As an American, how much am I defined by the news? Even on the road I can’t escape it. This past week the crime de jour was the assassination of three young Muslim students in Chapel Hill and the act’s alleged perpetrator Craig Stephen Hicks. The names of the innocent are always eclipsed by that of the killer’s. The grotesque grabs our attention. I find myself contemplating Mr. Hicks, wondering what kind of man feels it necessary to carry a gun to a conversation with a neighbor. It wasn’t his first time. An ugly American, a make-my-day American? What sort of person needs to announce I am a lethal force? How insecure and fucked-up is that? Connie suggests that anyone sick enough to feel the need to carry a weapon should be put at the top of the list of those proscribed from doing so.
The America I meet on the road is quite different from the America seen in the news and on TV. It is a land of pleasingly friendly, cordial folks, ready to smile and engage in a chat. Given the opening, perfect strangers will show you family photographs or share the news of their most recent medical dilemma. They wish to be liked, not feared. Amicability is their default mode. They love their pets, and very few own pit bulls. The Second Amendment means little to them.
My brother Jim and Rita arrive in Pembroke Pines in their camper. They are true snowbirds. Every winter they leave home up near Lake Ontario and head south for the season. They are retired. For several decades, Jim was Catholic chaplain at the maximum security penitentiary at Auburn, New York. He liked the job, its challenges. He has always been that way, always looking for something to do, some new project. This year he has a new camper to play with as he and Rita wander from campground to campground, happy gypsies in the real America.
One might think, given the constituency of Jim’s clientele for so many years, that he would be part of that other America, the one fueled by fear and suspicion, fed not only by the tabloid news but also by personal experience. One would be wrong. Jim delights in people and their stories. It was no accident that he became the prison system’s go-to point man in hostage situations, the expert at reaching peaceful resolutions. He tells fond stories of his prison staff of murderers. There are no guns in Jim and Rita’s camper.
Yes, among the 320 million people in this country there will always be a smattering of Craig Stephen Hicks, but they do not define us. Far from it.