Reality crashes in America’s Land of Make Believe

I traveled to Las Vegas for the first time in August of 2001. I’ll always remember the date because approximately a month later I would learn that the bastard terrorists who commandeered jet airliners then used them as missiles on Sept. 11, 2001 were on the infamous Vegas Strip at roughly the same time we were, plotting their remorseless and insane attacks in New York and Washington and indulging themselves in bars, strip clubs, casinos and other stops.

Reality in the Land of Make Believe. That’s something you don’t forget.

We were there for a week, something friends experienced in the ways of Las Vegas warned us about. At least a half-dozen said, “Wow, that’s a long time to be in Vegas.” And it was — but it wasn’t. It was a reunion visit for my spouse, who lived in the more real areas of that otherwise pre-fab city. She was part of the Catholic Worker organization and helped out in a homeless shelter and soup kitchen there. Her cousin managed the site and still does. There were events around the reunion and family visits. A lot of very good reality. And one more real thing we saw for good measure — the Red Rock Canyon Natural Conservation Area. That was the best tourist site we visited, hands down.

And yes, there was plenty of casino stuff, too. Hey, I like glitz just as much as the next person. We stayed in one of the older hotel / casinos in Vegas – the Tropicana. It was within viewing distance of the newer and swankier places on the Strip, including Paris, New York, the MGM Grand, Excalibur, the Luxor and Mandalay Bay. The Trop has been renovated since our visit – one of many facelifts over the years I suppose. I remember on the pool level of the place there was a wedding photo from the 1950s of the nuptials for actors Broderick Crawford and Mary Astor. The Gambling Hall of Fame and Museum is also there – or at least it was. The place was a shrine to the old Frank Sinatra-led Rat Pack from the 1960s.

So it was a history lesson, too.  Sort of oddball, kitschy history, but fun in its way.

That was really the bottom line for that first and so far only foray into Las Vegas — where I’m actually returning later this year. We had fun. Oh, it was hot all right. So hot that you could become dehydrated and not even know it. The air was so arid that a person could sweat in 110-degree heat and never be aware of it at all – it dried immediately, leaving a salty residue on the skin. Don’t let anyone tell you different, the dry heat in a Las Vegas August is still uncomfortable.

But we had a great time exploring the gaudy but alluring sites along the main Vegas Strip. Visitors can go there and not spend a nickel gambling and have a fabulous adventure. The wife and I aren’t much in the way of thrill seekers. I think we played a slot machine or two just to say we did, but that was it for gambling.

I admit, it was a blast checking out the fountains at Bellagio, or riding the gondola at the Venetian, or watching a medieval performance at Excalibur. They have tigers on display in Vegas and fake volcanoes and a fraudulent Eiffel Tower. They are all marvels of excess, imagination and the ingenuity of Americans to create something bogus just to amuse ourselves. It was fascinating.

It was, as I said before, like the Land of Make Believe.

Mandalay Bay is like that. It’s emblematic of all that’s great, garish and awful about Las Vegas. We strolled through there to check out the House of Blues, view the shark exhibit and wonder at the fabulous pools or waterfalls. The shark tank was closed when we paid a call. But really, really, should a shark exhibit be located out in the middle of a desert?

Over the years Mandalay Bay has been a venue for entertainment and sports. It’s known for hosting boxing spectacles and on a few occasions brawls have occurred nearby. Violence isn’t unknown in Las Vegas either. When that many people and so much money collects in one place, well, things happen. The most notable that I can recall in Las Vegas was the murder of the rapper Tupac Shakur in 1996.

Sunday night whatever history of violence that previously occurred in one of the world’s top tourism destinations was altered forever. Reality dropped a megaton bomb on the Land of Make Believe and Mandalay Bay.

The worst mass shooting in our nation’s sorry recent history of them occurred there during a country music concert. A 64-year-old retired accountant with multiple rifles and an apparent gambling habit took a room on the 32nd floor at Mandalay Bay then took aim at a concert crowd across the street. More than 20,000 people there to see Jason Aldean and other country music acts became targets for as yet unknown reasons. At this writing, 58 are reported dead and 515 injured. The shooter himself appears to have committed suicide as authorities tracked the trail of gunfire back to his room.

Yes, today’s horrifying kind of reality crashed in the Land of Make Believe and a nation where such events have become all too commonplace is shocked all over again. Each incident, it seems, grows worse. Fifty-eight dead? More than 500 wounded or injured? A gunman who family members say had little experience with firearms yet who police say had as many as 10 of them on the 32nd floor of a luxury hotel in Las Vegas?


An old graphic from the L.A. Times showing the list of deadly shootings prior to last night’s massacre in Las Vegas.

So we ask – as we did at Orlando, Fla. or Blacksburg, Va. or Newtown, Conn. — how this happens even once, forget time and again over the past decade. But understanding defies all logic so ultimately it’s the wrong question.

The correct question all along was and is: What are we going to do as a nation to address this beyond offering prayers and solace to the victims and their grieving families. That’s not nearly enough. The evolution of this process is pathetically predictable.

1. We are shocked, angered and saddened by the slaughter.

2. We offer thoughts and prayers to those effected.

3. We debate terrorism, mental health and the availability of guns.

4. Politicians and special interest groups get involved.

5. Nothing is done at all.

6. Repeat process again and again, apparently

It’s time we called bullshit on this kind of insane reality. It seems that reasonable people can agree that all mass shootings / violence are acts of terror. And that all people who commit acts of terror have mental problems. I think we can further agree that all people with mental problem should not have access to firearms or other weapons. Let’s talk about those things first. Let’s force politicians to find some courage and resolve. Give them the backbone to stand up for a better society, a safer nation. Then we can honestly discuss what guns should be banned – because some have no real value beyond mass destruction; and what guns are legal – because this is America and the right to own a gun remains an important part of our freedom.

The right to gather peacefully to listen to music or see a movie or attend a festival or any one of hundreds of public events is also an important part of our freedom. Acts of random and mass violence like that perpetrated in Las Vegas Sunday puts this in jeopardy for all.

Until we address this problem as a nation, then our freedom as Americans is only make believe.






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