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Caseythoughts I spent a fascinating and difficult morning last week at the Schuyler County Human Services Building in Watkins Glen. I don't get to that corner of the woods often, and it was truly a glorious, sunny morning with welcome temperatures and the always fascinating, glistening tiny waterfalls almost touching the roadside, frozen in the early February morning.

The destination, though, was much more somber, dark and serious. I had been invited to a workshop entitled 'Active Shooter Defense' and it was facilitated by a Schuyler County officer with over twenty years of law enforcement experience and another two decades in the military; an Afghanistan vet, a Glock pistol on his hip to accompany his badge, it was a no-nonsense three hours. And, deeply disturbing.

The workshop had been organized by a local pastor, and the participants were, for the most part, clergy and laity of various churches in our area. Its genesis was obvious: the Texas and South Carolina church shootings have scared the be-Jesus out of many, many church-goers. What else could prompt otherwise sanguine and optimistic church members and clergy to question whether metal detectors would be effective at the door of their church? Or, even more stunning, wondering whether concealed carry of a weapon was a Christian option?

Coffee, apple juice, cinnamon buns, cookies... just like any other morning gathering in a social services environment, right? Of course, we had to enter through a metal detector at the front door, and at the moment I passed through that gateway I suddenly remembered the horrible incident in Watkins Glen where a shooter had gunned down social services clients and workers there in the Glen, in a different building not so long ago... an element of nightmare reality that put us into a context that I had not expected: a town that had experienced the horror had now to explain how to survive what has become every small town's nightmare in America. Watkins Glen has been there, done that, and wanted to teach us how to remain sane, and alive, in an insane and deadly potential situation.

The workshop began with an aerial view of an unknown school, emergency vehicles parked on the grass, and a line of students against one wall, their arms apparently raised; it was Columbine High School. The presenter could not get the audio started ( later corrected), and to be honest I am glad we never heard what he eventually described to us: it was the 9-1-1 call from the school library, with gunshots and screaming in the background. The person calling 9-1-1 was too frozen in fear to get up and lock the library door, which resulted in a number of deaths. Even the presenter's description without audio sent chills down my spine and my partner put her hand on my shoulder; she has a 'spidey-sense' about my reaction to situations of this nature resulting from my own past experience in VietNam, and reacts with supportive gestures in empathy, calming me even in my denial that "I'm OK."

From the Columbine disaster, we traveled by video to several other sites of trauma and death at the hands of mass shooters across the country and we began to see a pattern of where these events occur, and a pattern of human behaviors which accompany these events. And, yes, the occurrences are rising rapidly in number, as we have all suspected.

The most important thing that first struck us was that these events are happening with much more frequency, especially in certain areas of the country, at least since 2000. Also, that 'places of commerce', in other words, stores and workplaces, were becoming almost commonplace as venues of these destructive acts. Yes, the horrors of school and church shootings also were noted, but the definition of a mass shooting (four or more dead) are occurring with mind numbing frequency in the workplace.

But our presenter also looked at issues surrounding our human reactions during the shooting, and how many people apparently freeze in fear, unable to act in their own or others' defense- not actually engaging the shooter, but protection and self preservation actions. Our fight or flight mechanisms are actually detrimental, and frequently deadly. He emphasized having a "plan", to be on the mental defensive, and how to act and move out of the "freeze" or fear mode into a way to protect ourselves and others in these situations.

I'm writing this in a state of perplexity, for I found myself asking the presenter if he favored concealed carry laws. I realize now that I was in the same rocking boat as the rest of the room, the rest of the country, as well. That rocking, tossing boat of helplessness that only seemed to focus on a gun for defense.

Here I am, in a room of clergy and devoted lay people wanting to be told by an experienced, competent man with a badge and a gun in plain view that if we did "A, B, or C" that everything would be all right. When we know that quite possibly everything would NOT be all right. That, on any given day (400 mass shooting incidents last year nationwide) we could become a headline. Like Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, or Watkins Glen. Not to even mention the home grown terrorism of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City. I asked the presenter "What's gone wrong? As a cop, have you an opinion on what's gone horribly wrong?"

Well, he gave me a stock answer about 'kids today' (yes, most shooters are younger than thirty, but not exclusively) and society's loss of values, but, hey, I heard the same laments in the sixties (remember Kittie Genovese and the phrase "We didn't want to get involved" while she was stabbed in full view of many NY residents?) and, somehow, the only thing that's changed is the level of violence. And, the number of events which may or may not make it to the 24 hour news cycle, then quickly fade from the news.

I'm thinking more and more about the daily violence that almost seems like background, like a television with the volume turned down to minimum, like background noise; daily shootings of one or two victims, mostly kids, in cities across the country. Thousands of them last year, and every year, that get a small blip of a local headline, then tear laden funeral after funeral after funeral, the visible signs of a civil war in America's cities, mainly black and brown neighborhoods, but these daily tragedies of gun violence are merely background noise to the so-called news of political bomb throwing and blame, while America's minority children die in droves, but in ones and twos, ignored by the nation and only known by their grieving families and neighborhoods and schoolmates. No mass shootings, no headlines: just a slow bloodletting of epic proportions slowly draining our cities, and so many towns across the country of its young, its hope, its treasure. And without headlines, the country continues to think there is a political solution to this civil war. Politics will not come to grips, nor answer, this mass tragedy, in my opinion. A moral crisis needs a moral solution, so elusive as many other solutions, but so destructive to our fiber as a country, as a community wringing its collective hands.

I couldn't help noticing that so many instances of these mass shooting events that were shown in the workshop were mainly white, and male perpetrators, as well as white victims, though of course not exclusively. But so much more of the gun violence in America goes on out of sight of what must be called middle class America, while not so far away from our homes and schools, our churches. It's because I think hope has been replaced with fear in so many city neighborhoods (for years, and years and years, stretching back to pre-World War II, I would think), and fear knows no boundaries.

I think we are beginning to suspect that it is not guns, nor the useless debate about gun laws, that is driving us into this fearful quandary: it is a deeper question about who we are, what we fear, and what we believe and hope, what governs us, ultimately, and where are these fears headed if we let them drive out hope.

Remember when Ebeneezer Scrooge was in the graveyard, accompanied by the ghost of Christmas to come?? He was on his knees and asked the timeless question: "Is this what might be, or what must be?"

If the Dickens character was to look at our declining and violent society, and the feeling of fear that pervades so many communities, as he watched the profusion of Mylar balloons, teddy bears and flowers at the multiplying sites of gun violence, would he turn and ask that question of us? And, what can we do as individuals and members of a threatened community, as we are all threatened, make no mistake of this. The boundaries of violence are ever growing, not to be stopped by city lines, fences, walls, or laws.

Shall we merely find ways to protect ourselves, or can we do something more to recognize this beast of hatred, mental dis-health, violence, to overcome the tendency to ignore, minimize, or expect political answers from those in power who seem as clueless as we seem to be? Can we do something positive to somehow prove that we are more than victims?? Can we, somehow, make a difference in one life at a time, reaching out to fellow travelers, and nudge our world in a more hopeful direction? To define our world somehow more hopefully, while searching for deeper moral values? Clues to our humanity, and a spirituality that can be defined outside of politics, headlines, and tragedy.

I haven't an answer beyond my own searching. But I'm listening. It's a start. How about you?

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