Thursday, March 14, 2013

Gunmen in the Park

The last words you want to hear at a public park, out with your children, especially these days: "Put your hands in the air."

It took me a moment to register this. I'd heard the sirens--they aren't that uncommon--and I'd been watching my boys play on the "fort" some fifteen feet away. The policeman's voice came from over my shoulder, and I turned my head to look.

"Hands where I can see them," he repeated. The officer was big, and more sirens were screeching behind us. I followed his gaze and then I saw them. My children were between me and three young men in black and fatigues, standing with their arms raised. I stood and walked to the play set.

"Boys, come on down from there," I said, calmly. Maybe too calmly. I didn't want to scare them. But the park, a bustle of happy cries a moment before, had gone quiet as a museum. My boys were transfixed, too. Then my youngest slid down, while the other stood his ground, watching it unfold.

"Come down. Hurry up," I said. The reality of the situation was starting to set in. The tallest two youngsters, boys really, wore long black trench coats, and they were not thirty feet away. And my oldest was still between me and them. I tugged him off the play set, corralled his younger brother, and crouched down behind the laughable protection of a chain ladder countless children had used to climb into the "fort."

The police officer had raised his voice again and he was now nearer the youngsters. I don't remember that he had a gun drawn. I don't remember a taser. I do, though, remember the moment he reached them and took their guns. They were long, assault-rifle-looking guns. And he said something like, "You scared people."

toy guns
Image from
I don't know what happened after that. The guns, I think, were toys, or maybe BB guns. The tallest kid should have known better; he might have been in eighth grade, and he had a long, blank face--maybe surly, maybe annoyed, but not obviously sorry. The middle child was maybe in fifth or sixth grade; he was the one with the fatigues. The youngest was only a small child, maybe a year older than my second-grader.

It took a long time for the situation to dissolve, though, I do know that. The police cars sat for several minutes with their flashers pulsing, and more still without them. The arresting officer took the young men behind a building and, presumably, to his cruiser parked out of sight. He was carrying their guns, and I was left with the boys, wondering how soon was too soon to let them play normally.

Meanwhile, as I held on to them, reassuring them, explaining that it was only a mistake, keeping my voice steady because … oh my God, it could have been something a lot worse … I realized something I hadn't before: only after the crisis had passed did I understand what could have happened. Like most people, I assume more innocence in the world than evil, even after all I've watched unfolding on the news. I just don't have it in me to expect mass murder. Neither did anybody I saw in the park that day. Nobody fled in a panic. And I can't say I'm sorry for that. In fact, I think it's those of us who don't expect it or think it's normal who will ultimately press for the real changes that are needed: an end to bullying, an end to hate-speech, to stock-piling and paranoia, to the glorification of violence. Sensible gun regulations. Kindness in public places. Care for outcasts. These are the kinds of changes that could make for a world where I won't have to do more than I did in the park that day.

And, as it turns out, when you think about it, I was right, wasn't I? Those boys weren't bent on killing us all, now were they? So maybe believing the best about people isn't such a bad place to start after all.

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