America, don’t put out the damn paper


Jarrod W. Ramos’s first round from his 12-gauge pump-action shotgun broke the glass doors of the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis around 2:40 p.m. on June 28.

He came in, moved through the office and kept firing.

He murdered five people: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters.

At 6:38 p.m., Chase Cook, a reporter who survived the shooting, wrote this on Twitter: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”

I know it was a rejection of the anti-journalist violence he just faced. I wanted to cheer him on. I wanted this defiant commitment to the normal routine of a job amid trauma to do what it intended: comfort him, the survivors, the victims’ families, and all of us left numb and hopeless before yet another gun-fueled slaughter of Americans by Americans.

But 17 years after my brother was shot to death, I also know this: sometimes we shouldn’t put out the damn paper.

Sometimes we need to stop and heal. Stop whatever our routine is and rest. Stop acting as if everything is normal and doesn’t need to change—and look at where we are. Stop dreaming that punching in and punching out of our individual toils, joys, sorrows and aspirations is enough, and start thinking about how to end the systemic roots — the habits, delusions, spent-up myths, unjust stories, norms, laws, and institutions that shape our world — of headlines like these:

Reading these articles, it seems that whatever has been barely holding us together — or, more accurately, keeping the never-ending social frictions over power beneath the surface — no longer is.

Maybe the fact that a generation is going to be worse off than the one before it is straining all the pretty stories of greatness, meritocracy and fairness we’ve told ourselves for decades.

Maybe we’re just tired of the ruthless all-against-all spirit of unchecked capitalism. It is exhausting being pushed to treat each other as disposable profit points — seen as worthless unless buying or being bought — rather than inherently valuable human beings.

Maybe we don’t see a way to fix systemic racism if we can’t even fix our bridges, our water supply, our schools.

Maybe America’s pathological individualism and greed have finally gotten each of us to swallow the story that none of us needs each other.

Maybe we have given up and just fallen for the trope about men and women.

Maybe we’re just too exhausted with the Puritan mythology that sees work as a highway to heaven, leaving many of us wondering what we are doing wrong to have jobs we like so little and that barely, if at all, provide for our increasingly expensive survival.

Maybe we can’t believe that with all our enormous wealth, we refuse to provide health care for one another, somehow failing to see that the health of our neighbors ends up affecting the health of our little individual selves. We don’t seem to care that taking care of each other would make us happier. We don’t seem to care that it would help boost entrepreneurism, that sacred cow of capitalism.

Maybe we’d rather burn the house down if there’s no room for us in it anymore.

When my brother, Tim, was killed — to this day without explanation or arrest of anyone — I tried to keep to the course of my life as I knew and wanted it. I fought the fact that, for me, the world was no longer the same. I was adamant: I would still be a novelist. Writing fiction still mattered above all else. I would stick to the life structure I had built in New Orleans to turn that tiny dream into a reality.

I kept to my routine: 6 a.m. wake-ups, writing for two or three hours, then systematically sending my finished stories to journal editors, then getting ready for the other job at Tulane University, the part-time one that just covered the bills.

I lasted a month or two. But it felt like I was watching myself go through the motions. They may have mattered, but I couldn’t feel the meaning. What is a silly short story in the face of the unexplained and violent murder of someone I grew up with and loved? It is everything, I repeated to myself, trying to make it true. But even as I intellectually believed it, I emotionally had left the idea behind. That particular shelter of tenets, rituals, and faith no longer welcomed me.

So I had to change.

So I did. Or I thought I did.

But really I kept on putting out the damn paper. It was just a different one. I started writing more news articles than stories. I got a master’s degree from Northwestern in journalism. I found and ordered facts rather than made up fictions. I did this, I told myself, because I honestly thought that the only way someone could kill another human being was if they lacked awareness of others. I told myself: If someone really had the information to know themselves and others, knew the pressures all of us faced, then they could never pull a trigger, thrust a knife, swing a bat. They would know that our lives are brutal, short, unfair and tenuous. They would see that all of us suffer, that mercy and love and sympathy are the only responses that make sense amid life’s brutal and gentle mortality.

Didn’t work. Read those headlines again. Every day, waves of of high-quality facts and stories — from ethically motivated journalists and other information artists — flood the internet. Yet here we are.

So stop.

Hold still. Close your eyes. Breathe. Breathe again. Take a day to feel the contours of the country we’ve become without reacting to them. Just sit with them. Look at them. I know it feels impossible. But try. Try to stop worrying about your own survival for a moment and think about the survival of all of us, of this nation, and how we can ensure it.

I know. You feel like you can’t. You need so many things to feel happy and safe, yet they’re getting harder and harder to get. Good food. A home. An education. Health care. A better job. Any job. A retirement. Love. A sense that Americans actually care about each other. A feeling that surely you mean more to your neighbors than just being a profit-producing consumer. A hope that we’re a society organized around helping one another go peacefully and joyfully through our brief lives, rather than one seemingly set up to facilitate stepping on each other to reach a non-existent state of being called “successful.”

I know. When these goals pull further away, you want to run faster and work harder to keep them close. The cost of stopping goes up as the machine churns more and more rapidly. But what happens when an entire nation starts living paycheck to paycheck? When hundreds of millions of people think, “If I stop, I die.”

Read those headlines again.

Americans, don’t put out the damn paper.

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