Some moments freeze the frame. With shock. With disbelief. With the sudden awareness that you’re living in History with a capital “H.”
The last flight of the Challenger.
The morning the Twin Towers fell.
The images from the Capitol felt surreal – and yet too real. Something that could have come from a movie or a Tom Clancy novel, and yet something that could have only happened in the far-too-real world.
Something that’s ours. Whether we want it or not.
As I write this, it’s been three days since the storming of Congress. We’ve seen and heard so much – the evacuation of Congress and delay of the vote, the staffers whose quick thinking got the ballot boxes to safety, the bizarre sights from the broken-into chambers and offices. We’ve heard the shouts and screams since, seen the calls for accountability, witnessed the beginnings of consequences in the real and online worlds.
By the time this appears in print, another two days will have passed. An eternity. Because the weird thing about frozen-frame moments is they move surprisingly quickly in their aftermath, fast enough to make even the most prescient observations quickly obsolete.
So I’m taking a step back from the immediate. And asking a bigger question.
What do we want this to be?
Not “How do we spin this?” Not “How do we assign blame?” Not even “How do we get in a DeLorean and prevent this from happening,” though I wish that were an option.
No. What will this be?
One of my own frozen-frame moments – one for many of us, I suspect – goes back more than 20 years to the mass shooting at Columbine High School. My mother was still a teacher at the time at a school with a very similar name, which meant that as I watching events unfold in a Kansas newsroom, I was also having to reassure friends that she was OK, that she wasn’t at that Columbine.
It was a punch in the gut. And for some years afterward, any fresh report of a major school shooting hit that wound. More than once, I went to the keyboard to pour out the pain of what had happened, to try to understand, to try to be even the smallest part of helping our country say “Never again” and mean it.
You know the rest.
They kept coming. They became so common that I couldn’t write about every single one. It took the classroom dispersals of COVID-19 to interrupt the string – March 2020 was the first March without a school shooting since 2002.
So common that it began to numb.
And the frame kept freezing a little less.
So I ask again – what will Wednesday be?
Will it be a 9/11, a one-time horror that leaves an impact but no immediate sequel?
Or will it be a Columbine, merely the first of a chain?
Ultimately, that’s up to us.
A professor of mine, Simone Chambers, once said the fundamental principle of politics is that talking is better than fighting. It’s a simple concept to state and an easy one to abandon. After all, a conversation takes two willing people. Conflicts, like car accidents, require only one behaving badly.
Can we commit to talking? To listening? To hearing?
That doesn’t mean being a milquetoast, rolling over rather than risk offense. If anything, it requires the courage to stand up to folks who would trample on the conversation and say “No. We don’t do that here.”
Conflict is not unique to this time and place. American politics has never been an episode of Masterpiece Theatre. But we have been better. We can be. We must.
Freeze the moment again. Examine it.
And then, together, let’s decide what we want to learn.