Political Violence and Trauma, Part 1 — The Canary

Rob Spirko
Jul 27, 2017 · 10 min read

[Content Note: The first part of this essay contains some graphic details about a public shooting. If that’s likely to cause problems, skip down to “Nothing will ever be the same,” in boldface below.]

Picture of church sanctuary, bright natural light; high rectangular windows, white walls, wooden and blue fabric pews.

There are moments in your life of ice-cold, crystalline clarity.

Once such moment is when you are in the floor between church pews, lying on top of your wife and son, your mother nearby, your father- and mother-in-law across the aisle. The aisle that the man with the shotgun is standing in.

Moments before, there was confusion. The loud pop might have been one of the children on stage dropping their mic accidentally, or a bad connection to the soundboard. But then it comes again. Odd. Then you smell the gunpowder. You hear the screams. Chaos around you. You shove your family down.

That’s when time slows and the clarity hits.

This could be it.

This is where you check out. This is when everything you’ve left undone remains forever undone. These thoughts, these sights, sounds, smells — your last. Almost your entire family is here with you, your parents, your children, your friend you invited to see the production of Annie Jr that the church youth are putting on. Three generations of your family are here with you, in the room with the man with the shotgun.

Is he walking down the aisle? Will he start firing into the pews? Stay where you are, or run for it? It will take everything you have to raise yourself, look back over the edge of the pews. You see the shotgun. You see the look on his face, surprise, as he’s grabbed and dragged down by someone behind him.

Where is your daughter? She was supposed to come on stage. You’re running across the sanctuary, headed for the side door. You see things on the way. Some of them, you can’t remember to this day. Some of them you can. White eyes wide in a red face. But you know later what you must have seen. Who you must have seen and what happened to them. You’re a little grateful, then, that you can’t remember.

You put your hands on the back door, flecked by shotgun pellets. Then you’re out in the sunlight; there are children crying. You help gather them together, find your daughter. Go with them up the hill away from the church, your arms around as many as you can. You see your father-in-law stumble out, a trail of blood down his face from his ruined eye.

Nothing will ever be the same.

Picture of TVUUC sign with flowers, memorial notes, and children’s drawings on it.

By “you,” of course, I mean “me.” These events happened nine years ago today, as I write this. A man walked into our church, Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, where children were putting on the play Annie Jr., and with a shotgun, he began shooting people. He killed two and wounded seven more. He traumatized hundreds, both those who were there and those who weren’t — many lost the feeling of sanctuary that a sanctuary should provide.

Every year, I revisit the events. Whether I want to or not, they come. Some years are easier than others. This is a hard year. Violence is in the air.

I call this day “Greg McKendry Day.” Greg was an usher at the church, one of the two people killed. He took the first shotgun blast with his body. My wife, having gone back into the sanctuary to look for her parents, stepped around pools of blood and saw him lying there, his friends beside him, begging him to keep breathing. From the police diagrams and what I know of the layout, I am certain that if he had not taken that blast, my fingers would not be on these keys right now. I would not be here, nor my wife, my son, my mother. Yet I am here, and he is not. So every year I honor him.

And every year, I am compelled by the nature of the trauma to remember. I am compelled by my own nature to try to understand. And I am compelled to write this, to tell you what I think it means in the times we find ourselves now.

In Appalachia, the image of a canary in a coal mine is not to be taken lightly. But we have often provided not only the coal, but the canary.

A week after the shooting, a well-intentioned person was asking after us. “Some people are just crazy,” they offered as a way to help explain it. But it wasn’t inexplicable. His target wasn’t random. He left a four-page manifesto which would be found, he assumed, after his death, killed by police. (Instead, he was tackled by a retired history professor dressed like Daddy Warbucks. Hence his look of surprise.)

Frustrated that he couldn’t kill the liberal leaders who, in 2008, were supposedly destroying America, he decided to go after the liberals he could reach. Through his ex-wife, he knew about our church, its social justice mission, its acceptance of LGBTQ people.

There was no equivocation in his manifesto. We were liberals. We were traitors. We deserved death. With our gay-loving, communist, America-hating ways, we were destroying the country. He said specifically that he saw this as a hate crime because he hated liberals. It was a political protest, he said. I have a different name for it: terrorism. It was political violence, done to kill where it could, but to send a larger message. He wanted to create a larger fear, and he succeeded. One small detail: I was unable to put a 2008 campaign bumper sticker on my car — would it make me a target of road rage? Would a right wing mechanic — the car needed a lot of attention at that stage in its life — not quite fix something? Would I have an angry confrontation in a parking lot berated by someone for supporting “that man” — something I was not at all emotionally ready to deal with.

It didn’t come from nowhere. In four handwritten pages, he elaborated on what he had learned from Bernard Goldberg’s 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. But he had other sources. When police searched his house, they discovered books by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage.

In his 2004 Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism, Hannity says “some of the most dangerous attacks our nation faces can come from those on the home front” and “the greatest threat to our resolve today in the War on Terror is the political liberalism — and selfish opportunism — of the Democrats.” Democrats — not just political opposition, but a threat to America, an fifth column of terrorism. He is quite explicit about it. “Terrorism, despotism, and liberalism: these are the forces that America must be concerned about in the War on Terror today.” He mentions terrorism and liberalism in the same heavy breath throughout the book. And he’s clear on how to respond: “The lessons of history are clear: You cannot negotiate with evil. You can’t sweet-talk it. You can’t compromise with it. You can’t give ground to it. You can only defeat it, or it will defeat you.”

The man with the shotgun in my church was not there to negotiate. He was not there to sweet-talk or to compromise. He intended to give no ground. He was there to treat evil the way it was supposed to be treated.

Michael Savage, in his introduction to The Enemy Within, writes “I can’t speak for you, but I’m not going to watch TV while the leftists drive America over the cliff. [. . . E]xtreme liberalism is a mental disease. It is a destructive contagion more deadly than any force this country has ever faced.”

The man with the shotgun in my church was there to save America. To face this deadly threat with deadly force. He was there to treat traitors to America in the way that traitors are supposed to be treated. The way O’Reilly, Hannity, and Savage all implied traitors should be treated. The man with the shotgun was not “crazy.” He was merely taking their rhetoric to its logical conclusion.

O’Reilly, Hannity, and Savage never apologized to us for what they helped cause. They may have issued a boilerplate denial at the time, but I never saw it. When I have pointed this out in the past, people have said, “Well, surely they never intended…” I can’t say what they intended. I would like to believe that they didn’t intend this result. But the eye that looked down that shotgun barrel at my fellow church-goers was the eye that read their words. The brain was the brain that took those words to a logical conclusion. How else does one treat threats and traitors, if one is a true, manly patriot?

The man with the shotgun was also in my church to die. He was broke and broken. A fifty-eight-year-old white man, he’d lost his job and run through his unemployment. Even his food stamps had run out. His manifesto conveys a sense of his personal worthlessness — he wanted his body just thrown in the Tennessee River — and uselessness. I have more to say in a future installment about toxic masculinity, class, and violence. Here I want to focus on the absurdity of his goals. In a state run by Republicans, represented largely by Republicans in Washington, in a nation that had been led by Republicans for the past 8 years, he blamed liberals for his problems. From my perspective, this was a hilariously poor understanding of the political realities he was living in. From his perspective, the rhetoric he had read, the things he knew, he was in the right place. He blamed liberals for his problems, for the nation’s problems, for his failures. And violence, he thought, would be his redemption.

“I have chosen to skip the bad years of poverty,” he wrote. “I know my life is going downhill fast from here. [. . . ] So I thought I’d do something good for this country. Kill Democrats til the cops kill me.”

Here was a man who felt he had nothing left to lose; he was on a suicide mission and the right wing rhetoric of the radio and TV pundits gave him his target. I was his target. My family was his target. The people we worshipped with were his target. Because we believed in compassion, kindness, and the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We would’ve believed in his worth and dignity, if he’d let us.

To be honest, he was not the kind of person who would be typically attracted to Unitarian Universalism. As a whole, we tend toward the affluent and well-educated. And, yes, toward the liberal — though our principles also work well for libertarians. Working class, white, middle-aged, with limited options — the man with the shotgun fits better with those parts of the country that elected Trump. In some ways, we were not so different: I, too, grew up as a white male in East Tennessee eating free school lunches and benefiting from government programs. The difference was, I was able to ride those programs to college, to a Ph.D. He probably sought disability compensation; I received it in the form of support for hearing aids when I was in school. I embraced change and diversity. Sure, I wound up underemployed, as a non-tenure track college teacher back in Appalachia. But I had options; he felt he did not. His despair-fueled anger, his fear of “the gays” and race-mixing, his desire to take his America back: all these are by now a familiar litany in the wake of the last election.

So when I look at our political landscape these days, I get very nervous. The voices egging on the man with the shotgun in 2008 have only gotten louder and better connected to power.

As I said, O’Reilly, Hannity, and Savage have not emitted any whiff of regret at their involvement in the violence. In fact, in the years since, they have steadfastly maintained this rhetoric, even amped it up. And they were rewarded for it. Hannity and Savage, at least, enjoy continued celebrity and a privileged place in relation to the new administration. But for some courageous women coming forward, O’Reilly would be there, too. They’ve been joined by a rising tide of others in the alt-right and conservative pundit ecosphere. They seem blissfully unconcerned, as they talk about “alternative facts” and the threats that anyone outside a narrow range of “true Americans” pose to our country, of what the effects of that rhetoric might be.

And we have seen it. For a while after the shooting, I actually took heart. I had expected it was the first in a wave of right-wing violence. For a couple of years, it seemed like I was wrong. There was a lot of anger from the far right, but nobody walked into another Unitarian Universalist church and started shooting. Some people were referring to my experience as an “isolated incident.” I started to believe it.

Then there were other “isolated incidents.” A man walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin, and shot six people dead and wounded four more. And a couple of years after, a man walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine people dead, one the pastor and a state senator. A whole string of “isolated incidents” that people started plotting on maps to get a handle on the scale of them.

The incitements to violence, the incitements to see liberals, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ people, disabled people as less human, less than human, threats here to wreck America are getting louder, not quieter. In the name of free speech, we’re encouraged to let sunlight do its disinfecting work. We do not seem to me to be in the sunlight. It feels to me like we’re all down in the mine together.

I’ve heard the canary stop singing, and I know just what that sounds like. It sounds like people laughing at a “just a joke” that’s not really a joke. It sounds like white people yelling at people of color in parking lots to go back where they came from. It sounds like a police officer saying he was in fear for his life. And another. And another. And another. And another.

It sounds like a politician’s half-hearted apology for throwing a reporter to the ground. It sounds like the demagogue’s voice coming out of speakers saying to rough ’em up a bit. It sounds like the talk show host yelling about starting a Civil War against liberals.

It sounds like a loud pop that you can’t quite place where it comes from. It sounds like kids singing “Easy Street” from Annie, and the voices turning to screams. It sounds like the silence between the first shot and the second.

Rob Spirko

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Everybody's cute, everybody's cute, even me. But in purple I'm stunning.