Typically, as we watch shootings happen across the country, empathetic sadness sinks in as we grieve for those who have lost loved ones, but we’re grateful that we have never had to experience anything quite so horrible, and that our friends and family are safe. This morning, for at least 12 families in the DC area, that tragedy hit home, and for the rest of us, it came disturbingly, frighteningly close. It’s a cruel game of fate, and with the increased frequency in violent mass shootings around this country, you start to feel like a number on a very large roulette wheel.
Shootings are something that crop up all too commonly in the news these days. I started grad school last year, so since my life is once again divided by semesters, this frequency has been more noticeable for me. My first semester of school, finals were marked by the school shooting in Newtown. The next semester’s finals, just four months later, were marked by the Boston Marathon bombing. Now, in September, the beginning of the third and current semester, we face a similar situation here in Washington, DC.
Over the last two months, I’ve been working with 4 others on a grant that sends us out to the off-street bike trails in DC every single day. Since two of those trails, the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail and the Suitland Parkway Trail, are located east of the river, we’ve taken to spending a lot of time biking through and hanging out in the Navy Yard, which connects to the newly opened 11th Street Bridge. This morning, around 7:30 AM, 2 of us biked past the Navy Yard and over the bridge. Nothing seemed amiss.
Coming back, around 9:50 AM, I wanted to grab something to eat before we went back to home base. “We’ve got some extra time,” said my coworker, “Let’s head to the Potbelly in Navy Yard.” As we biked that way, we noticed an usual amount of helicopter activity, starting at the US Park Police headquarters right off the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, which runs underneath the 11th Street Bridge. We got closer and noticed that there were flashing lights on the road, but the trail was still open, so we biked up the hill to see what was going on.
The bridge, which is usually quite busy that close to rush hour, was closed to vehicle, foot, and bike traffic. There was a police car sitting a ways past us, and traffic on the adjacent bridge had also been halted by a police car. To be honest, the people who live and work in DC are pretty used to street closures due to accidents, bomb scares, presidential motorcades, or whatever else. Since there was no one running up to us telling us not to be there, we talked about crossing. It was cold, rainy, and we were tired. But this situation was unusual, and something didn’t feel right. As we stood watching, I noticed two or three police boats in the river, and across the river, one of the helicopters hovered over the Navy Yard. It appeared to be lifting something, or someone, in the air. The ambient sound of sirens served as a backdrop for the whole scene.
I looked down at my phone to check what was happening on Twitter while my coworker went to go talk to the policeman. There was a text from our supervisor--“Hey, stay out of the Navy Yard this morning. There is a shooter on the loose and they’ve closed 11th Street.” My stomach sank. What? A shooter? On the loose? Where? Immediately my thoughts turned to the safety of those that I know who work in and around the Navy Yard, as well as for the safety of my coworker and me--standing by ourselves on an otherwise closed bridge, with emergency vehicles zooming around, we felt like sitting ducks. As my coworker came back to report, another police officer on a motorcycle pulled up next to me and asked what we were doing. Turns out they hadn’t realized there was a trail there, so they hadn’t closed it off. After the officer told me there were “several bodies down,” and that we definitely shouldn’t cross that particular bridge, I asked him where we should go. “I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t have to pedal.” Unsure what else to do, we turned around and headed into downtown Anacostia for safety.
After about 15 minutes of scrolling through confusing and mixed updates on Twitter, we consulted a map and headed back across using Pennsylvania Avenue, which took us into Capitol Hill and skirted around the dangerous area. It’s a terrible connection for bicycles, but it was either that or South Capitol Bridge, which is right next to the ballpark and the Navy Yard, and we weren’t about to risk that. I found out later that the area we were biking through was also under lockdown advisory, but there wasn’t really any other way to get back up to where we were going.
Everyone that I know, at least so far, is fine. Once again, I feel lucky to be in the group of people that can sit on the sidelines and feel empathetically sad, and that the roulette ball hasn’t landed on me. I am so, so grateful for the police officers who closed that bridge down on time, for the first responders and security guards that were in the middle of the situation, and that my coworker and I were fortunate enough to not be near the Navy Yard while the shootings were going on.
I’m angry at news agencies for reporting conflicting and in many cases, wrong information for the sake of getting a “breaking” story. I’m angry at whoever did this for terrorizing the city that, after seven years (almost a third of my life), I now call home. I’m angry that people are allowed to exist who have no conception of human life or its value. I’m angry that the people I know and love who work near the Navy Yard had to be so scared. I’m angry at the NRA for merely existing, especially with their headquarters so nearby. And I’m angry that there’s nothing we can do except offer condolences to those who have not gotten so lucky.
It’s an existential kind of anger, the sort that nothing can really quell. News stories always come out after tragedies like this about people helping out other people, and about heroes in times of crisis. These stories, I think, are meant to focus on the good in humanity, and to help us forget that people are actually capable of committing totally senseless acts of violence. And the stories help, to an extent, and they honor those who deserve to be honored, but as these shootings become more and more frequent, I find that my own anger is growing, and that my faith and trust in other people, which once upon a time was almost boundless, is diminishing. Events like this are tragedies not only because of the lives lost, but because of the pure, deep evil that they represent.
Where does it all end? Are we fated to just wipe each other off the planet entirely? Isn’t that what we’re talking about, after all, when we want to give guns to schoolteachers? Do our governing bodies actually harden up and pass laws that might prompt some change? Will that even solve the problem, or is the human tendency towards violence something that runs deeper than what our country’s laws say we can and can’t do?
There are so many questions, and so much doubt, but in an attempt to end this on a hopeful note...
An event that happened on the 11th Street Bridge a couple of weeks back was called "One City," referring to the fact that the newly-built bridge connects both sides of the river. Today, that phrase seems to take on a deeper significance. As we sought people and information out in Anacostia (a part of the city that, upon coming here in 2006, I was told never to go into), and as we greeted everyone that we saw outside on the way back from our shift, in an attempt to bring some small kind of cheer to a very dark situation, I was reminded of what connects us and that we are, in fact, one city. I hope that there’s something in the empathy that we can all still feel for those who are grieving--maybe that ability to love and grieve together is what we're supposed to stake our hopes in.
That being said, my thoughts and love are with the families and friends of those who were killed or injured today here in DC.