Reflecting on San Bernardino

concept on a chalkboard: crime in school, school shooting, massacre ...
concept on a chalkboard: crime in school, school shooting, massacre ...

I was in school when I first heard about it. The librarian, who I helped once a week in the modest building at the center of school pulled me from the stacks. I remember her face, usually kind but reserved she looked terrified. I thought that something must have happened at our school. It was big enough that I was used to hearing about the many challenges my peers and I were faced with. As I put the collection of biographies I was holding down on the counter I could hear the sound of the TV on in the back room. We never had the TV on. The black box, seated on one of the inevitable rolling metal carts showed two rectangles, we know the kind. One had a woman news anchor, the other a shaky camera view, flying above another generic school, not mine. The irony was that it was a sunny day, and without the audio anyone might have thought that the caster was sweetly describing a school play, or an award winning initiative by a group of young people, just budding into adulthood. The sound was on however, and a flustered anchorwoman was spouting out broken pieces of information as it came to her. Some words stood out: students, high school... shooting. The bottom of the screen read "Shooting at Columbine High." And I remember in that moment my heart sank. The rest of the day is a blur. I distinctly remember the librarian's tears, and her desire to comfort me, tell me that I was safe, that it was ok. The following days at school carried threats of copycats from the alleged "Trench Coat Mafia." The poor outcast students, with their long black coats and makeup, were blamed for the violence, many of their peers accusing them of plotting the same things at our school. They were pushed, kicked, and beat up. Years later I saw grainy footage from inside Columbine as the two teenagers, like some sick video game, threw homemade pipe bombs, and walked around with confident stride, path delineated by their pointed guns. What intense pain, what incredible hurt, would cause two young people to collect and construct weapons, and instead of speaking with their voice, yell with their violent instruments?

I know pain too, but not like that. I can't imagine the need to take another's life in order to feel satisfied with your own.

Many years later while I traveled to Cleveland to spend another inspiring weekend serving Fairmount Temple, I read a news story on my phone that brought back those memories of the Columbine shooting. Another school shooting had occurred about a 30 minute drive from the front door of the synagogue. We spoke about it that weekend as a community, we mourned the death of friends and family, the senseless violence that was no longer unexpected in our world. The community had just organized that same month around issues relating to gun violence and to no avail. The shooting staring us in the face of our advocacy. We continued to work as a country and in our community against the violence, again with little success. The same year brought the Batman movie shooting in Colorado, and then Sandy Hook.

All of these terrible events took place years ago, in their following weeks and months as a society, a community and as individuals we have had the opportunity to make some sense of them. We will never fully understand what caused these violent acts but we've put our finger on bullying and gun control. We have reviewed our media and scolded ourselves for having a culture that glorifies guns, or an education system that reinforces racism and tolerates chauvinist behavior. In the moment however, how do we hold the pain that comes from the knowledge that a person, or a pair, would take up weapons in aggression against their peers? What do we do with the feelings that come from the knowledge that we have lost so many. How do we feel, for example, in a moment like right now, when we have our loss, but no reason?

We are left in the dark about the motivations behind the violence that took place in San Bernardino.

This week's shooting took place about three blocks from my grandmother's house. I've walked those streets countless times. I know the grooves in the sidewalk. I have been in shock this week as I learned more and more about the tragic events that took place there.

When my grandparents moved to the area, it was a brand new suburb of Los Angeles. Returning from World War Two young families moved to the area to start the Baby Boomer generation. I actually saw a picture of San Bernardino in a textbook once. I imagine this is what Norman Rockwell would paint if he did landscapes. A row of identical houses, young men in white undershirts and trousers pushing mowers over lawns almost as closely maintained as their matching crew cuts. Americana. My father grew up in this environment, brothers playing in the street and neighborhoods with fourth of July celebrations and party lines. But in later years the families moved out to other suburbs and San Bernardino, once the hot new city in the greater LA area, started to collect grime. Crime picked up as the city declined and gun violence has become a common occurrence in the area. Recently my grandmother moved down to San Diego to be near family and to get away from the violence.

There are so many different explanations for why these things happen. And they seem endemic to our fair country. Somewhere deep in our culture is the drive to attack one another, a civil war waged by a small and disjointed group of outcasts bent on expression through violence. For my part, I am pained. These things seem to happen without warning, without a cause or a result that would at all explain, let alone justify, their happening. To be sure, there will be a time to act on this. But now we are simply in mourning. As we take a moment aside to mourn our loss, another act of senseless violence, I hope that we can find comfort by coming together and saying that this is not the world we want to live in, and soon we will work on making it a better place, but for now we are gathering together, with torn hearts as we remember those we have lost.