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Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 1999 /14 Tishrei 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The storms whose
paths no one can track --
DENVER -- The banner headline on the front page of the Denver Post one morning late last week might well have been a sigh of sickened relief.

"Stunned Ft. Worth Asks Why," the headline read.

Meaning: This time it happened somewhere else.

Meaning: This time we're not the ones who don't have the answers.

The subheadline was: "City May Never Know What Led to Outcast's Murderous Rampage."

Except for the punctuation -- outcast in the singular, instead of the plural -- those words could have appeared on the front page right here in Denver last spring to refer not to events in another state, but here in Colorado.

"Even at the end, nobody took Larry Ashbrook seriously," the story out of Texas in last week's Denver paper began.

Change the name -- replace the name of Ashbrook, who charged into the Wedgwood Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Texas, and began shooting people, with the names of the students responsible for the death and carnage at Columbine High School last spring -- and that lead paragraph also could have been a local one.

We -- all of us -- appear to be operating in a cloud of collective, if understandable, delusion these days. We are still clinging to the belief that if something unthinkable happens elsewhere, then we have been spared. That if the murders are in Littleton, Colo., then everyone who lives everywhere else can breathe a little easier; that if the murders are in a church in Texas, then the rest of us have somehow been granted a reprieve.

We have to believe this, because not to believe it -- to believe instead that there's nothing at all local about all of this -- is too numbing. Yet at the same time we will ourselves to believe that the violently mad incidents are each self-contained, restricted to the towns where the bullets meet flesh, we are constantly being told that we are living in the new age of no-such-thing-as-distance. The new age in which the world is continuously connected, in which any tremor anywhere can be seen, described and all but actually felt in communities all over the planet.

Distance is an outmoded concept, we have been taught. But when the ripples of one violent act reach and reform in a town in another state, we pretend -- because we must -- that they are somehow unrelated. "Stunned Ft. Worth Asks Why," readers in Denver see stripped across their front page -- and the unwritten message is that the storm has passed. It has moved on, to another place.

Actual weather -- literal weather -- is easier to comprehend. The storms that mankind has historically sheltered itself against -- storms like the hurricane that moved up the East Coast of the United States last week -- we know how to digest. Satellite images depict the big storms moving in, and meteorologists and broadcasters give minute-by-minute reports on when the devastation is expected to hit; people in the storms' likely paths hunker down until the winds and the rains have moved to the next place.

These separate storms, though -- storms of the kind that touched down at the high school in Colorado, at the church in Texas -- are a newer phenomenon. There's no radar to warn when they are on their way ("Even at the end, nobody took Larry Ashbrook seriously"). There's no digitally enhanced map to let people know when, or if, these different storms will come to visit them.

Afterward, the cleanups begin, as do the questions about why the destruction had to touch down where it did. It is as if after the fact, by doing their very best to try to make things close to right again, the people in the communities are lashing out against the new kinds of storms in a way they were powerless to do when the storms -- sometimes invisibly -- were gathering strength.

In Littleton, parents of murdered students have asked the school board to tear down the high school library -- where many of the students died -- and to replace it with an airy two-story glass atrium. They don't want future Columbine students to have to walk into a room that bears any resemblance to the old library.

In Ft. Worth, families at Wedgwood Baptist Church are trying to come up with some way to move forward after what happened last week. Across America, communities hear about the church shootings in Texas, and are silently grateful that such a thing transpired elsewhere.

But there is no elsewhere.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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