When you have kids, you end up answering questions. A lot of questions.
At a moment's notice, you can be on the spot to answer questions about mortality, god, the government, the law, race, class, banks, genitals and reproduction of various species - you name it. If they have heard about it, you will likely be called upon to answer it sooner or later.
A few weeks ago, in early July, 2012, my wife, daughter, and I went to the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. My daughter has been incredibly interested in the attack on 9/11 - she's eight, and wasn't alive when it happened. As part of the lead up to the ten year anniversary of the event she saw pictures and footage of the disaster. Around that time, we were all watching some completely unrelated show, and during a commercial break they ran an ad for the anniversary coverage, and quick as a blink the footage of the plane exploding into the second tower filled the screen. My wife flinched, and my daughter split her attention between the screen and my wife.
"Was that it, actually happening?" my daughter asked.
Isabelle, my wife, nodded.
"What happened to the building afterwards?"
"The fire from the plane burned for a while, and it weakened the building, and it collapsed."
My daughter, Iona, has a pretty even blend of the rational and the emotional. She chases things down, thinks about them, and then feels them, deeply.
"Did people die?" Iona asked.
"But they didn't do anything."
We visited the memorial in New York City late in the afternoon on a beautiful sunny day - not too hot, not too cold, just perfect summer. The line moves quickly on the way in, and we proceed through the various security checkpoints. To get into the memorial, you need to pass through around five or six different security checks, including a metal detector and a bag screening. After the third checkpoint, Iona asks us why they needed to check us again.
"Why do you think?" we respond.
"Because the people that attacked the towers might still be around?"
"Not the same people," my wife says. "But this is a place that a lot of people care about. There were a lot of police and firefighters who got hurt and lost people they care about. They want to make sure that that never happens again in this place."
And once we get inside, the memorial is incredibly well done. The pools that cascade down into the footprints of the old towers; the list of names carved into the rock; the open space that invites crowds back in - the combination creates a feeling of space reclaimed, of peace recovered from a place of loss. My daughter walks alongside the edge of the names, dangling her hand into the water while her eyes scan the names.
"All these are people who died?" she asks.
"Yes," I say.
We pass some flowers that someone had placed next to a name. "Is it okay to say that this is pretty?" she asks. My wife nods, yes.
On most mornings, as part of my routine, I'll run through the news online, do some work, and then wake up the rest of the family. The morning of July 20th is no different, and I read about James Holmes's shooting rampage right before I got everyone else up and out of bed. I'm never really sure when to let people know about things like this, but first thing in the morning, just upon waking up, seems like a bad time.
So we are all going through our morning. Isabelle checks her email, and then moves on to browsing the headlines, and she sees the news there. She reads through it while Iona brushes her teeth; Isabelle and I talk about the shooting quickly and quietly, and move on to breakfast.
Later in the morning, when I'm driving Iona to camp, NPR is on the radio when the car starts. They are covering the shooting, and I try and switch over to KNRK before Iona starts to follow the story. But I'm too late; Iona has heard enough, and she says, "Switch it back. I want to hear."
"It's bad news," I tell her.
"I know," she says. "It's interesting."
And we listen to the story, or what they know of it at that point.
"How could he shoot so many people?" she asks. And I explain about high capacity magazines that hold up to 100 bullets, and that it sounds like he had multiple weapons.
"Does this happen often?" she asks. "People shooting during the movies?"
"During the movies, no," I say.
"What should I do if someone starts shooting and I'm in the movies?"
"If you see a door that's really close, get away, as fast as you can. Otherwise, get down, lie flat on the floor, cover your head, and don't move."
She thinks about this. "If you were with me in the movies, and someone started shooting, what would you do?"
"If I couldn't get you out, I'd cover your body with mine."
"So is that what I should do if someone starts shooting?"
I stop at a light. She looks at me through the rear view mirror, waiting. "No. Get yourself out, or get down."
She thinks about this. The light changes. "But why is it different, what you should do and what I should do?"
"Because it is," I tell her. "I'm your dad. My job is to keep you safe. You're eight years old. Your job is to stay alive and not get hurt. Sometimes there are different roles for different people."
Toward the end of the work day yesterday, I learned that Dennison Williams had been awakened from sleep by flash grenades, and handcuffed to a chair while federal agents trained assault rifles on him and searched his home and took some of his things. Apparently, this was part of a larger search and seizure operation.
I've known Dennis for several years, and I like him. As soon as I read the story, I called him. A smarter person than me wouldn't have called him, but I've never been known for my judgment. When I hear about a good person getting handcuffed to a chair at gunpoint, I want to see how they are doing. And Dennis is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances. And, as Dennis and I are talking, it crosses my mind that this is probably the first phone call of my life that is being tapped. I say as much to Dennis; I say hello to the agents that I assume are listening, and go on with the conversation. As I say to Dennis, there isn't anything that we would ever talk about that couldn't become public, but at the same time it's an incredibly disconcerting feeling that somewhere, someone is possibly recording and/or listening to small talk between two people. And at the end of the conversation, I wonder if the actual act of making the call to Dennis has raised my profile in some corner of some government agency. And I don't care, because I'm middle aged and boring, but the thought is unsettling nonetheless.
And I'm still thinking about this when I get home. Isabelle and Iona are home when I get there, and I show Isabelle the writeup on Dennis. Iona has picked up a new flashlight, and she shows me how bright it is. But she knows me, and she gets the sense pretty quickly that I'm preoccupied about something. And Isabelle looks up from the article, and asks, "Is he okay?"
And we explain to Iona what happened - that FBI agents had broken into a friend's home, cuffed him to a chair, pointed guns at him, and searched his things.
"How'd they get in the door?" Iona asked.
"They broke it down," Isabelle said. "They had something called a ram, and men used it to break the door in."
"Could someone do that here?" Iona asked.
"Yes," I told her. "Really, most wooden doors will break pretty easily."
"Did they have guns," Iona asked.
"Yes," I said.
"How big were they?" she asked.
She thinks about this. "Why didn't they just tell him not to move, just to stay in one place?"
"Because it's scarier to handcuff someone," I tell her. "When you handcuff someone, it's a way of telling them that you can do whatever you want to them. It's a way to put them down and intimidate them."
"Did they arrest him? Is he in jail?"
"No," I say. "They wanted to talk to him, and this is how they did it."
"And he's innocent?"
"I think so, yeah," I tell her. "I've known Dennis for a while, and he's not the kind of person you need to handcuff and point a gun at in order to talk with him."
And I don't tell her about the flash grenades, because I can see her looking at our front door, and back into the house, and I wonder if she is picturing heavily armed people stepping over shivered wood as they enter our living room. And Isabelle and I go on with getting dinner ready, and gradually, the night starts to feel a little more normal.
Except, what is normal when people you know, people who are unarmed, have flash grenades thrown into their home, and are hauled out of bed, held at gunpoint, and handcuffed to a chair?
And a part of me wonders: am I now on a list somewhere because I called Dennis after his home was searched? Am I going to get extra scrutiny the next time I fly? Does someone, somewhere, now think that I am slightly more suspicious?
Creating a culture of fear is incredibly simple. People staying quiet in the midst of things that don't feel right plays into it.
Before my daughter goes to bed, she comes creeping down the stairs. She has her flashlight on as she comes down. "It's dark," she says. And I push down the thought of how my little one would react if, rather than her coming down the stairs with her flashlight, federal agents were running up the stairs with rifles and flash grenades. And I know that little ones all over the world experience this and worse every day, but we're not living in a war zone, and my little one isn't used to that.
A few years back, I had a business meeting out in the West Portland suburbs. The potential client had just moved into a new office, and the old tenant's contact info was still up on the door. I recognized the name, but couldn't place it, so I asked the potential client about it.
"Yup," he said. "It was that Brandon Mayfield. We are getting an awesome deal on the lease."
And I know that abuses of power have been happening at home, in my city, for years. But it felt tangential, somehow separate, right up until the point where it didn't.
So, as I'm going to sleep tonight (or really, not going to sleep tonight) I'm thinking about Dennis, and about what it must have been like to be awakened by a flash grenade, and heavily armed men training weapons on you. And I'm thinking about how I would try and keep my wife and daughter safe and calm if I was ever in a comparable situation. Like I said before, I'm middle aged, and boring as all hell - it would be a lot easier to not think about these things. But when individuals get peeled off by law enforcement and get pulled from their beds at gunpoint, it feels excessive. And I think about Iona, and her faith that being innocent, and not doing anything wrong, is enough, and I wonder when, at what point in her life, what event will shake her from this belief.
And for what it's worth, if anyone ever wants to talk to me, please, just get in touch. No guns needed, ever.