I wrote this a year ago for the Times-News in Burlington, North Carolina when the nation was on fire — shootings were rampant, political turmoil was everywhere and we seemed on the precipice on a major cultural shift. A year later here we are only in this reality America elected George Wallace. This is the column.
When one of our summer interns came in to work on Friday his first stop was my office. His eyes were bloodshot. He looked about two hours short of a good night’s rest.
I knew how he felt.
He had a question.
“Are we living in the end times?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” I replied. “It’s more like we’re living in 1968.”
The horror that had transpired in Dallas just hours earlier was still fresh in my mind as I walked into our deserted newsroom on Friday morning. My first thought upon walking into the Times-News building: The reporting staff at the Dallas Morning News certainly isn’t operating in an empty space this morning. They’re still out at the scene of a massacre born from a combustible mix of hatred, anger and insanity. They’re exhausted. They’re dirty. They’re hungry. Their families want them to be at home. They need to know they’re safe. They need hugs.
But instead, they’re still working to tell a story, a story America has to not only hear this time but actually listen to — there is too much at stake to do otherwise.
Five Dallas police officers shot dead, seven more wounded in a well-planned attack at an otherwise peaceful protest about police-involved shootings of black Americans that occurred earlier in the week. It happened not far at all from one of the worst crimes in American history — Dealey Plaza, the site of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
This one will rank near it.
And my next thought was we’ve been here before.
I WASN’T aware of the shooting in Dallas until just before midnight Thursday, a couple hours after it happened. That’s like dog years in the modern digital world of immediate news and instant conjecture. By the time I logged on early Friday morning, the usual camps were already forming. There is a mourning group, the questioning group — those seeking answers to that which can’t be rationally explained by anyone. And there is a blame group, the cynical and skeptical group. They provide quick windshield observations often based on political views. They don’t seek solutions, mainly scapegoats, blame magnets and punching bags.
But there seemed to be a difference this time. The first camp slightly outnumbered the latter. It usually shakes out about 50-50. Somewhere in there, a new camp emerged.
I’ll call it the frightened group — the almost mortally petrified group. They can’t understand how society has devolved to this point. They want lives that make sense, safe cities and neighborhoods filled with polite and caring human beings. They want police who aren’t shooting people without reason. They want people who do as police ask and don’t put officers in a position to make potentially deadly decisions. And they want people who aren’t taking potshots at police officers doing their jobs.
What they want is a safe nation for their kids. They want a peaceful community for themselves.
They want something normal.
Nothing else makes any sense at all.
I DIDN’T get to bed until around 2 a.m. Friday morning. That isn’t so weird. I’m a night owl. But Friday morning I was working — updating our website from home. I thought people needed to have the latest accurate information out of Dallas. The last Associated Press update I posted moved at shortly after 1 a.m. I spent another hour interacting with a shocked public on social media.
People of my generation, the new breed of dinosaurs walking upon the earth, were pretty uniform in one observation. This all feels very much like 1968. That was a volatile year in America, a time when a presidential candidate and civil rights leader were both assassinated. One of the major political parties had a presidential nominating convention where rioting and violence erupted, which was subdued harshly by Chicago’s police and played out on TV. Both parties nominated candidates for president they weren’t all that excited about. An angry, agitating and hate-mongering populist named George Wallace ran as a third-party candidate.
Old political alliances were failing, and new ones swam in wet cement. American culture was in flux. Generations were sharply divided about war, morality, the economy, religion, race, and which direction our nation would take. Protests happened daily somewhere. Violence erupted daily almost anywhere.
And it was all packaged for TV on the nightly news.
Like I said, we’ve been here before.
Finding our way back to something normal is tougher to figure out. Friday I spent much of the day talking to people who felt hopelessly lost in the anger and hate that is rolling over our nation today like kudzu on a Southern riverbank. The answers are within us all, but unlocking the vault to the kind of national self-awareness required to make a difference will take a special key.
Later Friday morning, a retired pastor stopped by and asked to see me. He sought two things: One, he asked that I try to write something to help him make sense of it all. And two, he wanted a hug.
He got the second. I’m still working on the first.
Madison Taylor is editor of the Times-News. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org