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American-Made Mayhem

January 18, 2011

The good people of Tucson, Arizona are still reeling from the massacre in a shopping mall a few days ago that killed six public-spirited citizens and wounded 13 other folks including a popular congresswoman. Horrendous and heartbreaking as it was, it was just the latest outbreak of a peculiar American ritual.

Given enough time, every community from Florida to Alaska, Maine to Hawaii may experience the all-American, historical ritual of shooting up the place. On the first day of spring in 1995, one of these ritualistic, self-proclaimed rites of firing a firearm into a peaceful crowd took place in the town where I lived. It was another in a widespread pattern of such shootings across the USA that it had its own slang name: “going postal.” Here’s what I wrote about it some time after. Nothing much has changed except the names of the places and the victims.

March Madness

Bam.
Bam.
Bam.
Bam.
Bam. Bam.
Four men shot dead.

A fifth lies still
with two bullets in his head
trying not to twitch
until the intruder leaves
the neighborhood post office.

Rumors of a shooting ricochet
through newsrooms miles away:
murder and mayhem in Montclair.
I call home; no one answers.
From newsrooms across metro New York
journalists who roam the world
to cover wars and disasters
rush home to interview their neighbors
and check on their own kin.

Massacre in mediatown—
picturesque Montclair, New Jersey.
A dozen television cameras converge
on the flowery plaza opposite
the grotesquely spot lit post office.
The mayor appears amid the massed microphones
to express the shock of suburbia.

When captured, the shooter is found
to have grown up around the corner,
attended local schools,
and worked for the town DPW.
With a pistol bought like popcorn
at a shoot-‘em-up action flick,
he slipped under America's defenses
pointed outward to fend off
the evils of the world.

R.I.P. Ernie and Scott,
who cheerfully sold me stamps,
asking how things were going.
R.I.P. Bob and George,
who walked into the Watchung Plaza
post office at the wrong time.
Hang in there, David, who
miraculously survived two slugs.

But for fickle fate,
coulda been me:
What? Why? I’d have
screamed in my last breath
as a vaguely familiar figure
executed us in a row on the floor.

--Jan Barry

(from Earth Songs: New & Selected Poems)

Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.