Tucson Tragedy Was Work’s Backdrop This Weekend

Blogging here headed my “to-do” list for this weekend’s activities, but I fully anticipated writing a mundane “working on weekends is a pain in the ass” screed and nothing more.  Events proved otherwise.

On the first floor of the Discovery Exchange is a flat-screen TV.  It is always tuned to CNN with the volume muted.  I work on the second floor, but there is a railing overlooking the wall with the flat-screen.  Each time I passed it, while helping customers or walking to the staircase to the first floor, I’d give CNN a cursory glance.

Mid-afternoon, I saw the headline ARIZONA CONGRESSWOMAN SHOT, and soon the face of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) appeared.  Since there were no closed captions, I had almost no clue as to what had happened.  From bits and pieces flashed onto the screen, I learned that she was one of 19 people shot today in a Tucson shopping center.

Once I saw this headline, I frequently drifted toward the railing so I could watch the screen.  CNN immediately cancelled all its other programming so it could focus exclusively on the shooting.  At another glance, the news was that Rep. Giffords was dead.  With no captions, and single-sentence bits of information flashing under the screen, it was hard to glean what was happening.  A Tucson station, KGUN-TV, kept flashing pictures of emergency personnel rolling stretchers toward ambulances, milling crowds, and police barricades, scenes which have become tragically recognizable these past few years.

CNN admitted that they were receiving conflicting reports about whether or not Giffords had died.  Instantly, I thought about the Spring 1981 afternoon Ronald Reagan was shot, and the networks kept receiving differing accounts about whether press secretary Jim Brady, shot in the head, had succumbed.  ABC News’ anchor, the late Frank Reynolds, finally hit the roof.  He turned off camera and shouted, “Let’s get it nailed down, somebody!  Let’s find out!  Let’s get it straight so we can report this thing accurately!”  I am sure Wolf Blitzer was thinking the same thing.

My only surprise is that it took this long for this to happen.  I am also surprised that it didn’t happen to a higher level government official.  (Giffords has survived surgery, and is still in very critical condition, but the surgeon sounded optimistic.  Or at least as optimistic as possible about someone who has suffered a bullet to the brain.)  The only incumbent U.S. Representative assassinated was Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), who was murdered in Guyana by people from Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in 1978.

I’ve been clicking back and forth between the blog and various news sites, and the information about the killer, and Rep. Giffords’ condition, has been coming in fits and starts.  The chair of the Brain Injury Association of America has said that she is in for a prolonged recovery, and there will inevitably be some permanent damage.  The killer had posted several free-association (that’s the kindest word I can use) videos on YouTube about how “I can’t trust the government”, and ridiculing the voters in his district, among other things.

American assassins seldom seem to have a truly political agenda.  Most of them are acting on personal demons.  (John Hinckley actually voted for Reagan, but thought that he could “win the love” of Jodie Foster by killing Reagan.  Arthur Bremer just wanted to be “somebody,” so he shot and crippled George Wallace after stalking Richard Nixon in the U.S. and Canada, intending to assassinate him.)

Keith Olbermann has called for an end to gun-related analogies in political rhetoric from both Left and Right, and I think the man has a point.  In this commentary, he has cited many of the politicians and rhetoricians of the Left and the Right who have done this, and has apologized for the times when he has crossed the line.  I think there is a lot more going in the mind of the person who decided to shoot Giffords and all the others yesterday, and ultimately he must own what he did, so whether human sewage like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh heavily influenced his thinking and his action is a question that will remain unanswered for months.

I have little hope that the bigots who see anti-U.S. terror plots behind every Muslim will speak out against this act of domestic terrorism.  Many still believe that we are above all this.  I remember the day of the Oklahoma City bombing, an event that affected me much more strongly than 9/11 did, because I was a Federal employee at the time.  Until Timothy McVeigh was charged, speculation ran rampant that it was the work of Middle Eastern terrorists, the same cell that had bombed the World Trade Center in 1993.  I was one of the few people who suspected that the perpetrator was American.  I lived in Cincinnati at the time, and was going to Columbus for the day to interview for a job with the Department of Agriculture.  As I was getting dressed and packing my over-the-shoulder bag for the trip, the disk jockey on the radio was talking about “on this day in history,” and he mentioned Lexington and Concord, and then mentioned the gory end to the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco.  When I heard about Oklahoma City over lunch with my friend Ivan and his stepson, mentally I made the connection right away.

The 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is later this month, and the pro-life and -choice letters are, I’m sure, clogging the Letters to the Editors pages and Websites of many newspapers in the country.  (I stepped away from the debate when Susie was an infant.  It may sound callous, but since the day of my vasectomy, it has ceased to be an issue that affects me personally.)  I have a Seamless Garment attitude about the whole abortion issue, but only Libertarian friends of mine understand my anti-abortion/pro-choice stance.  (A union official handled the issue best.  He was speaking at a rally, and someone asked him, “What do you think about Roe v. Wade?”  Without skipping a beat, he said, “If the water is above my waist, I’d rather row than wade.”)

The “pro-lifers” de-legitimized the whole argument about the right to life with the slew of abortion clinic arsons, bombings, and murders that began in the late 1970s.  That is when I began making the distinction between being “pro-birth” and being “pro-life.”  Many of the victims had nothing to do with abortions themselves; they were janitors or security guards who worked in the building.  Anti-abortion violence was why I never seriously tried to get a job with the University of Cincinnati during the six years I lived in the Blue Chip City.  At that time, U.C.’s civil service and human resources offices were in a multi-storied block of ugly near the Cincinnati Zoo at 3333 Vine Street, known around U.C. as “Thirty-three Thirty-three.”  Unfortunately, there was a women’s clinic in the same building, and they did provide abortions.  I’d pass the building on my way to work, and see the giant photos of aborted fetuses, BABY KILLERS → (pointing to the building), and the angriest and most rabid faces I have ever seen.  I genuinely feared I would be in 3333 Vine St. taking a civil service examination, or interviewing for a job, when the clinic would be bombed.

Many anti-abortion people I knew, however, were as appalled by clinic bombings and killings as I was.  One was a Christian pacifist who gained my eternal respect when he would silently stand across the street from armed forces recruiting centers with a sign that said, “REAL CHRISTIANS DON’T ENLIST,” and he and I became friendly.  But at pro-choice rallies, we were on opposite sides of the street and the issue… and once the demonstration ran out of steam, we’d go split a pitcher of beer or two.

This was on my mind when I was working my graveyard shift job at the Cincinnati post office.  I was processing letters mailed by Cincinnati Right to Life.  Its return address featured three small pictures–a fetus, a very elderly woman, and a child who was clearly developmentally disabled.  Had Ted Bundy’s face been on  this envelope, I would truly believed they believed in the right to life.  Period.

It is odd that the same party and the same people who spread the deceit about “death panels” would host a Website featuring the faces of politicians they oppose with cross-hairs superimposed on their faces.

My biggest fear is that this is not over.

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I Came Into the Federal Building With a Weapon Today

There are few chores I dread more during the workday than making a trip across High St. to the post office in the Federal Building.  Fortunately, it’s seldom a necessity, but when I need to go there, I can never be finished soon enough.

Today was such a day.  I usually carry some postage stamps in my billfold (much easier since the Postal Service went to peel-off stamps), but I needed to mail a postcard, and didn’t want to waste one of the few $.44 stamps I had left.  So, at my three o’clock break, I resigned myself to the inevitable and made my way across High St. to the John W. Bricker Federal Building and the Christopher Columbus Station of the post office contained therein.

TANGENT ALERT: The building is named for Senator John William Bricker (R-Ohio), the 54th Governor of Ohio, and Thomas Dewey’s Vice Presidential running mate in the 1944 election.

Elaborate security precautions prevail on the first floor of the Federal Building, and they were in place seven years before 9/11.  Before the destruction of the Twin Towers and the damage to the Pentagon, there was Timothy McVeigh and Oklahoma City.  So now, if I’m going into the post office lobby to spend $.28 to buy a postcard stamp (as I was today), I have to wait in line, empty my pockets, have a security guard go over my person with a handheld metal detector, and step through a scanner.

I began the ritual in the usual way.  Before going through the scanner, I took everything out of my pocket: coins, wallet, MP3 player, notepad, pens (always about five of them), cell phone, and key ring.

That last item on the list, the key ring, was what caused the short-lived panic.  I have about eight or nine keys on the ring, a rubber Minnie Mouse standing next to a large letter P (a co-worker brought it back from Disney World for me), and a ring knife.

The ring knife is a souvenir from my days at the main post office in Cincinnati.  You wear it on your finger like a ring, although it barely fits past the middle knuckle.  Protruding from the top is a J-shaped blade, used for cutting open bundles (of newspapers, magazines, etc.).  The Cincinnati post office always seemed to be short of them, and when I was working in second- and third-class mail, sorting and routing periodicals, half my shift seemed to consist of scrambling trying to find a blade to split open bundled magazines.  So, one night, I was lucky enough to find a ring knife within minutes of clocking in to work, so I put it on my key ring, and there it has remained to this day.

The guard asked me about it.  I told him what it was, how I used it, etc.  I don’t think it would have made an effective weapon, even if I had wanted to try.  The blade is nowhere near as sharp as it was 15 years ago, and I doubt it could cut butter.  (Crazily, I tried to picture myself putting that ring knife on my finger, waving my arm around in a large arc, and shouting, “Okay, everybody lie down on the floor, nobody gets hurt!”  There was a guy in Cincinnati who tried to rob a bank with a butcher knife once, just as effectively as I would have been.)

The guy decided to let me go through, mainly because he sensed my impatience.  My afternoon break is only 15 minutes long, and I wanted to buy my stamp and get back to work, possibly picking up a Sierra Mist on the way back.  I would have offered to let him hold the key ring for me until I was finished at the post office.

I headed for the post office with the key ring (ring knife included) securely in my pocket.  The guards there can be a little paranoid, and I’d think that people guarding a Federal building should learn the art of the poker face.  They don’t have to be as rigid and emotionless as the Grenadier Guards at Buckingham Palace, but they seem to overreact to innocent situations.

When you enter the building, you empty your pockets into a shallow plastic bowl, and it goes down a conveyor belt, where they X-ray it and see if there’s anything you shouldn’t have.  When the bowl emerges on the other side, the guard will pick up the cell phone and push buttons on it, to make sure it’s a real cell phone, and not the remote control for a bomb.  When I go on break, I set my phone’s timer to 00:15:00 and press the “start” button, and it beeps when my 15 minutes ends.

Awhile back, the security guard turned white as paper when he took my phone out of the bowl and pushed one of the buttons.  The display lit up, and he sees a timer that is counting down to zero.  Visions of spending the afternoon with some of Homeland Security’s brownshirts came to my mind while he stared at my phone display.  He looked me a question, and I told him what it was all about.  He looked a little deflated as he handed the phone back to me.  He probably envisioned being interviewed on Good Morning America as the hero who thwarted a bomb plot.

“Good vibes” and “bad vibes” were popular phrases in my late teen and early adult years.  I’ve never taken the concept seriously.  That may be a side result of my Asperger’s syndrome, whose symptoms include an inability to “read” other people (tone of voice, body language, etc.), but the Federal Building was one I never liked, even when I came to work every day.

I got off on the wrong foot with that building.  In April 1995, I interviewed for a job with the Agriculture Department.  The appointment was at 1 p.m., and I took a morning Lakefront Trailways bus up from Cincinnati.  My friend Ivan and his stepson met me, and Ivan told me about the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which had happened just as I was getting on the bus in Cincinnati.  (I listened to CDs or slept all the way up, so I wouldn’t have had a radio going on the journey.)

Security was tight that afternoon, because at that time no one knew who had bombed the Oklahoma City building, whether it was an isolated nut or a well organized conspiracy, or whether other buildings elsewhere in the country would be attacked.  I went through the metal detector, and even though I presented my IRS ID (I worked at the IRS Service Center in Covington, Ky. at the time), they still insisted that I empty my pockets, remove my watch, and let the man pass the metal detector wand (actually, it’s about the size of a fraternity paddle) over me.  Then a guard stepped forward and said, “Sir, I need to pat you down,” which brought a “Why?  Don’t you get enough at home?” from me.  (I was a tad bit surly at that point.)

The building is as dingy on the inside as it is on the exterior, and I sometimes wondered about sick building syndrome when I worked there.  My main responsibility as an Appointment Clerk was scheduling audits, so I was always on the phone with taxpayers and/or their representatives.  When someone was coming from out of town, he or she often asked, “Which building is the Federal Building?”  I often said, “It’s the monstrosity at the corner of Spring and High, on the northeast corner,” which usually evoked a chuckle.  (I showed rare self-control the three years I worked there.  Never once did I yield to temptation and say, “It’s at Spring and High, and there’s probably an abandoned Ryder truck sitting out front.”)

I’ll let you, beloved readers, be the final judge as to the building’s beauty.  Here’s a picture, courtesy of the General Services Administration:

John W. Bricker Federal Building,
200 N. High St., Columbus, Ohio