted search (it wasn’t a “raid”) of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound to retrieve stolen classified documents. America suddenly seems close to falling into the tarpit of another civil war. Maybe the country needs to take a massive chill pill.
I’m privileged to be a part of a federally funded project to look at ways to interrupt extremist violence in America called Cure-PDX. The basic idea is that if there are individuals at risk of committing acts of political violence, whether they’re coming from the right or left or somewhere off the charts, there should be a way to get them to “de-escalate” and find a non-violent way to express their, perhaps legitimate, grievances. It’s not about de-radicalization. (As a sociology professor, I like to joke that I’m the radicalization field.) It’s about moving individuals back from the ledge of violence, before they go on a shooting spree, blow something up, or commit a hate crime.
The logic of de-escalation makes sense. Fewer victims of extremist violence seems like an easy sell. But our team ran to some push-back from some activists on both the right and left who argued, given the current state of affairs, this is the exact time TO escalate violence, before things tip over. Political scientists will tell you that extremists movements tend to have an apocalyptic element. The sky is always falling. But these days it’s hard not to share that sentiment. The left thinks democracy is one election away from disappearing and the right thinks the “Biden FBI” is coming to throw patriots into concentration camps. I will admit one thing, a part of me has considered arming up to protect my family from Proud Boys and the unorganized militias of the right.
I reflected on my time this spring in Ukraine. I was not involved in de-escalation. I was helping the Ukrainian army escalate the you-know-what out of things. The stuff I brought in from Poland in the back of a van ended up in the hands of soldiers in Irpin and very likely helped them kill many Russian conscripts as they valiantly reclaimed the city. I may have Russian blood on my hands. How do I sleep at night? Like a baby. I wish there was a non-violent solution but if you had seen what I had, you wouldn’t want de-escalation in that moment either. While there, I kept remembering a Bruce Cockburn song that went, “If I had a rocket launcher…Some son of a bitch would die.”
So who am I to tell other people to de-escalate?
Well, we’re not Ukraine, occupied by a civilian-slaughtering invader. We still have a Constitution and free elections. Despite Trump’s attempt to dismantle our democracy, the house still stands. Everything the left and right want can be addressed without violence. There are political strategies that can build the middle while giving voice to those who feel marginalized, including 70-something straight white cis men who are scared shitless by “woke politics” (whatever that is).
I just watched Netflix’s three-part documentary on Woodstock ’99. (I was briefly a Limp Bizkit fan, shhh.) The violent destruction at the 3-day festival, including the numerous sexual assaults, is a perfect example of the contagious nature of violence. Kids were suddenly burning down buildings. The madness of the moment consumed them. If I had been there (as I had planned to), I could have been one of them. America is at risk of “Woodstock ’22” becoming our descent into political violence as the mob mentality of us versus them sweeps the nation. Libtards versus Nazis. But, there is no us versus them, just us. And we have a brief window in history to de-escalate. If we miss it, it’s gonna make Woodstock ’99 look like Woodstock ’69.
Recent data shows that 80 percent of domestic terrorist plots that have been prevented were stopped because someone known to the potential offender came forward. We all can play the role of “credible messenger” to those at risk of escalating to violence. “Hey Frank, I now you want to storm the capitol, but can we just hang out and watch some cat videos?” Frank just got saved from a world of regret. It is worth pursuing this approach first and save the insanity (and body count) of escalation for another day. Non-violence is still the preferred path.
Note: This piece was written in different sessions, usually while listening to The Monkees, or Death Angel’s “The Ultra-Violence,” and not the usual one-session stream of consciousness that is my usual blog brilliance.
Ms. McSwilly has been teaching 5th Grade math for over 40 years. She is just a few weeks away from retirement. On this day, she is discussing square roots with her students who are more focused on the AR-15 that’s slung over her shoulder. The gun and ammo were given to her to her by the government, who told her it was the best weapon to stop a school shooter. The government also paid for her training. That’s where she learned to keep her rifle on her shoulder at all times, to keep it out of the hands of students. Also, if a shooter burst into the classroom, she might not have time to retrieve it. Ms. McSwilly needed to be ready to shoot and kill in seconds. But on this day her headaches were back and she was losing focus. The classroom door opened as the school janitor entered to empty the trashcan. Ms. McSwilly spun around at the sound and unloaded three rounds into the man, killing him in front of her students.
Somewhere I wrote, “Life is a bedspring.” It was some metaphor for something. Now it feels like it was a bedspring in a mattress that needs to be replaced. Too many heavy dudes have been jumping on it. Too many bad headlines. The Russians are advancing in Ukraine. The Supreme Court wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. A white supremacist goes on a killing spree in New York. Another sociopathic teenager kills scores of grade school kids in Texas. Elon Musk wants to re-platform every hate monger on earth, including Donald Trump. My wife is choosing her boyfriend instead of her husband. And a tank of gas just drained America’s bank account. That bedspring just don’t bounce back like it used to.
When the mass shooting happened to Buffalo, I had to go into my “hate crime expert” mode, giving numerous interviews, including on CNN and Turkish News. Sadly, it was a fairly textbook case but I tried to keep the focus on the black community and the endless trauma people of color endure just being not white in America. When the shooting at Robb Elementary School unfolded, I just wanted to crawl in a hole with my second grader. Watching Ted Cruz suggest arming teachers made me want to throw up. The school drop-off the following morning was just about the hardest thing ever. Parents were in tears, extra hugging their kids, hugging the teacher, hoping that she would be able to protect them from a man-child with AR-15. The weight of the world falling on kids who shouldn’t know they are somebody’s target.
Andi had a great idea the day after the Uvalde shooting because we were both trying to figure out what to do in a nation where there are more guns than people and little will to stand up to the gun lobby. Her idea was to have “a day without children,” and let the country’s classrooms be empty for a day of protest. It was brilliant, but the school calendar was running out. Wanting desperately to please her, I tried the make the day happen two days later but the plan didn’t have time to catch fire and fizzled quickly. I felt impotent in the face of the entrenched status of bad news headlines.
I wondered allowed with my students what it would be like to have a year where nothing happened. You know, like the Obama years. Do we have the resilience to withstand what’s to come this summer? They say the personal is the political and both have been pretty traumatizing over the last few years. And, as we know, trauma can be debilitating, turning us inward into a state of learned helplessness. Getting up to fight seem pointless. Slide into bed and scroll through posts about Johnny and Amber instead.
It seems increasingly overwhelming and carbs (or whatever is your drug of choice) tastes so good. Bitcoin is down but suicide is up, way up. Is there a secret to resilience? A lifeline until happy days are here again? A reason to hunker down between mass shootings and GOP landslides?
Turns out there is; optimism. Not every solider that comes back from the battlefield is plagued by PTSD and not every kid with who is the victim of bullying shoots up his school. Research has shown a key factor in trauma recovery is simple optimism. A positive outlook is your hedge against the plunge into the black hole of despair. You might not know it, but reflecting on how (and that) you got through past shit will help you get through future shit. And there will be future shit.
Worried that you might implode this summer and be Googling “Can I hold my breath until I die?” by Election Day? Here’s three things that will help keep you from losing it.
1. Get some friends. One thing all these shooters have in common is that they are loners. Most guys who go through job loss and divorce go out with their friends and get shit-faced until they’ve come though it. The guy with no friends (and easy access to guns) is the one shooting up his former office place. Get friends. Church, the bowling alley, adult kickball, even those LARP weirdos. Plug into your tribe. We all need each other right now. And not faceless Zoom or 4chan. Go have a beer, you wuss. We’ll get through this with karaoke.
2. Volunteer. Mr. Rogers famously said, “Life is for service.” Stop whining and do something to help. Not only is your aid desperately needed, it makes you feel damn good. The work I do on hate crime and Ukraine issues is unpaid but if feeds my soul. I just went to a Moms Demand Action gun violence event and those mothers were motivated to be the change they want to see. It was intoxicating. These narcissists who just want to “live their best lives,” taking and never giving, are draining energy and missing out on the magical spring of optimism, service to others.
3. Make a list. Setting simple goals is such an easy thing to do. After a session with my therapist, where I was feeling overwhelmed by my financial situation, I acted instead of wallowed. I bought a whiteboard and started organizing my bills and made lists of things to do to improve my situation and then began erasing said things as I did them. A few days ago I called both my senators to ask them to close the loopholes on gun background checks. It took five minutes and it made me feel like I was moving the ball forward. Just get shit done.
There’s so much happening right now. When we’re all super old, we can read about the history of the 2020s and be like, “How the fuck did we survive that?” But now is the time to be like sharks. Keep moving forward. Forest fires? Timmothy McVeigh wannabes? Custody battles? Trump tweets? It will all be in the rearview mirror at some point and me and all my rowdy friends will have a laugh and say, “Look how bad-ass we are. You kids today suck.”
This was going to be a piece about how if you arm teachers, we might pull a January 6 on all the assholes that have defunded education, like Ted Cruz, but, halfway through, I decided to write about resilience. There’s no flowchart for this moment we are in.
After my epic journey from Poland to Portland, that included another two missed flights and a night spent in the Newark Airport, I had the brief honeymoon of home. As if written in a screenplay, my Lyft driver at the Portland airport was a Ukrainian named Ruvim. He dropped me off in front of my house and Cozy ran out to great me. After over two weeks away, I fell to my knees and hugged her, thinking of all the dads in Ukraine who long to hold their kids but can’t because they are saving their nation from sociopathic Russians who are raping Ukrainian women in front of their children.
Coming home to Cozy and Andi felt like a dream. They are my sanctuary, my reason for everything. As is tradition, I gave Cozy her snow globes (from Paris and Krakow). I gave Andi a neckless and cross that had belonged to a Ukrainian mother who we got to safety. It felt like I was finally home. But it wasn’t really home. Andi had boxed up her things while I was away and was already entrenched in another relationship, and my silly plan to return home like a badass Rambo and sweep her off her feet with stories of glory was lost in my lack of sleep and the ghosts of what I had seen while I was away, not to mention that I was now only her husband on paper. I just wanted to take hot shower and fall asleep cuddling with my daughter, which I did.
The next morning, I jumped back into the routine and got Cozy to school. I hopped in the car after dropping her off and switched on NPR and that was that. The news was the horror stories coming out of Bucha, where Russian soldiers had tortured and murdered Ukrainian civilians in ways that make ISIS look like kindergartners. My heart raced and my first and only thought was, “ WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING IN PORTLAND? I SHOULD STILL BE THERE GETTING PEOPLE OUT!” The intense guilt of leaving. I knew these kids that they were killing. I knew their mothers. I knew the men who were living lives like me in one moment and thrown into an unexpected and unwanted war the next. How dare I be on my way to grab a latte when Russians are cutting their tongues out?
I don’t know if this is trauma but I do recognize my brain has changed. I have to imagine this is exactly what veterans experience when they return home from combat, the intense compulsion to rejoin the fight. And it’s not like I did 12 months in Afghanistan. I did two weeks in Poland and Ukraine and already I’m all Deer Hunter, ready to go right back. There’s also the adrenaline rush that a former cop recently told me is the attraction for many in law enforcement. If my cognitive patterns were changed in a fortnight, imagine how it must be for career military.
The guilt is intense. While I was there, it seemed like things might be winding down and the Russians would go home with their tails between their legs, having underestimated the strength and courage of the Ukrainian people. Au contraire, mon frère. The Russians just leveled up their savagery. I should have stayed. I should have driven vans full of ammo straight to our contacts in Irpin so they could have taken these monsters’ heads off. I proved that I can do this work, racing around sandbags and hedgehogs in western Ukraine. I mean how old was Pablo in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls?
It’s a race of emotions that is balanced out by the very real fact that I have a beautiful daughter who needs her father here. I know she was proud of the fact that I was helping kids like her on the other side of the planet. She needs to know that she’s my priority. But the reality is, she’s not worried about Russian rockets slamming into her school and the children of Lviv are.
I’m just writing this, processing this, in this, getting it out for my own sake. You’re welcome to continue reading. I’ve had several espressos today, doubled my Zoloft, and am blasting Napalm Death’s “Suffer the Children” on my stereo. Not sure what the real world has to offer, especially after my day at Auschwitz on Friday. Is the world being destroyed or recreated? Will something wonderful emerge from the ashes, or will the illogic of the Putin-Trump cults lead us into a dystopian nightmare?
I’ll be OK. I have a great therapist, a good job, friends, an amazing kid, and a roof over my head. I can find ways to help Ukrainians from Portland and I can loose myself in music and books (although I might have to finish For Whom the Bell Tolls later). One thing I did do is ditch being called “Randy.” I’ve grown up. Call me Randall. I’m not the person I was. It’s time to be better at being better.
These two weeks did a number on me. My heart is in Ukraine. My heart is with all the veterans experiencing PTSD. My heart is with every refugee who wishes they were home. My heart is with my daughter who deserves a better world than the one we currently have. I’ve learned not to expect empathy, but I have a feeling there are countless people who understand what this feels like.
“The present moment began with fire. And still, it burns.” – Ben Okri, Nigerian poet
April 2, 2022
Once again, I find myself in a white van, crossing the, now snow-covered, fields of southern Poland. My very first record, Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” is playing on the radio. The lyrics hit at an odd angle, “I just might turn to smoke.” Because we are headed to Auschwitz. Seeing the upside down world of April Fools Day, I try to make a joke with my fellow passengers, but my wartime dark humor is not received well. I was scolded earlier in the week for posting that the guy who was snoring in the bomb shelter we were sharing in Lviv, Ukraine made me pray for a bomb. I get it. But humor is also a way to cope with the endless trauma of this world. The DJ, sharing my skewed take on the day, next spins Ella Fitzgerald singing, “Let it Snow,” a Christmas classic in April.
Maybe the awkwardness was to prepare my brain for what was to come. How does one plan a day-trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camps? How do you transition from this moment to that one? I’ve been a student of the Holocaust for as long as I can remember and lectured about the camps for 30 years. In my recent Research Methods class at the University of Oregon, I presented gut wrenching evidence of how Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele perverted the values of science in a sadistic attempt to demonstrate Aryan superiority. My life’s work revolves around studying neo-Nazis who both pretend to believe the Holocaust never happened and fantasize about perpetuating similar acts of genocide. The previous day, I had wandered around Krakow’s old Jewish district that had been emptied of Jews by the Nazis, except for the lucky few who were rescued by Oskar Schindler. It was important for me to do this.
The van carried a varied lot, an English couple from Birmingham, a Norwegian couple, a young German woman who must have been filled with dread and her English friend who puked, on and off, during the hour drive from Krakow because she had had too many shots of vodka the night before. Our driver, who went by Mike, was wise enough to ease us into the arrival into hell. He took us to his “secret location,” which was an abandoned box car on a track between the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps that had been used to carry the doomed to their final destination. There, in the snow, I began to slip through time.
Auschwitz is where it is because Oświęcim, Poland was a railroad hub, and industrial town that could manage the importation of countless slave laborers and then the millions who were to be exterminated. It still feels like such a town, ringed with McDonalds and KFCs when you arrive. For better or worst, the area around the camps has been preserved in amber. When we arrived at the Auschwitz tour center, with the crematorium chimneys visible behind it, snow fell gently down, smelling cleaner than the ash that fell 80 years earlier. In the gift shop, I bought a copy of Ellie Wiesel’s Night and watched the other tourists. Some stared somberly, some teenagers laughed, as teenagers do, and a group of Israeli students, draped in their flag, did both. I held my breath.
My group got their headsets so we could better hear our tour guide, a Polish woman in her late sixties who had lost two uncles in the camp. We stepped back into the snow and walked under the “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) gate as she began to describe the buildings. For the first time, I had a 360 degree view of this thing. I could see the grey clouds above and the mud below my boots. This was not a fantasy, a conspiracy, or a scene from a film. This was real.
The tour had just started and I began to hyperventilate. Then I began to sob. I got light-headed and thought I was going to pass out. I had to lean against one of the barracks that had housed 500 prisoners at a time. Nothing like this had happened to me before. I think I was having a panic attack.
It was the realization that this was a real place and that horror had actually happened. Holocaust deniers be damned, the systematic annihilation of millions of men, women, children, and babies was carried out with methodical precision here from 1940 to 1945. I could feel the terror and it was too much to bear. All those books and lectures and movies and documentaries and sitting listening to Holocaust survivors, choking on the pain in my throat. It all happened in this spot and my body convulsed at the realization. The weight of what humanity was capable of in its darkest moment.
I sat down for a bit, half listening to our presenter, half trying to get my bearings. I flashed to a scene in Schindler’s List. The black and white film had one moment of color. A little Jewish girl in a red coat, her body later appears in a pile of corpses. It was 1993 and she reminded me of my then 5-year-old friend in Prague, Suzanka, who was living too close to the genocide in Yugoslavia. I burst out sobbing in the Phipps Plaza movie theater. The memory, as I sat on barrack steps in Auschwitz, caused be to burst out sobbing again.
Gradually, I wiped my eyes and rejoined the tour as we entered the slightly warmer barracks and viewed their displays. Our guide returned to the refrain, “You must remember,” and how the total count of those exterminated may never be known, because the Nazis burned the paperwork along with the bodies. Each display was more devastating than the last; children’s shoes, human hair removed from the gassed to make into fabric, luggage waiting to be claimed. The one that put me back in my panic was the massive collection of crutches, canes, and prosthetic limbs of the “invalids,” deemed too defective to work and put to immediate death. That specter of ablism did not fade with the Third Reich.
I soldiered on for the rest of the tour, through gas chambers, past the gallows, in front of the “wall of death,” where prisoners were shot, and down to the ovens, and finally to the spot where Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss was finally hung on this day (April 2) in 1947. But this was only the first half of the trip. Auschwitz had a sequel, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, ordered built by Heinrich Himmler in 1941 to accelerate the extermination of the Jews. Mike ferried us over to the second, much larger camp, much of which was destroyed by the Nazis at the end of the war in a futile attempt to hide their crimes. Our guide walked us along the train tracks where prisoners were divided between those who would be forced into labor than those who were marched straight to the gas chambers. Babies and small children were thrown into open burning pits. I stood there, as a father, unable to move. Where was goodness? Where was God? Where was the empathy that should have been present among Hitler’s willing executioners?
On the ride home, we were all silent, including puking girl. I thought about what I had seen in Ukraine; the faces of frightened children forced out of their homes by an unprovoked war-monger. I thought about the concerns of my Polish friends, that nuclear weapons would turn them to ash like those who left Auschwitz and Birkenau through the chimneys. I thought about the new rise of authoritarianism in the form of Putin and Trump, that gleefully weaponizes hate and the threat of violence. I thought about the anti-trans laws and voter suppression acts that are slowly eroding democratic freedoms in my “beacon of liberty” home country.
The first chapter of Ellie Wiesel’s Night is a cautionary tale. The Jews who lived in his Hungarian village thought they were far enough from the war not to worry about the rumors of Nazi anti-Semitism. When they were pushed into a ghetto, many thought it was to protect them from the violence of the Allied invasion, and when they got to the platform at Birkenau, and Wiesel saw his mother and sister forced into the line for the gas chambers, many thought that no such horror would be allowed in the mid-twentieth century. The Holocaust was not a sudden tsunami of death. It was a slowly rising tide that drowned those who never realized they were so far from the shore.
That tide is rising again. I will not sit on my hands and hope things get better. I will use every tool at my disposal. This trip has taught me that I must.
I was born at the right time for punk rock. Fourteen-years-old in 1978, my teenage angst was perfectly positioned to hear the music of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols as a telegraph to my soul. The explosive anarchy was what I needed. I remember desperately wanting to go to the January 5, 1978 Sex Pistols show in Atlanta, but you had to be 18 to get in. Didn’t they know this was “my” music? My introduction to slam dancing gave me a direct route into the chaos. I was slamming at a Lords of the New Church show in London in 1982 and had my arm pulled out of the socket. Another punk, who was also an EMT, grabbed my arm and shoved it back into the socket and we kept moshing. Punk was life.
When Russian troops began their “training” on the eastern Ukrainian border last month, I got the impulse to be there, in the action. It’s not a new impulse. When I was 20, I went to Belfast, Northern Ireland and ended up (purposely) in a riot, where a kid my age was shot in the face by British soldiers. The experience became my senior honor’s thesis at Emory University. At 29, while I was in Eastern Europe working on my dissertation on right-wing extremism, I tried to get to Sarajevo during the siege of the city and couldn’t get past the Yugoslavian border. It was framed as “research,” but there was something the compelled me to be in a place that most people just wanted to escape from. During the summer of 2020, I couldn’t get enough of manning the BLM barricades in Portland, dodging rubber bullets and coming home smelling like tear gas. The chaos and flash bangs were intoxicating.
And now with a European trip less than a week away, I’m debating heading in.
I’m not exactly a wannabe mercenary who is obsessed with war and violence. A lot of the young men I study certainly are. In the timeless words of Michael Jackson, “I’m a lover not a fighter.” Do these conflicts ignite some toxic masculinity inside me? In the 2000’s, I received weapons training from the FBI as part of their Citizen Academy, and now I’m wondering if I remember how to unlock the safety on an MP5 machine gun. Who am I? I mean, it’s entirely possible that you will see me on Instagram two weeks from now, posing with my AK-74 (standard issue with the Ukrainian ground forces).
I discussed this need to dive into the geo-political mosh pit with my therapist. She had a valuable insight that it might be linked to the abuse I experienced as a child. That chaos became a normal state and my desire to fight it became deeply engrained. Putin is the molesting neighbor and I want to go save the children of Ukraine from him. I experienced pain then so I can experience pain now, acting out some masochistic savior complex. Hey, makes as much sense as anything else. I wouldn’t be surprised if the victims of childhood abuse are over-represented in the ranks of the law enforcement and military.
In front of this is my desire to help. I’m watching Russian tanks fire into civilian apartment buildings in Mariupol and I just want to leap through the TV. The kids streaming out of the country look so much like my daughter. I’m slavic and was born in a Cleveland suburb that was heavily Ukrainian (Parma). If I can just go to the border and serve meals with World Central Kitchen, that would be a lot. These people just seem stunned. The fact that Russia is now attacking close to the Polish border means there’s even more help needed with the refugees. I imagined rockets slamming into my neighborhood today and wondered if anyone would come to help us. How can I not go?
I felt so deflated last week I went to donate blood, even though I know that my blood is not going to Ukraine, or Syria, or Congo, or any of the other of Earth’s bloodbaths. But I have the privilege to travel and the freedom of “spring break,” as well as the ability to work remotely. Why not go? Flights from Paris to Warsaw are down to $94 and I have a new credit card. Can I go just help refugee families in Poland and resist the temptation to throw Molotov cocktails at Russian armored vehicles?
The plan now to fly to Paris on Saturday and then catch a flight to Warsaw, where I have one last Zoom class to teach. After grades are turned in, I’ll catch a train down to Przemysl to find opportunities to help with the flow of refugees. Even if it’s just giving hugs to traumatized kids who look like mine, I will feel that I’ve added to the healing in some small way. I’ve been shopping for both combat boots and children’s books to take with me. The only question is whether or not my childhood trauma will pull me across the border. For the sake of my own child, I will probably stay on the safe side of that line. Or maybe I could do this work from a sunny French café. Stay tuned.
We can all do something. I really want to encourage people to donate to UNICEF’s Ukraine relief. It’s for the kids! https://www.unicefusa.org
We’re all gerbils crawling through an endless toilet paper tube. Most of the time we don’t notice the tube, because we’re focused on our forward motion. But every once in a while, we realize that we’re stuck in a freaking cardboard tube and it’s controlling everything about what we can see and where we can go.
History is that toilet paper tube. I remember how on a Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I realized the events I was watching on my father’s television in Roswell, Georgia would impact every aspect of my world. There were two realities, pre-9/11 and post-9/11. The tube was tight, preventing me from getting on a flight back to Portland. And it’s touched our reality ever since.
I feel that way again, watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I was focused on the tasks at hand, getting my students through winter quarter, adjusting to life as a single parent, waiting for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to start a new season. And then on Wednesday night all that changed as Putin sent tanks and troops across the border in an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation. I had a similar feeling when I was 15-years-old on New Year’s Eve 1979, watching Soviet tanks roll into Afghanistan. It felt like the whole world shifted on its axis a bit.
Now as Russian troops bomb Kyiv, it seems like the axis shift is massive. Thursday I took time to talk to my University of Oregon students and ask them to be present in this moment. They will likely talk to their grandchildren 50 years from now about the first days of the third world war. Rising gas prices, bread shortages, fear of conscription are surely weighing on their minds. But for these Generation Z students, most born after 9/11, this will all get very real when the Russian cyber hacks shut Instagram down.
Historical parallels aside (Hitler pulled the same stunt in 1939), it’s clear that we have entered a geo-political order where Russia is not our friend. (Sarah Palin must be smirking.) We will divide modern history into before 02/23/2022 and after 02/23/2022. Will this end up in the similar global turmoil that followed Hitler’s invasion of Poland? It seems entirely possible. Vladimir Putin is this generation’s murderous madmen with designs on expanding his empire by any means necessary. Putin’s statement Wednesday that nations that come to Ukraine’s defense will face “consequences you have never seen” is chilling given the fact that Russia holds 45% of the world’s nuclear weapons.
Maybe this will be a limited conflict and, well, sorry freedom-loving Ukrainians. Yeah, it went sideways with Hitler, but Putin is an ethnic nationalist of a different stripe. It will be fine. Let’s get back to the other existential crises, like COVID and global warming. Why should Russian tanks rolling through Chernobyl be an issue in suburban America? It will be OK. Have you seen the price of milk? Let’s riot!
Of course, the good people of Ukraine didn’t think Russian bombs would be falling on their suburban neighborhoods either. A child Cozy’s age was killed today on the westside of Kyiv. Global conflicts have the tendency to spread. Quickly. Watching the children heading for the Polish border makes me wonder where I would send my daughter if the war spreads to this part of the world. Hopefully we can get her to Mexico if things get hot here. The United States is not guaranteed to exist forever. Four years of Trumpism weakened our democracy and greatly inflated Russia. That could create a cascade of crises that puts the USA in the rear view mirror. You may not be safe as you think.
The reason of this concern is rooted what I did in the first 12 hours of the invasion. I spent it on the dark corners of the web in the places where white supremacists, Qanon believers, and Trump nuts dwell. They, to the one, threw their support to Putin, seeing Biden’s policies as part of a liberal Jewish plot to push Putin and Trump’s buttons and cheered Putin’s fascistic ethnic nationalism. They want that wider war to launch their “boogaloo” race war in America. And they are armed. Heavily. Timothy McVeigh is their hero. The ethnic cleansing of Yugoslavia is their game plan. And Putin and Trump are their leaders.
Fortunately, like those Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island who defiantly said, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” the majority of Americans have no tolerance for the anti-American “America First” con artists and their little boy soldiers. Yeah, 4.5 million viewers tune into white supremacist Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show each evening but that means that over 327 million Americans don’t. Hopefully, unlike Ukrainian citizens right now, we won’t all have to take crash courses in how to fire AR-15s. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and thoughtful mobilization. We’ll certainly have the time after Russian hackers take down Instagram. Maybe then we will see the toilet paper tube we are in.
They say one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. From the perspective of a lowly stormtrooper inside the Death Star, Luke Skywalker and his band of rebel fighters, guided by an archaic religion, were not heroes, but mass murderers. Was the U.S drone strike that targeted ISIS-K in Kabul on August 29th a part of our righteous war on terror or was it a terrorist attack that killed seven children (and no ISIS fighters)? Remember when Bill Maher said, on his show Politically Incorrect, the 9/11 hijackers were not cowards, but those who launch cruise missiles from 2000 miles away were and ABC canned him? Are we even allowed to ask these questions?
Today is not the day to debate whether or not the attacks twenty years ago were terrorism. They most certainly were. If they weren’t, the word has no meaning. Anyone who was alive and old enough to pay attention on September 11, 2001 (and now a quarter of Americans weren’t), felt the terror. I had just flown to Atlanta on 9/10 for my 20th high school reunion and my dad woke me up in time for me to see the second plane slam into the World Trade Center. I remember saying out loud, “What the hell is happening?” as Peter Jennings attempted to translate the untranslatable. It was about to get worse. Much worse.
The U.S. government defines terrorism as, ““the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85). Much of my work is built around the description of hate crimes as acts of terrorism. Why do we not think of the 9/11 attacks as merely 2,977 murders? Because all Americans were the targets. I had a friend from college who was in Tower 1. Osama bin Laden didn’t know about him, or have anything against him personally. (Three of my former Emory classmates were killed in the New York attacks.) He was a random target, a death meant to intimidate a larger civilian population. And it worked. It was several months after 9/11 before I could enter a tall building or drive over a Portland bridge without thinking of a passenger plane crashing into it.
Hate crimes work the same way. Like the victims of 9/11, targets are randomly selected for their symbolic value, to coerce others like the targets that they aren’t wanted here. Leave. A burning cross, a gay bashing, a swastika on a synagogue, all meant to terrorize large populations. After the 9/11 attacks hate crimes against American Arabs and Muslim (and people perceived to be Arab and/or Muslim) increased 500%. Four days after the attack a Sikh named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot in the head in a gas station in Mesa, Arizona by a white male who claimed he seeking revenge for the 9/11 attacks. Not only were Arab and Muslim-Americans living in fear, but so were Sikhs and others. (Here in Portland, an Italian man was beaten by three teenagers after the attacks because he was perceived to be Middle Eastern.) 2001 wasn’t an anomaly. Just this week, data released but the FBI revealed that hate crimes increased dramatically in 2020. Who is terrorizing whom?
On this sad occasion, I’m reminded of how the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton Administration tried to falsely pin 9/11 on Saddam Hussein, leading to the invasion of the wrong county, a protracted and completely unnecessary war that was responsible for the death in over 4000 U.S. troops, and over half a million Iraqi men, women, and children killed. But we were the ones fighting terrorism. We couldn’t possibly be the terrorists. Could we?
I visited Ground Zero the summer following the attack and I could still smell the dust of all the souls who had been atomized on that Tuesday in September. I’ve been to New York at least a dozen times since then and always notice what’s not there and what is. My recurring 9/11 dreams were central to my 2016 novel, The Dream Police. At the 9/11 memorial when I see the names of the victims who were pregnant women, I can’t help but convulse and every trip I make to Washington DC, I have a moment when I wonder what would have happened if the fourth plane had hit its intended target, the U.S. Capitol building. I carry this as trauma as does every American, to varying degrees, who remembers that day.
But we also carry the trauma of all the other acts of terrorism, many done in our name or done by people who look like us against people who don’t look like us. We’ve become blasé to the trauma and really good at rationalizing the traumatizing of others. We’ve become masters at dehumanizing the “other.” They see us as “infidels” and we see them as “fanatics.” They see us as “libtards” and we see them as “Nazis.” Nobody is just a human being capable of love and redeemable imperfection. If you told members of the radical right or the radical left they could push a button to launch a drone strike to wipe out the other side, the air would be filled robots on their death trips.
Trauma requires healing and there has been a lot of healing in the last 20 years. New Yorkers are resilient. The passengers on Flight 93 showed great courage in the face of their own deaths. And the work of the war machine that launches drone strikes into wherever continues at the Pentagon. But the healing is hampered by all the other terror we inflict on each other. An open wound never truly heals.
I will never forget that day. The confusion of wondering if it was real or a movie. The image of people choosing to jump rather than burn. The realization that the world would never be the same. But I will also never forget a lot of other things, including what happened in a Mesa, Arizona gas station four days after the attack and what happened two weeks ago in Kabul. Never forget any of it.
We went out of the county for a Friday night date. The next county over is in Phase 1, which means you can have drink in the radius others doing the same. It was an odd break from COVID and the daily anti-racism demonstrations reminding us how racist America is in 2020. So it seemed like an obvious date night activity to head back into downtown Portland to see how “Little Beirut” was gearing up for the weekend.
The short version of the story is we found ourselves among a few thousand protestors outside the Justice Center, which had become a focal point of the protests against police brutality in the Rose City. The parks in front of the Justice Center are circled by City Hall, federal and county courthouses, and were the scene of a prolonged occupation during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011.
As I’m fond of explaining to the media, protests are complex phenomena with numerous types of participants, from earnest aggrieved citizens to hooligans, from career activists to agent provocateurs. And that’s just one side of the fence. So we wandered around black-clad white protestors with Black Live Matters signs and African-American teenagers, chanting “Fuck Trump!” The police, in their stormtrooper riot gear, seemed to hold the line on the other side of the fence, occasionally dodging a water bottle hurled from the crowd. We took pictures and made note of clever signs.
Then the whole thing went sideways. Concussive flash-bangs and tear gas hit the crowd. I wanted to film it but was unprepared for how the tear gas would choke me. I was blind and fell behind Andrea as we ran from the park. Fortunately, some seasoned protesters poured milk into my eyes so I could see my way out. After some marching around, some of the protest leaders (well, they had megaphones) encouraged protesters to head east, away from the hot zone where clashes with police seemed inevitable. Our car was in the other direction, so we headed back towards the Justice Center, and found a spot in front of City Hall to watch the show.
Tear gas was banned in warfare by the Geneva Convention in 1925 but it seems to still be A-OK in Portland 95 years later. We wanted to witness this moment in history and see which way it went, even if it was in a haze of fog. I thought about friends who were cops and friends who were antifa locked in this moment of change.
Just after midnight, the police made their move on the protestors, driving us through the rose bushes at City Hall and over a wall. About two blocks away, on the corner of 5th and Madison, we stopped to watch truck-fulls of militarized police deploy to launch noxious CS gas into the streets of Portlandia. I was filming and an officer, who might have been a county sheriff, pointed me out to another officer, and then he launched a gas grenade at me, my reward for flashing a peace sign. I was filming the whole time so the recording got both Andrea and I on the ground, gasping for breath. (Video below.) Fortunately, two anarchist angels were there to rescue us. From that point I just wanted to go to the babysitter and pick up our daughter.
After a very long shower (and a desire to burn our clothes), I laid awake wondering how this thing ends. Tonight will be the tenth night of consecutive protests in Portland, with surely more tear gas. Solidarity marches have been happening all over the world. There was an anti-racism march over my beloved Charles Bridge in Prague yesterday, and in Bristol, England, protesters pulled down a statue of a 17th century slave owner and dumped him in the bay. It feels like 2020, is going to make 1968 look like 1954. We are at a tipping point. But tipping to where? 1968 gave us President Richard Nixon.
The “Defund the Police!” chant is half right. We must defund the militarized police and fund an alternative model of policing. We need police. There will always be rapists and murderers who need to be caught (by detectives with dry senses of humor). But we also need social workers to address the root causes of crime before there are crime victims. There are models from around the world. British Bobbies still don’t carry guns, but can get them if they need them. The police department in Camden, New Jersey rebuilt its entire department and not only saw a 95% drop in excessive force complaints but saw a steep decline in murders. It can be done. It is being done.
The current policing model isn’t broken. It was built wrong. Detroit, Los Angeles, Ferguson, Minneapolis, have all told us the same thing. You can tweak the system and get slight changes in outcomes, but its the system that’s the problem. You can wave the banner of “community policing,” but if it’s the same armed officer harassing the “usual suspects,” nothing has changed. Our current form of policing is rooted in medieval notions of control. The root of the term “sheriff” is in the English shire reeve from a thousand years ago. Maybe it’s time to give it the old heave ho, like those folks in Bristol did to that statue yesterday.
Yeah, we need to talk about racism in America. We really need to talk about it. But we also need to talk about remaking how we police ourselves.