It was Tuesday morning and Gus was having a bagel and coffee at a sidewalk table in front of the coffee shop. Having finished a three-year stint at one silicon valley tech company, he was taking a week off before he started at another tech company and as some are wont to do when not working on a weekday, he decided to see what it was like to be one of those people who can be seen casually sipping a latte and reading the paper in the coffee shops of San Jose while the rest of the world scurries to work. He enjoyed watching the impatient coffee customers blab blab into cell phones while they stood in a row waiting their turn to order, their high fashion ties glowing with dry-cleaned freshness, their Tumi leather briefcases dangling from curled fingers.
The sun was bright and warm. The sky clear and the air crisp. And it was quite relaxing to Gus to be an observer of the working world. It was genuinely a good day to be Gus.
A car pulled into a space in front of Gus's table. What happened next occurred so quickly it will take you more time to read my description than the incident itself.
The car's engine revved and the rear tires spun and began to smoke. The car lurched forward through Gus's table, and into the front window of the coffee shop where it was stopped by the coffee counter. The engine remained at full-throttle and the rear wheels continued spinning and smoking for several seconds after the car stopped moving forward, after which time the driver got out, dazed.
The first thing Gus did was to take stock. He was not dead. Somehow, he had not been crushed by the car. He jumped out of the way, or was he thrown?
I must have jumped -- he thought.
He got up from the pavement and went into the shop to see if anyone inside had been hurt. No one had, but one of the patrons saw him and dialed his cell phone for an ambulance.
It was then that Gus began to feel light headed. A brilliant, searing pain embraced him from the left side. It increased until he could no longer stand. The coffee clerks came from around the counter and began to administer first aid. At least one artery had been severed and pressure was applied. That's when he realized his arm was broken, and his left side and left leg were gashed open to the bone. He was losing a lot of blood.
He stayed conscious until the ambulance came.
"Wow," said one paramedic treating Gus. "Incredible no one was killed. This is your lucky day, pal."
Gus called me to tell me about the accident a few days ago. I've known Gus for over 20 years though we haven't spoken in some time. I know his family. We work in the same industry. We have the same work colleagues.
"You are either the luckiest or most unlucky person around," I said to Gus.
"I am," he said.
He told me about surgeries he'd gone through, and that he'd had to delay starting at his new job until he'd healed enough to start work again. Insurance would cover the medical expenses, but it wasn't clear he'd be compensated for the wages he was losing because he couldn't start work.
"How can that be?" I asked him. "They're giving life-time smokers bazillion-dollar settlements for getting lung cancer despite decades of warnings about the health risks. How come you can't get a couple thousand bucks to pay your mortgage?"
"It made sense when they explained it to me," Gus said. "My lawyer says it has something to do with liability and severity. Clearly, they're liable. But I healed too fast, or something."
"Maybe you should have been smoking at the time," I said, trying to interject some levity.
Gus said, "What?" and I terminated the joke with a cough and a "never mind."
Then Gus said, "You know, it's weird. I just can't go into a parking lot anymore. I know it's illogical, but if I'm in a parking lot, especially with the kids, I just have to get them out. It's like I have a panic attack every time I see the white lines."
"Can you get close to a bagel?" I asked, not trying to be funny but having it come out that way.
"I have no problem with bagels."
"No issue. It's just parking lots."
"What are you going to do?" I asked, figuring that unless he switched his career to the forestry service, Gus would have to face a parking lot nearly every day of his adult life.
"I don't know. It really sucks."
The day after Gus's call, a madman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. Then he killed himself.
It was all over the news. As of this writing, it still is.
The thought of it hurts people so much they can't stop talking about it. It's mentioned in a hallway conversation in every church, corporation, school, fire house, and forest ranger station in America.
Even though more soldiers and civilians are killed in Iraq nearly every week, we are floored by the numbers.
It threatens our sense of security. In America, we're not safe from armed crazy people even in a boring university biology class.
It's not safe anywhere, anymore.
Everybody thinks: "We should do something. Something has to be done."
For reasons that defy any logic I can muster, conservatives are generally against gun control, and non-conservatives are for gun control. And when something happens involving guns in America, the non-conservatives use it as a rally point for the gun-control argument, which musters the conservative response about the second Amendment right to bear arms.
NPR is a left-leaning radio network in the U.S. and so opinions you hear broadcast there are quite liable to espouse views held by those who are not considered conservative.
The opinion I heard involved gun control and the distribution of anti-depressant drugs. The argument went like this: in the state of Virginia anyone can go into a store and buy a weapon, provided he or she has not previously been committed to jail or an insane asylum.
In the state of Virginia (as with the rest of the United States) anti-depressant drugs cannot be purchased without a signed prescription from a licensed physician. The theory is that such drugs can be dangerous if used improperly. However, if you are a clinically depressed crazy person who decides it's better not to go to the doctor, you can't self-medicate, but you can buy a gun and shoot up a technical college -- is the argument.
The American people have options, many of which are shared by our Asian and European friends. For instance, on just about any continent any of us could drive our automobiles onto crowded grade school playgrounds. One could rampage through a shopping mall with butcher block loads of Henkel's kitchen knives, randomly stabbing at pedestrians. Pilots of private planes could fly directly into national landmarks. Chemistry students could place pipe bombs in crowded theaters.
Any of us who own firearms could load up, walk outside, and start killing.
The next time you drive up to Starbucks, you could simply proceed through the outdoor tables and into the cafe with your car.
These options are available to three hundred million Americans, and an untold number of non-Americans twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Given a large enough sample of people, you can obtain a normal distribution around any parameter. This is called a bell curve, because the graph of the mathematical formula resembles the side view of a bell. Ding. And a parameter is what we call a the thing we're measuring in our sample.
Let's say we're going to measure a parameter called "smarts". So we're going to draw a graph of the amount of smarts present in a sample of people. Give a couple thousand people an I.Q. test and most people will do roughly the same. Then there will be fewer people who do better or worst than most people, and even fewer people who do really better or really worse than most people, and then a really small ittybitty amount of people who are way way smarter than every one else, and the same tiny weenie amount of people who are way way dumber than everyone else.
That's the idea. More people do just like each other, and less people do differently than the ones that do the same, and then ever smaller amounts of people do more radically different than the ones who do the same. Pick a parameter, it fits. It's the way nature works. Take something like height. Think about it - most adults are between four and six feet tall. (The average height of an adult American male, depending on ethnic heritage, is between 5'6" and 5'10" tall). And then a really tiny number of adult people are only three feet tall or less, and a really tiny number of people are eight feet tall or more.
Then there's the sanity parameter. What's sanity, anyway? How do we define it? Is a person who sees dead people insane? Is a person who claims to predict the future insane? Is one who claims to see a 90-foot tall Jesus?
How about we call everyone sane who doesn't want to go out and kill people for reasons that are difficult to express in terms most people could understand. Again, there's going to be a distribution. Most people are going to be sane, by that metric, because obviously the world isn't full of people going out and killing their neighbors with their cheese cleavers. There's a really really tiny number of pacifists who wouldn't raise a finger to crush a worker ant even if it meant having their own faces chopped off. And then there's a really really tiny number of homicidal maniacs, who have access to the same stuff normal people have, who go out and do terrible things.
What can you do about this really tiny small number of people who because society is free can go out and exercise the options the rest of us decline and cause havoc and death of wartime proportions?
Indeed, what can you do?
My next written idea is going to be entirely unsatisfying, though I believe with the core of my being that it's true. Don't worry, it's not entirely satisfying to me, either.
On my side are all the people who have gone before me and had the opportunity to write constitutions and bylaws and bills of rights and magna cartas and such docs. I think I'm in good company, and I think I'll have a beer soon, thank you.
We can do nothing about the fact that any of us can be killed for ridiculous reasons by the people who are way far away from the norm. Everything we love in the world can be taken away from us by terrorists, homicidal maniacs, religious zealots, untrained forklift operators, drunken drawbridge operators, and inattentive Lexus drivers whose high-heeled shoe gets stuck between the brake and the gas pedal and causes her car to plow into the table occupied by a silicon valley tech salesman sipping coffee between jobs.
Even bigger problems occur when you think you can do something about life's randomness. Thinking you can solve your ailments through iron-fisted control of the population is the root of groups like the Nazi party, the Klu Klux Klan, and Al Qaida.
I heard a high school counselor on NPR claim that she could use "common sense" to root out students who were likely to reproduce a Columbine-like killing spree.
I heard a psychologist say he could read an individual's "creative writing" and determine their propensity to homicidal crime.
I heard the gun control lobby suggest that stopping the sale of guns in America would solve the problem.
I heard a physician say the world would be better if every man, woman, and child took a daily dose of Prozac.
I heard the anti-gun control lobby suggest if every adult in America was armed, nobody would threaten anyone with a gun.
And so on.
People feel better when they think they can exercise control. But the truth remains that we are not in control of each other. We cannot stop another 9/11 by killing everyone in the middle east who says they hate us. We cannot stop another Columbine or Virgina Tech by weeding out students using some sort of "common sense" metric.
The truth of life is that we are not in control. We have never been. We never will be. We can create police states and maximum security prisons. We can commit every kid who wears black and draws pictures of soldiers machine-gunning stores full of K-Mart shoppers. We can drug every kid who carves her initials on her arms. We could turn the entire continent into a penal colony. All it does is reduce the numbers of the "we" until our circle, our neighborhood, is made up of people we think we know because they are exactly like us. And then mistrust will develop in that ever tightening circle and a normal distribution will develop until even in that tiny circle will be found people who are way way outside some measure of "normal" - and they will be corrected and isolated for their deviation by the majority, until nobody is left.
"We the people" include people who will go crazy and try to kill us. "We the people" include people who will have accidents. "We the people" live in a place where earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes and floods can kill us.
It is awful here. It is terrible here. It is abysmal and hopeless that one of us can massacre so many of us and rob us of our love and faith and light.
And we can't do a damned thing about it.
Therefore I will say a prayer, however futile it will seem in a world where I can be eaten by killer whales, and I will take another breath. And I will kiss my children and thank God they haven't been murdered by chain-saw wielding simpletons in goalie masks or pecked by the birds in Bodega Bay.
And then I'm going to have a beer and watch the new Scorsese movie on blu-ray.