Even before the 9/11 anniversary came around, these many years later I’ve found it all the more difficult to comprehend the hatred leading up to such violence. Terrorists had a mission back then, a global message, but in recent months, in recent weeks, it’s the mindless violence that has left me at a loss for words. Like countless others, am I becoming numb to the rage, the inner turmoil behind these vicious acts that have claimed innocent lives at a Las Vegas concert venue, a Manhattan bike path, a Texas church during Sunday services or a California madman’s dash to inflict pain and suffering on others greater than his own demons and self hatred?
On Election Day earlier this month, I volunteer to serve as a poll worker in my own community. All those years as a working journalist, my own opinions needed to be suppressed and kept to myself – a good journalist must weigh and present the facts, not one’s own opinion – yet now as a writer I’ve the luxury of speaking my mind. As a poll worker (I was the fellow who lead you to the polling booth, accepted your paper pass and processed your vote after you cast it) the post allowed me to take part in the election process and play a small role in making a difference.
Assigned to a nearby Methodist Church, I arrived at 5 a.m. to ready the voting booths and polling station for a 6 a.m. opening. I met my fellow volunteers and we immediately became a genial team with one purpose. Our polling station was the vast church community room which could also double as a gymnasium or reception hall.
Without thinking as I carried out my duties, my eye went immediately to the hall’s main entrance. My mind registered a second entrance, mid-room, leading to church offices, a kitchen, a conference room and the church itself. My polling station was on the far side of the hall, the farthest away from the main entrance. Behind us was another unmarked doorway leading to an outdoor emergency generator.
Consciously or not and knowing we would have a large voter turnout all day and into the night due to a heated local election, my thoughts went to going on the defensive.
What if someone strolled in and and opened up with an automatic weapon easily hidden beneath a coat? From where I stood, I paced the distance to the main entrance. Two hundred and twelve steps. I reasoned I could rush the shooter running at full bore in just under four seconds. Tackle the assailant? If it was a full magazine and he/she were spraying the room, I’d never make it half way. The emergency exit behind me, I reasoned that I could slip out, circle the building in a running crouch and come up behind an assailant and take him down. Unless, of course, there was more than one. The time to rush such a shooter, my instincts told me, was that awful moment when he’d emptied a clip, ejected the magazine and fumbled to insert another. But what if there was no fumbling? What if this was a practiced and concise individual intent and skilled for mayhem. Seconds would matter little. A dash to disarm an assailant would mean a straight line and a football tackle if I wasn’t struck down first. In the shock of it all, would I react or freeze in place and await my fate like scores of others rigid in fear? Would chaos and screaming and those falling around me thwart any attempt to save others?
I’m certainly no hero and I like to think that my first reaction would be to help others and not dive for cover. Fight or flight? We all live with the notion that we will never know the answer to that until put to the test.
And in the midst of these thoughts, my mind went to my wife, an elementary school art teacher, whose routine in recent years has been to practice not just fire drills on a monthly basis but now active shooter drills and sheltering in place.
Dear God, has it all really just come down to this?
Lost in such thoughts that election day not so long ago, I remember a hand resting on my arm and the muted voice of another volunteer breaking me free of my anxious daydream.
“Hey, you okay?”
“Yes, I suppose I am.”
“We’re about ready to open the polls. You ready?”
“Yes, I’m ready. I guess I’m ready for anything.”