From my column in the Hard Knox Independent . . .

Wednesday morning’s media brought the horrific news that terrorists had invaded the headquarters of a French satirical newspaper and systematically gunned down 12 people. Ten members of Charlie Hebdo’s creative staff were killed, as were two police officers on duty to protect the staff from just such threats.

Later news dispatches reported that three men shouting Islamist religious slogans were being sought for the shootings, which were seen as revenge for insulting cartoon portrayals of Muhammed published in Charlie Hebdo.

The people of France responded with anguish and outrage. They gathered by the thousands, and very quickly buttons were produced that proclaim “Je suis Charlie” — “I am Charlie” — in solidarity with the slain journalists and the ideals of respect for creativity and freedom of expression. It’s not clear what effect this backlash will have on the complex religious and geopolitical forces at play in France and the world, but that expression of identity with the victims has a power and focus that will ensure the martyred journalists become models for writers and cartoonists everywhere.

The slaughter brought some of us up short — especially those in Knoxville who are launching alternative papers in the wake of the demise of Metro Pulse. As we at the Hard Knox Independent sweat publishing strategies and work up stories that will give you new knowledge and insights about our town, it’s astonishing to think that what we do might prompt someone to take violent action against us for what we think and write and say. We will be using some of the same tools — reportage, humor, illustration, satire, courage, irreverence — that put the staff of Charlie in the crosshairs of terrorists who would kill to silence free expression. Our fellow journalists/friends who are working up a competing weekly must be feeling the same disconnect.

Of course, as citizens and as journalists, we can take comfort in the fact that our freedoms of press, expression, assembly and religion are enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. We’re free to collect and publish information, to speculate, to ridicule, (even to make up stuff) without fear of violence against ourselves.

Or are we?

It’s been less than seven years since a man armed with a sawed-off shotgun and driven by a terrorist ideology invaded a children’s Sunday service at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, shot dead two churchgoers and wounded half a dozen more. His stated purpose was to kill anyone with a liberal ideology, and his gospel was a collection of books by conservative talk-show hosts whose words egged him on to violence and murder. The courage of unarmed church members stopped him before he could fire more than two of the 70-odd shotgun shells he had brought to use on the congregation. He is spending the rest of his life in a Tennessee state prison.

So we may not be safe after all. And that’s an important lesson.

We are all martyrs in the making. Daily, in little bits and pieces, we sacrifice our lives for the things we believe in. Our newspaper. Our government. Our kids or our career. The Big Orange or some other religious organization. Only we as individuals can decide the value of our sacrifice, whether what we will inevitably die for is worth the cost. As the staff of Charlie Hebdo tragically reminds us — we are all Charlie.

“I’m glad I can eat that,” the man said, looking down at the half-eaten chili dog on the counter in front of him. “I think I’ll have two more—go easy on the chili.”

“Two more?” Paul asked. Paul is the proprietor of Riverside Market and Deli.

“Yeah, and I think I’ll try a little slaw on them, if you have any,” he said. “I’m glad I can eat.”

“Why?” Paul asked.

“I finished my chemo two weeks ago, and I’m beginning to eat again.”

I was sitting beside him waiting for my burgers to go. I looked him over—40-ish plus or minus, trim, healthy-looking, dressed nicely, a warm attitude. What kind of cancer did you have?

He pointed to the side of his throat. “Skin cancer—on my tonsil.”

Oh, I told him, one of my best friends had a tonsil that was cancerous.

“If he had it on his tonsil, it was skin cancer,” he said. “I noticed a little lump in my neck one day”—he gestures again to his neck—“and decided that wasn’t right.”

In the four months since the diagnosis, he’s had surgery and chemo (and maybe radiation). The treatments suppressed his sense of taste but magnified his sense of smell and left him with raw, extremely sensitive tissues in his throat. Getting back to eating has been tricky, and he still can’t eat foods that irritate his throat.

“The only thing I could taste was banana Popsicles, which is good—that’s all I could eat after the surgery.”

My friend had his surgery eight or ten years ago. The treatments put him through hell.

“If it’s been that long, then he’s over it. There’s a 77-percent cure rate.” He smiled. Paul laid his chili dogs on the counter. I stood up.

Well, in 10 years we’ll be congratulating you on being over it.

“I hope so.” He smiled again. “Happy New Year.”

Happy New Year.

There was one thing missing in the news about random shootings in Seattle and Las Vegas this weekend.

The settings were run-of-the-mill: In Seattle, the killing field was a small Christian college. In Las Vegas, the action moved from a restaurant to a Wal-mart.

The numbers were pretty ordinary: One dead and three injured at the college and five fatalities (including the shooters) in Nevada.

The way the incidents ended fit traditional patterns: At the college, a student monitor armed only with a can of mace and boundless courage stopped the shooter when he tried to reload, giving others a chance to pin him to the ground. In the Wal-mart, the couple killed themselves after gunning down two police officers eating lunch and one bystander in the retail store.

The reasons were the usual: The Seattle gunman had psychiatric problems, and the couple thought they were starting a “revolution.”

The ONLY missing element: Where were the concealed-carry advocates?

You know, the ones who rabidly insist that their sidearms can put a stop to such carnage before it begins? Maybe they all slept in. Or maybe they lack the courage of one lone, unarmed student. Or maybe — just maybe — their premise is wrong.

Maybe — when our consumer society is flooding our nation with unprecedented fire power for anyone who has the money to buy it — one or two random deaths are the price we pay for our misinterpretation of the Second Amendment. After all, in a public setting, at least one innocent citizen has to die before we can tell whether this is just a bunch of upstanding Texans treating their assault rifles to lunch or a “crazy” aiming to go into the history books as a mass murderer. We can’t know until the trigger is pulled and the first victim falls.

Americans love to gamble. They have turned funding education into a lottery. A handful of folks get tremendous payouts. A bunch of middle-class kids get help with college. And the masses of poor people get juked out of their money.

Now we are transforming the Second Amendment into a lottery — with a difference. Most of us will WIN this game of chance — we won’t be shot in a college classroom building or a Cici’s Pizza or (in my case) a church sanctuary. But the cost of misunderstanding the Second Amendment is death for some of our citizens — random, gruesome death for the victims, unimaginable sorrow for friends and relatives, and an anxiety that eats at the rest of us when we go into public spaces.

Carry permits won’t cure the problem. Increased funding for mental health evaluations and treatment won’t fix it, though God knows it is needed. The only fix is controlling the availability of assault weapons. Even then, there are ways to wreck mayhem on innocent people. But limiting firearm availability is the only way to curtail this gun/power equation that is killing so many people.

UPDATE (10 June 2014) — An Associated Press timeline now indicates that the third victim in Las Vegas was, in fact, a citizen carrying a weapon. He was killed when he attempted to intervene with one of the shooters. His death and the death of the two armed police officers support the main thesis of this post: Our lackadaisical  attitude toward allowing unrestricted access to assault-capable weapons is allowing people intent on violence to get their hands on weapons. Even armed officers are not match for the surprise attack of shooters intent on killing innocent people. As long as the guns are available, the killings will continue.

What I’m about here

Posted: August 26, 2012 in Why this

Like a store that sells railroad salvage, this is home to whatever piles up on the loading dock — busted crates of perceptions, unsorted experiences, impressions with missing “to” labels.

Poke amongst the untidy stacks of notions or plow through bins of mental bric-a-brac, and maybe something useful will turn up.