Manhattan Project #40 Desperation creeps in

(in this 40th episode of The Manhattan Project, Berman’s reports from Afghanistan win him awards, the economy tanks, Jed serves up food in a homeless shelter and ponders the violent reaction to financial hard times)

Fred called it pretty much as it happened. The series went over great; we actually won the November book for the first time in the station’s history. And I started getting invitations from veteran’s groups and service clubs all over the place, who wanted me to come tell my story.

Most of them also presented me with a special certificate of commendation for doing my duty on the battlefield. I wasn’t very excited about going to all of those places, but I knew, if I wanted to keep my job, I really had no choice. And they were all nice people, good decent Americans, who dearly loved their country. Of course, in my twisted mind, I couldn’t help thinking they only felt that way because they’d been taught to, and never bothered to question it. I envied them that, as I used to sometimes envy the religious fundamentalists I’d been around in school. There’s something very attractive about the peace of mind those people have. For them, the big questions have been answered. They can get on with whatever it is they want to do. Obviously, that has never been the case with me.

The normal routine took hold after a while, and I tried to put my great quest to understand on a back burner someplace. The whole experience in Afghanistan left me rattled and uncertain about the violence thing, human nature, and especially myself.

I thought about looking for Doris, who always seemed to be a couple steps ahead of me on those things, but I wasn’t sure if he’d gotten out of the county jail yet. And even if he had, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to be seen consorting with an ex-con, in Old Town or anywhere else. Of course, I felt guilty having that thought, after telling him straight out that I had nothing against grass or the people who smoked it. And even if he was out, part of me didn’t have the energy to get back into our long-running conversation. So, I just tried to push the whole thing out of my mind. But events in the news around that time didn’t make that easy to do.

The economy was tanking, taking with it millions of jobs nationwide and thousands in Maine, creating a growing population of desperate people, families so far down on their luck they didn’t know what to do. The Bangor Homeless Shelter, a busy place under good conditions, was packed to the rafters every night with those who had bottomed out. Jane volunteered herself and me to serve meals there from time to time, and it was a painful thing to do. Serving up lasagna or whatever and handing it to people who had been living lives just like mine until they lost their jobs and their homes made me feel awful.

They were always polite and grateful as they took the plate from you and waited patiently while you asked them if they wanted bread with it. But it was hard to look in their eyes. We always tried to be as respectful of them as we could, but you still saw the hurt in those eyes, maybe a little humiliation, too, that they had been reduced to handouts to survive.

It was around that time that the shootings started. Usually fathers but not always, mostly men, crazy out of their minds, completely undone by the helplessness they felt. A Vietnamese immigrant walked into the American Civic Association building in Binghamton, New York and squeezed off ninety-eight rounds in less than two minutes, killing thirteen other immigrants before he offed himself. A sound bite from police in the story we ran in the late show said the man was in torment over losing his job at a vacuum cleaner plant, and felt disrespected because his English was poor. We had another story about a guy in Pittsburgh—police said he was really upset over getting fired—who wounded three cops when they came to his house on a domestic disturbance call. When somebody ran the deadly numbers, they came up with forty-four people shot to death in five separate incidents in a month. We quoted experts who reminded everybody that mass murders happening in a bunch wasn’t new and increasing violence against immigrants wasn’t surprising as the jobless numbers rose.

It got bad enough that I almost hated to turn on the radio or read the paper in the morning. You couldn’t help thinking about all the families destroyed by the violent acts of their loved one. Of course, we ran follow-up stories rehashing the old gun control-Second Amendment arguments, revisiting the old question of whether those things could have been prevented if people had less access to guns. I didn’t bring it up with anybody in the newsroom, but the question in my mind was why those tormented souls chose violence—killing—as a response to the dire straits they found themselves in.

I guess I’d sort of unconsciously made the connection before, but now it seemed clear to me that the picture I was trying to understand about violence and war had to expand to include “civilian” violence, the harm inflicted by human beings on those around them, totally separate from anything they do on the battlefield. If I could explain one of them, I might be able to apply it to the other.

The experts thought the increase in mass murders—interesting how we call that kind of killing by that name and don’t apply it to the incredible slaughter in wartime—anyway, because of their financial failures, the experts thought the killers might have been ashamed or, like the Vietnamese shooter, deeply embarrassed. One report said the guy in Binghamton came over to the States with his whole family and he was the oldest son, which meant he was expected to succeed and help support everybody else, which he obviously hadn’t managed to do.

One guy blamed it on what the paper described as “modern isolation of men in U.S. society.” I thought that was pretty interesting. He was a criminal justice prof out of Boston. He said most American men today have no friends, no support system outside where they work, because our sense of community has broken down, people don’t even know their neighbors, let alone talk to them about their problems. If a guy loses his job, he said, that means when he comes up with the crazy idea of taking people out there’s nobody standing beside him to lean over and tell him to reconsider that.

Okay, most of that makes sense if all we’re trying to explain is how life can beat someone down to the point that they just want to lash out. Really, even in my fairly comfortable existence, there have been times when I’ve felt abused or disrespected or made to feel basically worthless. It’s an awful feeling. I battled a feeling of inferiority most of my growing up years back in Scranton.

My family literally lived on the other side of the tracks, opposite the important muckety-mucks who had money and social status. I went to school with their kids. And I realized pretty quickly I didn’t dress as well as most of them did, our house wasn’t as nice as theirs, we drove a used, repainted Chevy while they rode around town in big, shiny Buicks and Chryslers. I can still remember the times in elementary school—right around the time I checked out the war book—when they made fun of me because I’d dropped food on my shirt or had a tear in my pants. Based on the feelings that wash over me this many years later, I know I felt really, really low sometimes. But even in the worst of moments, it never occurred to me that striking back physically would do any good. I’m not saying my childhood scars are anywhere near in a league with the pain and humiliation those shooters felt. And I’m not defending their tragic acts in any way. I’m just asking: Why are guns and killing the solution they come up with?

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