It was just after dark and the red and blue lights were shredding the night in Wallkill, New York. We’d driven past this mall just over an hour ago to take our daughter home after a too brief Thanksgiving break. Now there were police cars lined up along the length of the Orange Country Galleria Mall, and my wife said, “I hope it’s not a shooting.” Life in America’s that way. About two hours later we were home and yes, it had been a shooting incident. For reasons nobody knows, a man discharged a handgun into the floor at the crowded shopping center, injuring two. Police had not located the shooter, and no motive was known. The mall was evacuated and holiday shoppers feared for their lives.
Just a few months ago I was in Penn Station, New York when a similar panic ensued. Rail police had used a taser gun on a passenger who’d gotten out of hand. As we were entering the station to catch our train, scores of people were running out in a panic. It had sounded like a gunshot. Clothes and personal effects littered the floor of the station once we got inside. This is the world in which we live. A world enamored of weapons. A world where we hate and distrust the stranger. A world where our government receives support from gun lobbies and refuses to put controls on the sale and ownership of firearms. A world where a peaceful Sunday night on the busiest shopping weekend of the year ends in panic and tears.
Wallkill, New York, is not exactly a metropolitan area. Upstate, as we’ve been learning for the last several years, is pretty big. Small population centers dot an impressive landscape of Catskills, Finger Lakes, and beautifully wooded hills. The people are generally friendly, less brusk than they tend to be in New York City. It seems that where two or three are gathered together there’s a handgun in their midst, however. Trusting ourselves to be good people, we want to arm ourselves to shoot the “bad guy.” Meanwhile Congress still tries to pass legislation to reduce health care since, I guess, too many people are getting shot. It can be a real drain on the economy if the wealthy have to chip in. It’s upstate New York. We have about two hours to go before we can rest at home. Galleria Mall is in lockdown. The rest of the nation is too.
One-hundred-five years ago today, one of modernity’s great achievements sank alone in the icy waters of the chilled North Atlantic. While the ultimate cause of Titanic’s demise may have been an iceberg, the proximate cause was surely much more common. Human arrogance, we’re reminded daily, never learns its lesson. Despite what elected officials tell us, arrogance at the top will always lead according to its surfeit of self-confidence. After all, there are no icebergs this far south so late in the year. It seems that we’ll never forget Titanic and the hundreds of needless deaths, but somehow we’re not very good at transferring the lesson to other media. Let me give just a small example.
Yesterday I was in New York City. My family came during the day to celebrate my wife’s birthday. One of the benefits of New Jersey Transit is that after 7 p.m. on a Friday, a monthly bus pass also works on the train. I can meet up with my family after work and we can ride home in comfort instead of taking the bus, such as I usually do. We didn’t know that at 3:30 that afternoon a train had broken down in one of the limited number of tunnels under the Hudson. (Governor Chris Christie had famously stopped work on another set of tunnels to ease the commute.) About twelve-hundred passengers sat for an amazing three hours with no lights, air conditioning, or announcements. No trains could make it into New York’s Penn Station. When we arrived, oblivious, just before 7 p.m. there were people pouring out of the station. Coats and clothing were strewn all over the steps, as if the homeless had been raptured. The police told my wife and daughter not to go down. A few minutes later they said, “Definitely no shots were fired.” When we got to the platform all the monitors read about half-past five. Discarded clothing was everywhere. It was only when we finally got on a train that we learned that in the anxious terminal where crowds were restless, Amtrak police had tazed a man. People thought shots had been fired, and panicked. The video taken by those in the station shows people running, dropping clothes, luggage, and shoes in their haste to flee. Just after this, we’d arrived.
Titanic, it seems to me, is about building something so massive that it can’t be controlled. Human arrogance is like that. This week we heard about United Airlines security beating up a passenger to make room for company employees who needed to be on an oversold flight. Just a couple weeks back another New Jersey Transit train derailed in Penn Station, disrupting for days the insane commute some of us undertake daily. Who’s the captain of this ship? Oh. But we don’t have to worry. There are no icebergs this far south this late in the year.