Last week, when all hell broke loose in a Tucson, Ariz., parking lot, I was attending a writer’s workshop. The instructor challenged us to write an essay beginning with the phrase: “I’ve never understood why . . .”
Normally, my writer’s block kicks into overdrive when faced with contrived topics, but the Tucson events easily cued me to write about a similar event 22 years ago this week.
I’ve never understood why we aren’t doing more to stop these tragedies. If you were there with me in the Stockton, Calif., schoolyard after Patrick Purdey released a hail of bullets that injured 29 and killed five Asian children between 6 and 8 years old, you, too, might say, “I don’t understand.”
If you shared tears, as I did, with the school’s principal who caressed the pale faces of dying children, you, too, would say, “I don’t understand.”
If you stared into the eyes of the Cambodian mother and her 11-year-old son as she repeated, “No understand. No understand,” you’d wonder as I did: How can I make her understand the unimaginable?
So, I showed her a list of names and pointed to her daughter’s name. I pursed my lips to hold back my own tears and shook my head sadly.
The woman immediately understood. “Sh-di?” she said. Our eyes collided with a pained look of confusion. I did not understand her.
“Sh-di?” she repeated.
This time I understood. She was asking if her daughter had died.
“Yes,” I said, looking into her stoic face. “She died. I’m so sorry. She die.”
She looked at her English-speaking son in search of a second opinion and he gave a confirming nod.
She did not cry. Neither one of them moved. But suddenly, in something that I can only describe as “emotional ventriloquism,” her grief was transmitted into her son’s eyes and a small tear traced a path along his frozen face. Inside he was surely saying, “I don’t understand.”
How could I make them understand that, despite their escape from the killing fields of Southeast Asia, their children could be mowed down like wheat in a field within the boundaries of a country that had begged them to come.
If you had been in that room with us, and in my bedroom for the next year as I lie awake nursing those horrendous images, you, too, would shake in anguish saying, “I don’t understand.”
So as I watched the news coming from Tucson, I kept saying, “I don’t understand.” And I still don’t.
I don’t understand why we aren’t taking better care of the mentally ill. I don’t understand why news media talking heads from both sides of the political debate continue to fuel the fire with hateful rhetoric.
But most of all, from my perspective, I don’t understand why the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, passed a few years after Cleveland Elementary, was allowed to expire on Sept. 13, 2004. I will never understand the opposition to common sense things like a national waiting period to buy guns or better background checks.
I think we all understand, however, the universal teaching, “Thou shalt not kill.”
And when we entertain hateful rhetoric, stifle health care for the mentally ill and fail to responsibly regulate guns, we share complicity in these killings.
I suppose I should steel myself for the onslaught of e-mail from people who will urge me, as people often do when they disagree with me, to stay out of politics and stick with religion.
And to those folks, I pre-emptively declare: There is no more important religious issue than life. I choose life.