The thick blanket of snow glitters under a nearly full moon and the stars are poking through the navy sky. I love picking out the dippers. I learned to spot them when I was a kid and seeing them all these years later reminds me of the triumph of learning to make sense of the chaotic smattering of light. It’s grounding to know the constellations are there, always, for the finding, and maybe people I love are somewhere picking out the same stars. The sky is full of limitless possibility, beauty, and, from this distance, safety.
But tonight, I can’t sleep. I feel, in my churning core, all the people looking up at the sky who can’t sleep either.
As I write, this year has surpassed 2022 for the number of mass shootings to date. There are people — children, students, adults — who have survived one mass shooting only to be caught in another. In the aftermath of each tragedy, an overwhelmed witness says some version of, “I never thought this could happen here.”
The communities suffering through violence are quiet and vibrant. They’re full of hardworking, earnest people and families who have financial worries, rebellious teenagers, piano prodigies and budding finger-paint artists. They work, pay taxes, worry about inflation, binge-watch Netflix, go dancing, go to nightclubs and go to school. They’re just like all of us, until horrific violence sets them apart and they join a growing number of survivors and victims.
There’s a quote by Mister Rogers that gets trotted out after tragedies, though as the pain piles up, I hear it less and less. Mister Rogers suggests that when something bad happens, you should find the helpers. Helpers are beacons of hope, pulling some good out of the terrible and offering some stability in a moment when our collective head is spinning.
It seems we need helpers more than ever. People on the scene of tragedies are called to heroism and answer the call so consistently, we just expect it. And the people with the most power are quick to thank them and quickly sit back on their hands.
What’s happening with the officials we elected to lead? The elite and loud, who self-selected and asked us to trust in their willingness and ability to be helpers? They raised their hands. They volunteered. They promised to be better suited for the job than anyone else.
Our representatives weren’t drafted, like the concertgoers in Vegas who, in a flash, went from hoping to hear their favorite song to running for their lives. They aren’t like students in Michigan who escaped through a window and then put themselves in harm’s way to help their classmates. They’re not like responders in Newtown or Parkland or Uvalde who had to document and clean up after the slaughter of their community’s children. Average citizens, stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time, are brave, heroic and poised. They personify grace. Our eyes well and chests swell with pride when we hear their stories.
It seems like Congress only steps up for the easy wins. When I fly, I take my shoes off to get through security. I submit to a scanner that dissolves my clothes, allowing unknown persons to check my body for lumps. I submit to pat-downs. I don’t carry shampoo or lotion. I do this because one crazy guy tried to blow up his shoes. Another guy tried to light his underwear on fire.
I don’t mean to make light of these acts. The public needs to know the government is doing everything possible to make the sky safe. I get it. Removing shoes is a hassle that I don’t believe adds to safety, but I do it without complaint because the idea of a terrorist act that kills a plane full of people is shocking and hideous.
Are you a terrorist if you bring down a plane but you’re something less grotesque, less worthy of attention from elected helpers, if you kill elementary school kids or college students?
I feel woefully ill-equipped to debate the polarizing issues surrounding guns and violence. I’m afraid our legislators are counting on that — they’re hoping never to feel heat from their constituents, since they already feel pressure from lobbyists and their colleagues.
I didn’t grow up with the threat of mass shootings hanging over me. I wasn’t safe from gun violence because of where I lived. I was safe because these shootings simply didn’t happen like they do today. People of a certain age had the same relative safety, and we know something changed. And this year, this young year, we are averaging 1.5 mass shootings per day.
I know this issue cuts deep for many. I also know I can’t sleep unless I offer my voice in support of helpers everywhere and maybe, in a small measure, become a helper myself.
I think mass killings are acts of terror and the person who carries out the carnage is a terrorist. Our elected helpers must act with the same urgency and solution-based thought to prevent the next mass shooting as they do to prevent other acts of terror. The people who asked us to make them leaders can’t be less heroic than innocent bystanders who never asked for the role. It can’t be too much to ask for the people with power to be honest, to engage in fair dialogue, and to put their personal interest after the interest of the country.
Maine isn’t on the list of states that have endured mass shootings this year. Is Maine doing something right that the rest of the country should know about? I don’t know. I do know the people of Maine have a tradition of fierce independence and accomplishing hard things. The people of Maine are uniquely qualified to lead on any issue.
The unthinkable is going to happen in another community and there will be another soul-crushing interview with a witness trying to work through trauma in real time. We’ll hear stories of helpers who use their bodies as shields and make tourniquets from T-shirts. Before that happens, I’ll be a helper and demand my representatives act for my safety, the safety of those I love, and the safety of those I’ll never meet.
Maybe you can be helpers too?
And for those who don’t remember, the Mister Rogers quote is: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
Erin O’Mara lives in Harpswell and serves on the Harpswell News Board of Directors.