Unpatriotic Teenage Shooting Victims Continue to Thwart the Constitutional Rights of Joe the Plumber
He's healthy, well-liked, and unassuming. The world doesn't know his name, but each day he draws closer to the opportunity, the exciting possibility of knowing the world. How many people does one meet in a lifetime? How many ways do they change and grow through one another? This morning, Valentine's Day, he walks into his high school carrying a brilliant bouquet of flowers for his girlfriend. He's athletic, smart, his adventurous and extraordinary destiny is not one he'll take for granted. And now, he's discovered a passion for writing; he's got talent, he has the knack. His favorite class is creative writing, He's there now, in that classroom on the third floor on this Valentine's Day, and when the fire alarm goes off, like everyone else he leaves his seat and steps into the crowded hall.
His signature photo has become an archived default, the front page of a legacy most of us will never know. It's where the impact is most visceral. His face is the strike of lightning that blasts the same place twice, three times, four, five; it's the boxer's upper cut that connects with your jaw. You turn around, glance back, another connection. But nothing in this world is immortal, no one is exempt from the laws of physics, gravity, diminishing returns. Now he's a supernova, he's coursing away at light speed, and he cannot halt and return home any more than we can reach, jump, secure our grip around his ankle and never let him go.
Joaquin Oliver is seventeen years old. He's a fusion of strength and serenity, standing snug and bundled in the foreground of a winter beach, a black skullcap concealing what may be the same shock of bleached hair as the day he would die. In this close-up his posture is obvious, powerful but relaxed, conjuring an uncomplicated stoicism that's upstaged and undermined by the extraordinary noise inside his eyes. You can't listen, you can only look closer though not with your eyes, and maybe you'd grasp the cosmos as through an observatory telescope, the traffic jams of planets, galaxy clusters giving chase, collision, and rebirth after rebirth; the upset of orbits, an impossible turbulence of color, all frozen in time, incorporated, and composed without a blur. Should you study the faces of the other sixteen victims enshrined at the memorial in Parkland, you'd see the same. Individualized and starkly contrasted, but the same as inside all of us.
Joaquin, a Venezuelan immigrant who came to this country with his family as a toddler, would have graduated from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas only a few months after that day at the beach.
A year earlier when he and his family finally became United States citizens. Joaquin wasted no time in exclaiming on Instagram:?"Mama, we made it!"
I stare until the cogs and wheels of my nervous system slump over, as limp as the machinery in a Salvador Dali nightmare. I stare like it's all an equation I lack the capacity to solve, yet everything hinges on the solution. I'm determined to scour for answers, for patterns and truths when there are none. All I see is a much loved young man who can't possibly know that within a matter of days his dreams and plans, his secrets, his volumes of stories and the quiet wildness in his eyes, will be obliterated.
And like those who've gone before him, Hadiya Pendleton, the 15 year-old honors student who performed with her high school band at President Obama's second inauguration; Danny Parmertor, a 16 year-old Ohio student whose brother said "would have changed the world;" 6 year-old Noah Pozner, one of twenty 1st graders gunned down in Newtown who, like Joaquin, will exist only as a finite photograph for the rest of his twin sister's life. In time the names pour like water from a sieve. I can't keep up. 21st Century America feels like an aberration, an alternate reality, a colossal, celestial house of horrors that one day the heavens will admit it was all a dumb, embarrassing joke, just like bringing us survivors to our knees in exasperated relief before shuttling us backwards into youth to relive our wonder years in a country with student loan forgiveness, gun laws as strict as those in Japan (ten people shot, mostly by police, throughout 2021, clearly a byproduct of violent video games), a shocking contrast to the 50,000 gun-related casualties in the United States, where lawmakers have made it easier to secure a gun, any gun, than to acquire sufficient and confidential treatment for miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies.
It's come to this. Our country is neatly and most likely permanently divided. As of this writing, the Parkland shooter was sentenced to life in prison. Alex Jones is dishing out his self-replenishing fortune to the Sandy Hook families he and his cult have been terrorizing for the past ten years, and instead of condemning last month's harrowing attack on Speaker Pelosi's husband by a hammer-wielding home intruder, her staunchest opponents regressed into Children of the Corn and celebrated the attack with disgusting conspiracy theories and tasteless mockery--in public, immortalized with pride.
It wasn't an unavoidable crash or a speeding meteor that brought us to this point. It was a pebble in the water, a ripple effect that mutated into a tsunami.
If he exists, God has clarified that he's neck-deep in bigger fish to fry.
You're glued to the 24/y news cycles--the grocery store in Buffalo, the tiny church in Sutherland Springs, the unthinkable redux in Uvalde. In more developed countries people might faint on the spot if someone with the most benign of intentions brought a gun into their home. No one is exempt. Whether it be church congregations mowed down by radicalized bigots or wedding guests perishing at the hands of an uninvited suicide bomber, the senselessness takes a heavy toll not just on our identity as a nation, but on our perception of reality itself, and worse, our reputation through the eyes of every country on earth.
Culture is not a static concept. It's both palpable and spiritual; it's another puzzle piece of existence. For tens of thousands of years, change and cultural assimilation, even at the expense of entire civilizations enslaved, forced to comply or die. The primitive United States was notorious for this destruction, the suppression and extermination of numerous cultures, It's in constant yet subtle flux, but we humans are remarkably skilled at adapting, particularly if our survival hinges upon it. Of course, a sizeable percentage will never make it that far.
During Hilary Clinton's 2016 campaign, many of my friends and family, as well as waiting room strangers, train passengers, checkout-line customers, and even hard rock lyrics--a diverse sampling of 21st Century Americans with whom I've spoken when not eavesdropping admitted to either temporary abstinence from all forms of news and social media or, on the understandable extreme, an unyielding and permanent renunciation from the miracle of unlimited data for the sake of their survival, their psychological and physical wholeness.
But fortitude of that caliber is anything but abundant among our species and eventually we cave to our curiosity, to our gluttony for undeserved punishment. Exhausted, we flop down and adapt to life inside a warzone. How many mornings have you opened your laptop, your phone, your tablet, the television that someone thought was ingenious to embed into your refrigerator, and you grimace and gag through your daily news sites until you see it. You weren't expecting it.
We've all seen it the front pages in the news kiosks, the blunt headlines on network news and once we have it's too late. You may have forgotten, but there to remind you is that disingenuously drab headline that sprouts verbatim almost everywhere exactly two days after only the most publicized incidents, the headline that blasts a cold shockwave down your spine, makes your insides feel a hundred pounds heavier and prompts your reasoning skills to call in sick.
It's over twenty years old. but that headline triggers a sickening paralysis in those who can't click, scroll, or distract themselves fast enough, as well as those who, like me, hover for a while, preparing, driven by the need to know, the need to see and thereby attempt to make sense of the senseless.
By now, I can't help but wonder if we've all become collectively, uncomfortably numb to that headline, its uninspired words, differing only in city and state, pushed to the bottom of the page like a Montenegro prime minister by the absurdity of Trump's latest Twitter tantrum.
"These are the victims of the _______ _______ shootings."
A few months ago, when I first started dabbling with YouTube clips of Glee, I came across the late Naya Rivera's tribute to Corey Monteith, a major cast member who had died of an overdose before the taping of the fifth season. After a rapid, irreverent introduction, she stood before her fellow cast members and began singing "If I Die Young," a song that was new to me. Its lyrics invoke implications of not only consciousness beyond death, but of a worldly afterlife, a theory that in my Catholic school youth I'd have never questioned.
It's a heart-crusher of a song and a scene, addressing an impenetrable mystery, a code I cannot crack. What does it mean to die young for any reason? We take the future for granted, sometimes we're resentful, dreading everything. But what if your pulse, your breath, your plans, all the love that stabs at your heart were suddenly annihilated, forever?
What can we glean, if anything, from death that will help demystify the mystery of life?
The morning after the shootings in Parkland I was sitting in one of a long line of swivel chairs facing the wall-to-wall mirror inside a generic mass-market men's barber shop, a place best described by a word that eludes me the harder I hunt it down, but essentially it's the opposite of "metro-sexual."
On the television attached to the wall in the upper corner, news crews and anchors and experts were covering the shootings rather than Trump's daily bitch-fit. As expected, someone in the shop launched into their best Ann Coulter/ bayou backwoods impression, one that I'm certain was never rehearsed. Lucky day: it was the old man to my left. As frustrated as a first grader forced to finish an SAT test, he huffed and mumbled while the unamused stylist retreated to her safe place while mechanically clipping the remains of his white hair. "Crazy!" he said, fidgeting in his seat, fumbling for a foundation.. "Guns ain't never killed nobody! You cain't… like… arrgh."
Quite the doctor of rhetoric, he was casting his reel over the side of the boat hoping anything would bite, an argument or an agreement, an engagement of any kind no matter how inarticulate his grumblings of indignation. I could care less where he came from or why the violent loss of seventeen lives didn't bother him in the least. I simply basked in his frustration at being ignored.
But the reality he kept smothered beneath multiple layers of excuses spoke for itself. This man was afraid. Not of becoming a victim, but afraid that after this massacre, as has been the case after every gun massacre, a mysterious deployment of ghosts, maybe, or a super-secret SWAT team composed of genetically modified talking cats, someone, anyone, would be knocking on his door later that day to seize all of his guns and firearm paraphernalia.
And the only fear more disabling? The fear that it would never happen.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Emma Gonzalez, as well as her classmates who'd narrowly survived the violence, became the heroes, the voices of righteous and unswerving dissent to an exhausted, hopeless country that in the past, even after the shootings at Newtown, the Pulse nightclub, and other schools, mosques, temples, and churches from Texas to New Zealand, could do nothing but pray, and even that proved useless once the world saw this latest handful of student activists gathered around the oval office in front of the former President, a stable genius who made no show of concealing the "How to be Human" crib notes drafted just minutes earlier by a harried underling.
And the moneyed, hellbound ghouls of the NRA threw up their hands, licked clean of blood, and in true Pavlovian fashion attacked their critics and anyone else who dared threaten their heaping coffers, even a group of teenagers who'd narrowly dodged a barrage of bullets in their own school while watching people they'd known for years, if not most of their lives, fall indiscriminately all around them.
Shortly afterwards that handful of survivors multiplied into the tens of thousands of students who graduated overnight into demonstrators, protesters who walked out of their schools despite authoritative repercussions. Emma organized the March for our Lives protest where, upon taking the podium, she closed her eyes and stood in silence, as did the rest of the sweeping crowd, for over six minutes, the duration of the shooting spree at Marjorie Stone Douglas.
If I could afford to rent a reliable time machine, I'd love to be part of that moment. I was so proud of them. And now, after this summer's "sweeping bipartisan gun reform bill," maybe the continued accessibility of assault rifles was tantamount for all of us to smashing into a brick wall at 200mph.
How righteous and merciful would our world be if we could legally kidnap, tar, and feather those bastards from the annals of recent history who've thwarted all preventative gun violence legislation in a scheme to further enrich themselves to such preposterous heights as to inspire comic relief to anyone who can't see, in broad shameless daylight, that they're damned, soaked in the blood and brain matter of tens of thousands of Americans who essentially died for that express purpose, to sustain the luxurious lifestyles of a handful of people whose names we'll never know, who'll never feel an inkling of remorse whether or not the general public, so easily distracted, manage to connect the dots.
Children are literally being shredded because of their pocket-lining policies. Black men are shot to death in the back or in department stores or park benches while these imbeciles emerge onstage to thunderous cheers and applause at conservative conventions for the rifle they hold above their heads en route to the podium, and anyone who objects or protests such injustice is immediately labeled a terrorist.
But we know all about them, how they won't listen, they won't change. We're assured by our journalists and bloggers and maybe a few congressional leaders that history will condemn them by way of Matthew Hopkins or Cotton Mather and that there will come a time, assuming the human race survives to produce future generations, when every school kid will groan, boo, or hiss at the sound of their names.
Utter bullshit. Nobody will remember their names, assuming this planet will still accommodate lifeforms that remember anything.
It's not a crisis that's unique to America. Ordinary citizens, especially in Central America, are trapped, terrorized, and quite often gunned down should word of an insurgent reach the acting authoritarian dictator, who won't hesitate to order the entire family of a single dissenter executed. Someone lecture the good pastor about that.
So parents, after weighing the odds, decide that a sweltering cross-country trek by any means necessary is safer than staying at home, because no matter what these terrified children find once their stowaway train grinds to a stop across Mexico's northern border, nothing could be worse than the death and rubble of their homeland.
The United States is their only hope. And Donald Trump, after an illustrated crayon briefing prepared by his Legion of Doom from their headquarters beneath the muck of an un-drained swamp, not only sabotaged that hope but turned it into a nightmare.
But somewhere, possibly in Two-Corinthians, it is written: "Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me." Delighted, the Trump administration and its task force dismissed the second half of that verse and built concentration camps and enforced policies that knowingly, forcefully, and shamelessly separated hundreds of children from their parents, some permanently.
"Bad hombres," our former President Spanglish'd at us. Meanwhile, his supporters desecrated Jewish cemeteries, pissed on homeless people, and murdered their civilian political enemies by plowing their cars into crowds of protesters.
A few years ago, when the violence and destruction of Aleppo was making international news, one publication ran a chilling, illustrated piece covering one by one the stories of five Syrian children who sustained fatal injuries from bombs, shrapnel, or poisonous gas while inside their own homes with their families. The first photograph showed a team of doctors surrounding a bloody, unconscious toddler, and that was all I could take. I signed off, veered away from that site like a car swerving to avoid a moose, or in my case, a gaping black hole of guilt.
Guilt for backtracking, rewinding, hoping to record over that sickening image. Guilt over my cowardice, for fretting over my shattered comfort zone. And of course survivor's guilt of American privilege. Looking at those photographs sparks a chemical reaction, that same equation that's impossible to solve, probably because there's no answer.
But each time that blunt and tiresome headline surfaces amidst each aftermath, my resistance clicks on, as does, in my own way, the need to approach the casket and peer inside. Strangely enough, after the Pulse nightclub shootings my research into the identities of the victims was aggressive and spontaneous, its immediacy attributable-- I'm guessing-- to my being a gay man, and I mourned, paced in frustration, concentrating on what they must have been thinking: "Why me? What did I do?"
My cursor hovers over the headline like an airplane circling in search of a parking space. My resistance, under the guise of good sense, suggests I do some pull-ups, maybe catch up on my digital comics subscriptions. I ask myself, my bad but common sense, what the hell I expect to glean from this. I have to prepare, to make sure; already I'm trembling. When it's time I just go for it, wishing instantly that I hadn't.
Within seconds I'm face to face Joaquin Oliver for the first time.
Believe what you will believe.
I don't know what to believe.
And should we disagree, we've amassed enough evidence in social sciences these past few years to at least walk away with a few ounces of common ground, which doesn't amount to a hill of baked beans if one party lapses into the convenience of psychotic denial. For years, they've believed with all the passion of a religious fanatic that no, it's a not a sleazy NRA slush fund scam, the government really is coming for everyone's guns. Oh, what the... "HOT DAMN the black guy's gone. Now there ain't nothin' in Washington except old greedy white slobs and young greedy white bimbos. My guns are safe!"
Immediately, though temporarily, the NRA started hemorrhaging cash.
Once, I was a believer.
But inevitably, hard arctic logic crashed like a fallen tree in the middle of my road to Mass, and now I can do nothing but marvel at the horror, the unapologetic unfairness coursing like dark matter through the human experience. If this consciousness and this world are all we have, there's no greater abomination than robbing someone of their life, thus robbing others of the chance to say goodbye and still others the opportunity. Like all of us, the odds of Joaquin ever entering existence in the first place were one in 400 quadrillion.
And that infuriates me more than anything. The atrocity of an eager young life exterminated and left to die where it fell. There's nothing I can write about him, or Cassie, Rachel, or Trayvon or Danny or anyone that will do them justice; the best I've got is that this did not have to happen. They did not have to fund Joe the Plumber's pathetic weakling firearms fetish with their lives, nor did their friends, families, and those victims who survived, all of whom will suffer trauma and loss for the rest of their days.
I'm too overwhelmed to keep up.
Every day promises a new disaster; I'm down to only a single spark of hope that at some point, somehow, things will change. and stubbornly I try to ride the waves backward, following lead after lead until I've cracked the code, infiltrated Ground Zero, heard the buzz of the light bulb above my head surging to life as it solves every puzzle, disentangles every illogical knot, defeats the darkness so that at last, everything makes sense.
Don't tell me it can never happen. I'm more than aware of it--like that's going to stop me.
But there's one thing I found that I still keep, that shatters the barricades of my cynicism and hopelessness, reminding me that my responsibility isn't to grieve over or dwell upon the world's brutality but rather, for the time being, to know where I stand and who I'll stand up for. And what I found is a photograph from an article I came across about two years ago, one that I bring up when I lose perspective, when misanthropy sweeps like a disease through my good sense, swift on convincing me that it is my better sense.
The Syrian refugees photographed here have survived a dangerous, horrifying journey and, miraculously, have landed on the island of Lesbos where they are welcomed, even physically lifted onto steady ground by Greek military and volunteers.
"It's over," the boy is thinking. Although they'll face plenty of new hardships upon setting foot on land, this moment captures the end of by the longest but hardly the cruelest trauma they've survived. They've lost their homes, their friends and family, their possessions and their identities everything except each other. A kaleidoscope of a hundred congested emotions converges through the boy's tears; that they are hated, that people they've never met want them dead for reasons that have nothing to do with anything they've done, how could the probability of death not proven welcoming? He can't believe they survived, that, although they were left with nothing, hope prevailed. It's over. It's just beginning.
"We're safe," his disbelief veering into shock. "It's over. We made it."
Joachin Oliver, 17
Seth Cason is writing from the peninsular edge of Avoyelles Parish, the northwesternmost tip of Cajun country, AKA Acadiana, AKA Cenla, in his eclectic home state of Louisiana, an area steeped in rich literary culture and 24/7 liquor sales. The frustrations and hopelessness triggered by gun violence and its backlash against all opposition are an embarrassing American legacy, one that can never be dismissed, ignored, or prayed away. In between rants, his poetry has been published recently in The Connecticut River Review, and not so recently in defunct journals such as Nidus, Lucid Moon, and Red Owl Magazine. Amazingly, he was taught high school Trig and Algebra II by an actual Yellow Baboon.