The news started coming out of Ft. Lauderdale around mid-afternoon on Friday, as I was preparing a different blog entirely:
I imagine that all of us who happened to see the first news-breaks instantly pared the possibilities to two: Terrorist shooter. Or psychotic shooter. Those of us who weren’t tied up in actual useful work stopped what we were doing and started clicking around the news sites on the Internet. At least five dead, several more wounded. The shooting occurred in the airport baggage claim area.
The airport baggage claim area?!
The updates trickled in. We learned that the shooter had been “taken into custody.” (A rare outcome: normally—as it were—the shooter “ends the spree by taking his own life,” or else is “brought down by a policeman’s bullet.” These industrialized phrases have become as familiar to us as our own names.) Yet in this case, a twist: not so much “taken into custody” as gone limp on the terminal floor, face down, waiting to be hauled upright and carted away.
Probably not a terrorist, then. Yet we waited for further facts and factoids to appear and be confirmed, as we have been trained to do. As many of have been trained to do. Some of us.
Waited, until we decided it was safe to—what?
On the TV screen behind the computer, the factoids crept in their steady pace: “’He just started shooting people.’” “Suspect clad in Star Wars T-shirt.” “Mass chaos.” The regulation sheriff, his regulation civilized dark necktie knotted in place, stepped to the regulation microphone and spoke of “this cowardly, heinous act.”
Somewhat later we learned that “officials” had identified the “suspect” as “26-year-old Esteban Santiago.” And that 26-year-old Esteban Santiago was a “troubled Army veteran.” He had served a tour in Iraq.
Another update revealed to us that after 26-year-old Esteban Santiago’s flight had landed at Ft. Lauderdale, he had simply withdrawn his weapon, a semiautomatic handgun, from his claimed luggage begun killing and maiming people standing near him. (He had discreetly withdrawn the weapon in the men’s restroom.) We learned—or we were reminded, in the case of those of us who had managed to squeeze it out of our memories for the sake of restful nights—the explanation for the baggage claim area as the site of the shootings: under current aviation security rules, passengers may carry loaded guns in their luggage as long as they declare the fact to “authorities.”
We learned that 26-year-old Esteban Santiago had dutifully made that declaration, so there should have been no problem.
We did not learn that an armed Good Guy With a Gun stepped up to shoot this Bad Guy With a Gun. Perhaps this did not happen.
We learned that in states that boast “open-carry” and “concealed-carry” permission laws, states such as Florida, people may enter “unsecured” sections of airports with their open or concealed “carries,” fully equipped to draw and shoot.
At about the same time, we learned—this time from a “senior law enforcement official” quoted in the New York Times—that 26-year-old Esteban Santiago had entered an FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska several weeks ago and made “disturbing remarks” that prompted “officials” to “urge him to seek mental health care. One “official” disclosed that “Mr. Santiago, appearing ‘agitated and incoherent,’ said “that his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency,”
A brother of the shooter reported that he had hallucinated, and had reported hearing voices. The brother remarked that Santiago had been discharged from the National Guard after being demoted for “unsatisfactory service” and had asked for psychological help, “but received little assistance.” The brother asked, “How is it possible that the federal government knows, they hospitalize him for four days, and then give him his weapon back?”
No one seemed to have an answer.
The updates carried on into the evening; the facts and the factoids crept along, and the “officials” popped up and disgorged their industrialized sound-bites, and disappeared. Some of the “officials” were “senior.” All of them dazzled with their acute inductive reasoning. An FBI agent disclosed to the press, “Indications are that he came here to carry out this horrific attack.”
This same expert continued, presumably with a straight face: “We have not identified any triggers that would have caused this attack.”
Our topmost elected “officials” and officials-manque were on the case. Florida governor Rick Scott hurried to Ft. Lauderdale—to the executive airport—where he wondered how this thing could have happened in such a state as his Florida. The governor sternly warned that “the citizens of Florida will not tolerate senseless acts of evil.” Someone asked the governor whether this meant perhaps that the citizens would demand, and the government would provide, a rollback on the law permitting guns in airports.
The question affronted Scott’s sensibilities. How inappropriate! How insensitive to sully this moment of grieving with politics!
The New York Times later reported: “The shooting came as Florida lawmakers were preparing to consider legislation that would relax [emphasis mine] prohibitions on firearms. State laws allow for the purchase of rifles, handguns and shotguns without a permit, though a license is required to carry a concealed weapon in the state.”
The governor, perhaps seeking to further quell anxiety, reported that he had been in close touch with custodians of higher authority:
“I have reached out to President-elect Trump, and spoken to him and to Vice President-elect (Mike) Pence multiple times to keep them informed, and they told me whatever resources that we need from the federal government, they would do everything in their power to make that happen.”
By Saturday afternoon (as I write this) the nonsense had curdled, as it always does by the second or third day of such stories. Curdled into stale righteous partisan argument over where to place “the blame”: Terrorism? Psychosis? Guns? Traumatized veterans?
All potential for redemptive action had dissipated, once again. The usual “official” posturing and the nonspeak of the usual “authorities” laid bare, as they always do, a few precious revelations of unintended truth. We ache to know “the truth” of what touched off the Ft. Lauderdale airport shooting, as we ache for the truth every time something like this happens. Terrorism? Psychosis? Our citizen arsenal of three hundred million guns? Which of these stands out as the first cause, the prime mover, of the ongoing nightmare that rides on our sleep?
I have come to believe that even to ask this question is tantamount to burying the answer. Each component in this triad has its body of impassioned accusers, and each body of accusers tends to dismiss the other two as trivial or false.
I believe that these “discrete” elements of our national humanitarian crisis are not discrete at all; they are mutually reinforcing elements of a diseased whole, and they cry out to be addressed—healed—holistically. And with reason, rather than partisan defiance.
No one need take me aside and explain quietly what an absurd pipe-dream this sounds like; what a useless appeal to “kumbya” mush. But I don’t intend altruism here; I intend to promote survival, as individuals and as a society.
We can begin collectively to address terrorism, untreated mental illness, and the obscene availability of demonic firearms.
Or we can reconcile ourselves to a baleful updating of John Donne’s holistic call: “Never send to know for whom the ‘official’ pretends to mourn. He pretends to mourn for thee.”