I’m typing this in our small home in Urbana, a small campus town in Illinois, the state of Abe Lincoln and Barrack Obama, which along with the somewhat larger town of Champaign produces the name for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Only Wright Street divides Urbana from Champaign, with Urbana extending from Wright Street’s eastern bank, Champaign from the western.
Last night (Aug 3 in the US), I saw TV coverage on the killing by a young gunman of at least 20 unlucky shoppers in El Paso, the border city in Texas lying more than 1300 miles southwest of Urbana, IL. From El Paso people walk across to Juarez in Mexico almost as easily as people move between Urbana and Champaign.
Late in the night, word came of yet another killing spree by a young white man in another well-known city: Dayton, Ohio.
After the El Paso shooting (which occurred at around 10 a.m.), TV channels kept viewers informed of casualty estimates, efforts to save lives, people lining up to donate blood, and what by then had been ascertained about the killer, who was captured alive by the police.
In the evening, more than a dozen local, state and federal leaders appeared together in an El Paso briefing to inform the nation of what had happened and to take questions from reporters. Watching the interaction, I told myself I must write about it, especially for the sake of any in India or elsewhere who might be unfamiliar with such proceedings, or who might take them for granted.
The governor of Texas (a Republican), the mayor of El Paso, the local police chief (white), an FBI officer (an African-American), and El Paso’s representative in the US House of Representatives (a woman with a Hispanic name, a Democrat) were among those who concisely imparted information, each taking no more than a few seconds, and answered questions from reporters.
A few of this ‘team’ sat at a small table as they gave America details of the horrific event. The rest, including the Congresswoman, quietly stood behind those sitting. They did not seem to belong to a common profession, party, race or denomination, although all were either responsible officers or elected representatives. I don’t know if they had often or indeed ever ‘presented’ anything together.
I realized that almost each piece of information supplied, each question asked, and each response given was capable of igniting tensions that keep America on the boil.
Behind cameras that transmitted the briefing to America stood reporters whose questions could be heard but whose faces could not be seen. It was plain that they too, and the media outlets they were working for, represented different viewpoints.
The reporters confined themselves to asking short questions about facts. Some carried serious implications, e.g. about the ideology of the killer.
All who asked or answered questions, or watched the briefing on TV, knew that before long Americans outside the briefing arena would once more be engaged in sharp and polarizing discussions about gun laws, mental health, hate speech and domestic terrorism.
For the moment, however, Americans of different races and divergent views were looking together at a terrible event and trying to understand available facts about it.
I cannot watch an American exercise of this kind without instantly thinking of Indian equivalents. I do this not for comparative grading, or to pick the more impressive, or the more depressing, country or society. I do it because heartless attacks on the innocent are (and have been) a daily reality in so many parts of India too.
And because in India these attacks provoke not a calm search for facts but a heated debate on which religious group to blame. And because in most cases the victim or surviving relatives of the victim not only do not get justice. Soon they are forgotten.
I do not know what justice or relief the American (and Mexican) victims of El Paso and Dayton will eventually get. Still, there was something uplifting about the briefing’s focus on a callous deed and its innocent victims, and on policemen, doctors, nurses and blood-donors who rose to the occasion.
Trump and his adversaries, the irrationality of American gun laws, the supposed tendency towards terrorism of some kinds of people, and the presumed impossibility of other kinds to move in a similar direction – questions like these didn’t enter the briefing.
In an evening of horror and tragedy, why did I feel heartened by a briefing?
One reason may be that I was seeing fresh proof that we humans are greater than our labels. Democrat or Republican, white, black, yellow or brown, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew or Christian, BJP, the Congress, the Left, we are human above all. We’re wounded when an innocent child, shopper, employee, traveller, whoever, is cut down.
Secondly, and at another level, I was heartened because the calm and honest briefing showed that America with all its scarily troubling weaknesses contains some wonderful spaces. America is greater than its president, and its informal institutions may be as valuable as its formal and famed branches of government.
An informal institution such as a seemingly simple nationwide briefing from one locality, even a place far from Washington, New York or Los Angeles. A briefing where the wish to share information about a grave event overrides the desire to shine or outshine.
When a reporter at the El Paso briefing wanted to know whether the manifesto posted by the killer an hour before he opened his gun suggested a hate crime, the FBI man, to whom the governor passed the question, showed sensitivity required by an African-American in Texas. “All aspects are being investigated,” said the FBI officer.
The local police chief felt he had to intervene. “Yes,” the white officer said, “the manifesto does suggest a hate crime.”
In institutions large and small, frankness and sensitivity are inspiring qualities.