Friday, April 03, 2009

It's always somewhere else, it's always someone else...

This is the kind of thing which, most of us think, always happens someplace else. Today, it happened right here.

This morning, a gunman wielding a high-powered rifle invaded the American Civic Association building on Front Street in Binghamton, NY. He shot several people and took dozens of others hostage before finally turning his weapon on himself. 12 hostages were killed in the attack. Follow the hyperlink above for a more detailed account of the attack. The American Civic Association, where the attack took place, was the place which held a festival each year featuring the music, dance, theater and last but not least, food of many nations. My parents would take my siblings and I there each year. It was an unpretentious place staffed by friendly and often unassuming people. Never did I ever suspect that it could become the scene of a massacre.

Nut-jobs with weapons attacking innocent people for no apparent reason is unfortunately nothing new. I was a kid when I heard radio news coverage of Charles Whitman’s August, 1966 shooting spree from the University of Texas tower. He sniped randomly at passers-by and at police for over 90 minutes before being killed himself. This attack is celebrated in song by Kinky Friedman in The Ballad of Charles Whitman. Now, by this time in my life I’d seen and heard reports of violent crimes on the radio and on the evening news. I’d heard on the news about murders being committed for profit, to silence potential trial witnesses or as revenge. My grade-school-kid mind could not fathom why anyone would kill strangers, one after the other, whom he’d never met and who had certainly never done him any harm.

Some of you may also remember the infamous 1984 San Ysidro Massacre, sometimes jocularly referred to by the locals as the “Big Mac Attack”, in which James Oliver Huberty dressed up in combat fatigues, drove to a local fast-food restaurant and killed several people before being killed himself by police sharpshooters. And I’m sure you’ve heard by now about the gunman who shot up a Unitarian Church in Kentucky on July 27th of last year as the children of church members were staging a performance of the play, Annie.

The block of Front Street on which today’s attack took place has had a colorful history. A 19th-century Gothic home on its eastern side was washed away in the flood of 1935. A local amateur photographer snapped a picture of the house just as it heaved over backwards into the swollen Chenango River. In the 1990's, a family-planning clinic on that block which provided abortions was the scene of constant, theatrical demonstrations by the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, who very thoughtfully opened up a “crisis pregnancy center” across the street. Downtown Binghamton has had its share of entertainment too. As former Binghamton resident and cultural visionary R.U. Sirius wrote in a discussion on the WELL:
“...I had a friend who took over the local Nixon [presidential re-election campaign] headquarters in the name of the Zippies (Yippies with an extra zip) with an unloaded BB gun on Halloween in 1972. It was a scene straight out of Rebel Without A Cause. The cops were ready to shoot up the place when another friend of mine stepped up and coaxed him out of the building”.

Not all the details of this random act of violence are available yet.Whatever was going on in the gunman’s mind shortly before he started killing people at random, we can only guess. A friend’s therapist had one of the victims as a patient, and naturally, she was pretty torn up about this. I've been alternating between numbness and disbelief all day today. Now this whole thing’s just beginning to sink into my head. I wonder if I’m going to be able to sleep tonight.

My heart goes out to the families and friends of the attacker’s victims.