It’s been my worst nightmare since my earliest days as a journalist: Someone, for whatever reason, takes exception to something you’ve written and decides to violently take it out on you, your co-workers or your family.
The first time I had ever worried about that was sitting on the hard, uncomfortable benches of the Caroline County Circuit Court house on the Eastern Shore. I was covering my first big case, a lengthy trial of a man nicknamed “Bones,” arrested on drug kingpin charges. Police who had investigated the case told me beforehand that the accused may have tried to take a hit out on a witness, although I don’t think they were able to prove it. At one point, the “media coverage” of the trial was brought up by the defense attorney, I believe in his argument asking for a relocation of the trial. The “media coverage” was me, working for the tiny weekly community newspaper with a circulation of about 5,000 at best.
There was a moment where the accused turned from his seat at the defendant’s table and stared daggers through me. I went home that night after filing my story, locked my doors and wondered what kind of career I’d gotten into. Nevertheless, I went back to court to cover the trial the next day, and continued working in this crazy profession for the next 15-plus years.
Those fears came rushing back Thursday when several colleagues at our sister publication, the Annapolis Capital, were gunned down in their newsroom by a deranged individual who had a long-standing vendetta with the newspaper over an article it had published about him years earlier.
I didn’t know the individuals who died particularly well, despite the ties the Carroll County Times had with the Capital long before both papers were purchased by the Baltimore Sun Media Group a few years back. I had met their assistant editor, Rob Hiaasen a few times. We used to email stories that each of our news desks were working on to see if there was any interest in picking them up for our own publications. I spoke with Wendi Winters on the phone about a year ago — I can’t even remember what about — and had occasionally emailed her about a feature story.
Some of the reporters who soldiered on to ensure that there would still be a Friday, June 29, edition of the Capital, I know a bit better. Chase Cook, who famously tweeted in the aftermath “I can tell you this: We’re putting out a damn paper,” is an excellent journalist who I had the pleasure of getting to know when he covered the state legislature for the Times a few years ago. Rachael Pacella, who suffered a non-gunshot related injury in the incident, interviewed with the Carroll County Times a few years ago, before ultimately taking another job within the Baltimore Sun Media Group. We bonded over having spent an early portion of our careers, albeit at different times, at a small weekly paper in Bethany Beach called the Delaware Wave. I’m relieved they are OK.
Needless to say, Thursday’s attack hit home. It still would’ve hurt to know fellow journalists were gunned down in say, Kansas or Vermont, but having interacted with these individuals previously, and not knowing for hours whether they were dead or alive, or how seriously they had been injured was gut-wrenching.
On Friday, my best friend since high school, who is also a journalist working for the Frederick News-Post, called to ask me how I was doing and to talk about Thursday’s shooting. At some point, I told him that what’s really frightening about this isn’t necessarily that it was journalists that were killed, but that, really, it could happen to anyone, anywhere at any time, and we are, by and large, helpless to stop it.
Who knows what slight, perceived or real, might set someone off?
If you work in a lawyer’s office, and a former client feels the firm took his money and didn’t represent him well enough because he was still found guilty, who is to say he doesn’t come back with violence in his heart?
If you work at a restaurant, and a customer has had their steak overcooked one too many times, who is to say he doesn’t come back and shoot up the place?
We live in a world where no place is truly safe. Not school. Not work. Not the mall or the movies or an outdoor concert. Not even our own homes.
I firmly believe we should continue to call on elected officials and business executives to do all that they can to make it more difficult for these types of tragedies to occur, whether that means adding hurdles that make it more difficult for certain individuals to obtain firearms or spending money to add security protocols that protect employees and students. Any additional layers that can serve as a deterrent to mass murder are worth the cost, in my humble opinion.
But as long as there are people with evil in their hearts, we must known that no amount of legislation will prevent this from happening again somewhere. No amount of security can be 100 percent.
People keep asking me if I’m OK. The answer is no, I’m not. I feel helpless. And I don’t know how to make that feeling go away.
The way I see it, the best we can do is tell our family we love them, put our heads down, go to work, make the most out of our time on this earth, and just hope that today isn’t the day our number is called.