Las Vegas Lost

Today, Sunday Oct 8, marks 1 week since the shooter from Mesquite killed 58 and wounded 489 people in Las Vegas. A week before that dreadful day, Peter and I had booked our free hotel rooms on the strip. On Monday, after our kids and friends individually called or e-mailed to ask if we were still going, we made up our minds: our trip was still on.

 

No noble motives related to the massacre spurred my and Peter’s journey. Our trip was self-serving: we longed for a break from everyday responsibilities and we were taking it. Should we have told ourselves that “if we cancel our trip the terrorist will have won,” that would be have been a  justification so hollow that we ourselves would not have believed it. Our lack of a noble goal, though, does not mean—when we set out on Tuesday morning—that our hearts were not heavy for the senseless loss of lives and mindless infliction of injuries on Sunday night in Vegas.

Hannah Ahlers, 34, of Beaumont, Calif., was killed

Hannah Ahlers, 34, of Beaumont, Calif., was killed in Las Vegas after a gunman opened fire on Oct. 1, 2017, at a country music festival. (Photo: AP)

When Peter and I had the car packed and ready on Tuesday morning, the count of people dead and injured was still in flux and very much understated. While on the road, we listened to CNN and MNBC on satellite radio. At home we do not have access to these two—or any other—twenty-four-hour TV news channels. Listening to them on trips was therefore a usually a “treat”: nothing better to regale us (albeit rather masochistically) through the 7-8 hours of travel than keeping track of Trump’s latest tweets and counter-tweets. A day after the Vegas tragedy, though, the news consisted of the death- and injury count going up, combined with a relentlessly expanding catalogue of additional massacre-related discoveries, facts, and speculations. Heart-breaking accounts from family members of people who had died started coming in. As the miles accumulated, we started to internalize these losses: the husbands, wives, sons, and daughters left behind became ourselves and our children; the little kids who lost a parent became our own Kanye, Aliya, and Dante.

This undated image shows Jack and Laurie Beaton of

This undated image shows Jack and Laurie Beaton of Bakersfield, Calif. Jack was killed in Sunday’s shooting in Las Vegas. (Photo: Courtesy Jake Beaton)

No matter how sincerely we believed that we felt the pain of the bereaved, we really could not come even close from our geographic and emotional distance to people we would never meet. We who were not actually victims, but experienced the event vicariously, exercised the luxury of deciding we could only take so much. We switched off the radio, turned on an audiobook from Peter’s reading list: Michael Connely’s The Reversal tells about a rugged detective and an inspired team of prosecutors re-investigating the twenty-years-ago murder of a child. The story is suspenseful, funny, well-told. The murder is fictional. That we were able to take, since it came with the promise that true justice was about to (fictionally) be achieved.

Denise Cohen, one of the people killed in Las Vegas

Denise Cohen, one of the people killed in Las Vegas after a gunman opened fire on Oct. 1, 2017, at a country music festival. (Photo: AP)

When we arrived in Las Vegas, the town seemed empty. There was hardly any traffic on the strip. I told Peter that for once I didn’t need the overhead walkways to get around; in fact, I could probably make it across the street without even being at a traffic light. And I no longer jay-walk even in Salt Lake City! When we remarked on the town’s quietness during our check-in at the hotel, the concierge blamed the time of year for the reduced number of visitors, not the shooting. Other locals in stores and restaurants would later say that too.

Keri Galvan, right, of Thousand Oaks, was killed in

Keri Galvan, right, of Thousand Oaks, was killed in the Las Vegas massacre. (Photo: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)

Though we talked to Vegas locals or other Americans we met—a couple in Starbucks, salespeople in the mall, people who asked us where we’re from because of our South African accents—nobody really wanted to talk about what happened. A young woman who works in Zara was the only one who brought up the shooting herself, but not directly. It only came out after I had asked her what she did outside of work hours: she studied psychology at the University of Nevada. Not surprisingly, she spoke about the presumed mental illness of the shooter. She felt that no changes could be made to the gun laws that will prevent mentally ill persons from carrying out mass shootings.

Charleston Hartfield, a Las Vegas police officer, was

Charleston Hartfield, a Las Vegas police officer, was among those slain by the Las Vegas shooter. (Photo: Sgt. Walter Lowell/Nevada National Guard)

I didn’t tell my friend at Zara what I had discovered about mental illness and mass shootings: only a tiny percentage of mass shootings (less than 2%) are attributable to persons with a mental illness. Besides, the mental illnesses of the handful of people who have committed a mass shooting had not been diagnosed or noticed as a danger sign by loved ones before the commission of the violent act (as it would turn out to be in the case of the Las Vegas shooter too.)  Of the shooters who bought the guns used in their massacre, most were not impaired enough to trigger suspicions in their family or the salespeople at the gun store. (The Las Vegas shooter actually triggered alarms when he visited a gun store in Texas, but he still made it through all the formal checks without being identified as impaired.) To top it off, if we add up all violent acts attributable to serious mental illness, including those that do not involve guns, they account for only about 3% of all violent acts in our country. (“Mass Shootings and Mental Illness.”)

Angela Gomez, 20, who was killed in the LAs Vegas shooting

Angela Gomez, 20, who was killed in the LAs Vegas shooting on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. (Photo: Associated Press)

Neither did I opine to my young friend at Zara that gun violence in the United States was a far bigger problem than all the mass shootings we’ve had, no matter how staggering their impact: the average person has a bigger chance of being hit by lightning or winning the Powerball jackpot than being shot in some mass shooter event. I did not tell her that on an average day, 93 Americans are killed with guns, 7 of them teens or children. That that translates to 10.6 people dying by gun out of each city the size of Davenport IA; Dearborn, MI; Pueblo, CO; Gainesville, Florida; Berkeley, CA; Macon, GA; or Orem, UT—that is, 10.6 people per 100,000 in the US per year. I did not mention that for every one person killed with a gun, two more are injured, many with life-changing injuries. I did not venture that two thirds of the approximately 34,000 gun deaths per year in the US were suicides.

I said nothing, because

“Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.
So either way you’re talking politics.”

So says Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, in her poem “Children of our Age.

The next day when I found myself in Zara again, my young friend made a point of looking me up and saying hello.

 

In our hotel room, in the meantime, we had CNN and MSNBC not only in audio, but in full color on TV. I saw scenes of the shooting played and replayed, more relatives telling the stories about their loved ones who had died, the shooter’s brother saying he would never have guessed his sibling was capable of such violence, the shooter’s partner saying the man from Mesquite had been kind to her. On Sunday night, CNN had a program in which they showed images of every victim of the shooting, together with the comments of friends and family about each one. It was called” Las Vegas Lost.”

Sonny Melton, with his wife, Heather, was one of the

Sonny Melton, with his wife, Heather, was one of the victims in the Las Vegas shooting that left more than 50 people dead on Oct. 1, 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of Heather Gulish Melton)

The longer we stayed in Vegas, the less I had to say. But maybe I could make a different gesture? Drop off a card, flowers, at the site of the shooting? See the still open windows with curtains blowing from them, like the woman I had spoken to the previous day?

Victor Link, 55, is among the Las Vegas shooting victims.

Victor Link, 55, is among the Las Vegas shooting victims. (Photo: Facebook)

The problem was that I had this thought only when I woke up on Saturday morning, the day on which we were driving back. We had to get an early start if Peter were to manage the 6-8 hr drive back home. (No help from me, I no longer had a driver’s licence.) There was no time to find a flower shop, buy a card. While Peter showered, I decided to make a card out of what I had available: two fashion magazines and a packet of Bandaids. I had no scissors, so I tore out magazine pictures, ideas, and shapes that seemed a propos to the tragedy. My canvas was a double-spread of a peaceful scene: a lane of trees, a pond, water plants, including water lilies. On this background, I band-aided two hearts and a banner I had crafted and individual large letters I had torn out, together with a poster from the Women’s march that said, BElieve THEre is GOOD in the world, and, finally, a photo of an art installation in London by the American artist Jenny Holzer, who projects words on buildings or landscapes to comment on contemporary issues ranging from gender politics to the war in Iraq: in this piece, she illuminated London’s City Hall with the stanza from Wislawa Szymborska’s poem that I quoted above.

  

Jenny Holzer projects a Wislawa Szymborska poem on London City Hall. Venus Comb  Murex from the Philippines.

My card never made it to the memorial site across from the Mandalay Bay hotel where the massacre occurred. After Peter had agreed to make an out-of-our-way detour to Mandalay Bay, I saw on TV that Vice President Pence’s plane had just landed and that he was making his way from the airport on a route that would coincide with ours, but in the opposite direction. On Wednesday, we had seen the traffic snarls caused by President Trump’s use of the same route. I decided to skip my belated gesture of empathy. The card was ugly, anyway. Sounds much better in my description than it was in real life. Besides, who was this gesture for? Wasn’t it just a self-indulgence to make me believe I had really felt the pain of Las Vegas?

My ugly card, of which the most redeeming aspect was the Yellow Rabbitbush that I picked by a place where we stopped for coffee on our way out of town.

The last thing I heard on TV was that gun- and ammunition sales were up nationwide. This picture from a spot near our hotel says it all:

Trump Tower rises over Dick’s, a gun store, in downtown Las Vegas.

While I was still scorning the absurd double-phallic cityscape, I noticed that Saks’ Fifth Avenue was located right next to Dick’s. I had almost bought a dance dress there, but in the end they could not find it in my size. I myself was complicit in the extravagant consumption that underlies our country’s me-me-me Zeitgeist, the same sensibility that says, “I am entitled to a gun, lots of guns, as many firearms as I want”!

The building on the right of Trump tower is the expensive department store Saks Firth Avenue.

At the end of this writing, I ask myself: Have I become cynical? Where has my usual upbeat assessment of the world gone? Do my readers need more negativity than is already circulating in our country?

My answer is that “To everything (turn, turn, turn)/ There is a season (turn, turn, turn)/ And a time to every purpose, under heaven.”

Las Vegas was my season to mourn. But time to myself also gave me the gift of rediscovering Wislawa Szymborska. Her sequential view of tragedy places the Las Vegas shooting in a historical cycle, not an upward spiral that must always get worse. Her poem “The End and the Beginning” helps me imagine that our country will sometime—soon?—return to a day when
“In the grass that has overgrown

causes and effects,

someone must be stretched out

blade of grass in his mouth

gazing at the clouds.”

My and Peter’s “time off” in Las Vegas has restored me to a point where I feel ready for activism. As Szymborska’s “The End and the Beginning” reminds us,

“After every war

someone has to clean up.

Things won’t

straighten themselves up, after all.”

 

To learn more about all the Las Vegas victims, click here.