A breeze stirred softly from the west — not strong enough to blow out the vigil candles, but strong enough to cool the sweaty brows of the people who gathered near the Westfield Annapolis mall to pray for the victims of the shooting at the Capital Gazette, a few hundred yards away, across Bestgate Road.
At that moment on Friday evening, I had a wish: That we could summon such a perfect breeze to cure people everywhere of their distress — not only the sad, the sick and the hopeless, but those who are constantly angry or full of hate, those who seem unable to move away from grievance and prejudice.
Such a breeze, to get Shakespearean about it, could “gentle their conditions.”
Ministers twice asked the strangers assembled for the vigil to hold hands or extend an arm of comforting embrace. And we did. And the breeze stirred. And someone sang, “Take my hand, precious Lord.” And it was all good.
It is American ritual by now: Vigils after community-jarring violence. In Baltimore, the Rev. Willie Ray used to stage them all the time to draw attention to the drug-related killings on the city’s troubled streets. After mass shootings in the nation’s suburbs and rural communities, people gather, light candles and listen to the words of survivors, political leaders and clergy.
Calls for “unity” have become standard in vigil reflections, revealing a high level of self-consciousness about how divided we are. On Friday evening, a minister invoked the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was shot to death 50 years ago: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
I thought of the words of Robert F. Kennedy on the night of King’s assassination: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country.”
Kennedy spoke at the racial divide, when the country was at war with itself — a war over civil rights, and a war over a war. Since then, other fissures have opened.
Talk of unity is important, but it seems limited to vigils and other times when Americans are hurt and in need of healing. Unity has certainly disappeared from the national conversation in the time of Donald Trump.
You can regard the shooting at the Capital newsroom as a horrible workplace crime with a unique set of circumstances, carried out by a man who, according to police, had sworn a blood oath against the newspaper. That he used a legally acquired shotgun, and not one of the weapons usually associated with mass shootings (and banned from sale in Maryland), likely limited the death toll.
But the instrument for the apparent grievance-settling was still a gun, and five innocent people are dead. And, of course, the Capital shooting was not an isolated incident. Despite Trump’s inaugural promise, the carnage has not stopped.
Given what the Anne Arundel County police tell us about the accused man, I don’t make the automatic leap from Trump’s rhetoric about “fake news” and the press being the “enemy of the people” to the shooting in the Capital newsroom.
But Trump certainly poured that poison into a stew that has been simmering in this country for nearly three decades. I can list the ingredients in no particular order: mistrust of government and mainstream media; corporate corruption; rising xenophobia and racial animus; untreated mental illness and an endless argument about whether the needy deserve as much health care as the rest of us; income inequality and the staggering divide between the wealthy and everyone else; the coarsening of public discourse; opinions trumping facts; angry argument and hostility instead of civil disagreement and intelligent debate; winner-take-all politics that sees compromise as defeat; the shift from mere partisanship toward ideological tribalism; troubled people living in isolation, a loss of community; a retreat from the ideal of the common good.
On the surface we look like the nation we want to be — prosperous and full of opportunity, grounded in justice and the rule of law.
But to keep the bad from overpowering the good, we need the voices of healing and unity. We need the perfect breezes.
“We are united in our grief, united in our anger, united in our frustration,” one of the ministers said at Friday’s vigil. “We must be united by love, united by respect, by our common humanity.”
I held hands with a stranger at the vigil and thought of Bobby Kennedy again: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago — to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”