About noon on Wednesday, I was walking east on Wilshire and crossing Second Street in Santa Monica. A block south on Second street, at the intersection with Arizona Avenue, I saw a big awning and a big sign that said “Orgasmic Vegetarians.”
My first thought was that this is the place where, perhaps more than any place else in America, people take their bodies seriously, where maintaining and displaying bodies is a full-time job. It is also the place, perhaps more than any other in America, where the loopiest technologies for health, happiness and personal transcendence are advertised, adored and tried out just in case one of them actually works.
My second thought was that I should maybe put on my glasses. I did, and everything got far more mundane: “Orgasmic Vegetarians,” once in focus, was “Organic Vegetables.” The big awning was several small awnings, around which a lot of people were moving. It was one of the farmer’s markets, of which there are several in that area on Saturdays. This Wednesday market cut across Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade like the transverse of the Christian cross.
I left my hotel about five that evening, drove one block west on Wilshire to Ocean Avenue and turned left. I was going to visit my friends Warren Bennis and Grace Gabe, who live two miles south of that intersection, just above where Santa Monica ends and Venice begins.
Yellow police tape was stretched across the foot of Arizona. A few people stood on the Ocean Avenue side of it-looking, taking pictures, hanging out. A little way in, one of the bodies, covered by a yellow police tarpaulin, was in front of the dark red Buick LeSabre, where it had been since the Buick plowed through all two-and-one-half blocks of the farmer’s market a little before two p.m. that afternoon. The front of the Buick was dented, the windshield was smashed and there was a dent on the roof.
I know I saw that tarpaulin covering the body and the smashed windshield and dented front of the car, but I don’t know if I actually saw the dent on the roof or if I’m remembering it from the television coverage I’d watched the previous three hours. I’d learned from one of the local stations that when the Buick finally stopped a dead man was on the hood and a woman was underneath. About twenty people, the newsperson said, had lifted the car and gotten her out.
Almost immediately after I got to their house Warren said, “There was a terrible thing that happened only a block from where you’re staying this afternoon.”
“I know,” I said.
When the terrible thing happened I was in Hennessey + Ingalls, an art and architecture bookstore about fifty feet from where Arizona crosses Third. I had been on my way to the market to get some things for lunch, but a photography book in the Hennessy + Ingalls window caught my eye, so I’d gone in, walked to where the book was, and immediately saw people running by the window. They looked strange so I went back outside to see what was up.
I told Warren and Grace what I’d seen.
“Did you take pictures?” Grace asked me. It was a reasonable question: maybe a dozen of the photographs on their walls were mine and ever since she’s known me I’ve almost always had some kind of camera in my pocket or bag or on my shoulder.
“No,” I said.
“I’ve never seen you so shaken,” Warren said. We’ve known each other for thirty-five years. I knew he was thinking back to the night in 1970 when he and I had been in a student building surrounded by police who were firing tear gas canisters and shooting up the glass front doors with buckshot.
“It was the dead girl,” I said. “I keep seeing her.”
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” Grace said.
“No,” I said. Then I said, “What’s like this?”
“It’s what people in Israel live with all the time,” she said.
“You’ve seen it,” I said to Warren. He had been an infantry lieutenant in the Battle of the Bulge.
“Yes,” he said. He paused for a moment, then said, “The thing I remember most is the smell of burning hair.”
By the time I drove back to my hotel at ten o’clock, everything along Ocean Avenue seemed normal. The sidewalk on the right was full of people and so was the esplanade on the left. Lots of people were crossing Ocean both ways going to and from the Santa Monica pier. The intersection at Arizona still had the yellow police tape across it and the Buick was still there, but the body and the yellow tarpaulin were gone.
The yellow police tapes were still up at noon on Thursday. At the intersection of Arizona and Third a very officious traffic officer was telling people they could walk on the sidewalk but not in the street. A few people asked her if they could just cross over and she said, “If you want to cross go up to Fourth Street and cross there.” She gave no explanation, just said the same thing over and over again. I don’t think she was even making eye contact with the people who asked the question: she just looked up the Promenade toward Wilshire and said it, “If you want to cross go up to Fourth Street and cross there.” One woman asked if Second street was open, if she could go that way. “If you want to cross go up to Fourth Street and cross there,” the traffic officer said.
She was protecting nothing but an empty street. Everything was gone. All the dead and damaged bodies, tarpaulins, spilled fruits and vegetables, emergency vehicles, awnings, strollers, shopping carts-all were gone. It was the cleanest street in Santa Monica. Nothing , other than the traffic officer, was in Arizona two blocks to the right to Ocean or one block to the left to Fourth.
She kept saying that one thing over and over to anyone who spoke to her. I thought at first she was nasty but then decided she wasn’t saying any more because she had no more idea why crossing was prohibited than any of the rest of us did. She knew it was an empty street and that there was no more police work to be done there. But she had been told to stand in that place and tell people they couldn’t cross and that was what she was doing. She was doing her job.
She wasn’t the only one. Two teams of tv reporters were interviewing people on Third Street. They were the next day’s tourists, not people who had been there the day before when the dark red Buick had gone through, so the questions were, “What do you think about what happened?” and “What do you think is the meaning of this?”
News station helicopters hovered a few hundred feet in the air at a few hundred yards to the west and east of that three-block strip of Arizona Avenue. What were they photographing? What was there to see, the day after, when the dead were gone and nothing was left except that traffic control officer telling people they had to go up to Fourth Street if they wanted to get over to the other side of the street and the two teams of tv reporters asking people what they thought about what it happened and what it meant?
I went into Hennessey + Ingalls and looked at the photography books and magazines, then spent some time in the typography and design sections. By the time I was back on the street, maybe 45 minutes later, the yellow police tape and the traffic control officer were gone. Cars were moving normally on Arizona again. One tv crew was there, but they weren’t talking to anybody. A man who looked like a tv reporter was holding a microphone and looking at some notes while the cameraman stood by his tripod. I assumed he was getting ready to give an on-the-scene report that would air on the early evening news. Several bunches of flowers and a sign were neatly arranged at the end of the island in the middle of the street, a small shrine of the type that is now found at nearly all scenes of violent death in America.
Wednesday afternoon, a little before two p.m.
I’d left my hotel and walked down Second Street to Wilshire. A block further along at the Arizona intersection I could see the sign that I now knew said “Organic Vegetables” and the awnings and people looking and shopping. I walked a block east. Three Santa Monica police cars were parked at the northwest corner of Third Street, the north end of the three-block Third Street Promenade. Two of them were closed up, one had its windows open, computer on, and motor running. I didn’t see any policemen anywhere. I suppose they were confident that no one would steal a police car, since they’re pretty easy to spot. Where I grew up, New York City, a minor consideration like that wouldn’t trump temptation and opportunity.
Shoppers and strollers walked along the Promenade, but not very many. On Saturday and Sunday the place would be filled by this time of day, but not in the middle of the week. The street people who hung out on the Promenade’s nice benches were there. Days of the week mattered less to them. I recognized several for whom that three-block no-autos stretch of restaurants and shops was home base.
I thought I’d get some fruit at the market, then come back up to Hennessey + Ingalls, but I came upon Hennessy + Ingalls first and, as I said, something in the window caught my eye, so I went inside. The intersection with Arizona, was full of people walking, carrying bags, pushing strollers.
The photography section is in the front of the store, just behind a large window facing on the Promenade. As soon as I got there I saw people running toward Arizona. It’s common to see runners in Santa Monica, but not on the Third Street Promenade and not with expressions like the ones I was seeing on their faces. There were more and more people running. I went outside and joined them.
The intersection looked as it had before, but almost immediately I realized that none of the faces were as they had been before. Some people were just standing, as if they were trying to walk but couldn’t. A young woman came from the direction of the awnings, sobbing. A lot of people were sobbing. Other people were walking very slowly, their eyes focused somewhere far away or not at all.
I looked to the right and saw a baby stroller and some people kneeling down in front of it. I couldn’t see what they were doing but I saw a child’s feet and they weren’t moving at all.
Then I saw more things. Plums and peppers and radishes were scattered all over the street in front of me. Some of the stands were skewed and their awnings hung at odd angles. There were clumps of things in the street, a lot of them. Then I realized that the clumps weren’t things; they were people. To the left and to the right, there were bodies everywhere. And spilled fruit and vegetables. And skewed awnings. And people bending to help and other people just standing and other people crying.
“It was a terrorist,” someone said. “He just drove through here at 80 miles an hour and kept on going.”
“How do you know it was a terrorist?” someone asked him.
“Who else would do something like this?” the first man said.
“It could a been somebody else,” the second man said.
For what seemed a very long time, there were no police and no sirens. I wondered how something like this could happen and there were no police and no sirens. After a while, two policemen in khaki ran past me, coming from Fourth Street, heading toward Second Street. I wondered where the others were. I wondered where the cops who drove those three empty police cars I’d seen before were.
I knew what I was seeing but something in my head kept trying to say this couldn’t be real because if it were, there would be sirens and police. Eventually sirens started. And police came. A lot of sirens. A lot of police.
I thought of a time when I was seven years old and had been jumping up and down on the bed and had slipped and fallen and whacked my forehead on the radiator. I went to the mirror to see what had happened and I saw a huge gash but there was no blood and I thought “There is no blood so I’m really all right” and then, as I stood and looked at the mirror, blood started gushing from the cut in my forehead, all over me, over the floor, even on the mirror, and I wasn’t all right after all.
One of the street people asked a policeman walking quickly toward Second Street, “Did you get the guy? Was he a terrorist?” The policeman hurried on. “Them cops don’t never tell you nothing,” the street person said, annoyed.
A policeman passed in front of me walking very fast, heading toward Fourth Street, carrying a child who was two or three years old. I think he was trying to give her mouth-to-mouth as he went, but she was dead. I could tell that and surely he could too. His face was terrible.
I wanted to help, but I didn’t know what I could do that would be useful. I don’t know first aid. I didn’t want to wander around, just looking, getting in the way of people who did know what they were doing, who might be able to do something useful. Professional journalists are free to look at the most awful suffering because it’s their job, but I’m not a professional journalist. A lot of people were running around now, bending over the injured and the dead, and more and more police and fire people were there. After the policeman passed in front of me with the little girl in his arms I just went back to my hotel room, crying like nearly everybody else.
I walked back up the Promenade to Wilshire, turned left a block, then turned right on Second. My hotel was a hundred yards or so up that block.
A jogger was running toward me on Second, not unusual in that part of Santa Monica where joggers sometimes outnumber walkers. He was a man in his thirties, wearing a t-shirt, walking shorts and shoes that weren’t running shoes. He carried something in his right hand which, as we passed one another, came into focus: a stethoscope and what looked like some plastic gloves. He was a doctor who’d probably been at home. Maybe somebody had called him. Maybe he heard it on the radio or something was already on tv. He’d just grabbed the instrument with which, among other things, doctors differentiate the quick from the dead, and he’d run from his house to do what he could. I have no idea who he was and I’ll never see him again. I love him for that, running down the street in clothes he hadn’t bothered to change out of, with his stethoscope and his plastic gloves.
I went to my hotel room and sat a while, then turned on CNN. Wolf Blitzer was jabbering in his Wolf Blitzer voice, which punches out all syllables as if they were of equal importance. After a minute or two, he gave an update about the event in Santa Monica, California, for which camera footage was just coming in, which he showed bits and pieces of, then went on to another story. And another. After a while he came back to the event in Santa Monica. It wasn’t one dead, as he’d said previously; now it was two dead. There was more footage. Stay tuned. More to come.
It was hard to hear him because of the sirens down in the street and the helicopters going by the window. I got up to close the window and I noticed that the helicopter going by at that moment said NEWS 2. It rounded the building and the next helicopter said NEWS 4.
Ah: I was there, wasn’t I. Why was I listening to Wolf Blitzer giving second-hand reports from Atlanta, Georgia, when the people he was getting his feeds from were delivering it live a click away?
I switched to channel 2 and watched it live. I switched to channel 4 and watched it live. I watched those two channels broadcasting live all afternoon, their chopper steadicams showing the three blocks from Fourth Street to Ocean, with frequent shots of the dark red Buick with its dented roof, its shattered windshield and, just in front of its bumper, the yellow tarpaulin police in LA use to cover dead people in the street.
Some time in there, I don’t remember exactly when, the light outside got odd. I went to the window and saw that it was raining. Lightly at first, then heavily. My room was on the fifteenth floor and faced the ocean. The bright backlighting surface of the Pacific made the raindrops shimmer like falling crystals, almost like snow. I heard the two tv reporters talking about the sudden downpour. “I don’t remember it raining here in July in twenty years,” one said. “Neither do I,” the other said. “It’s pouring on the triage area,” the first reporter said.
I watched that tv set and listened to the reporters trying to make sense of what had happened and I listened to the helicopters and sirens until it was time to go meet my friends Warren and Grace.
Thinking about what Grace said
That night, when I was back in the room, I thought about what Grace said-that this is what people in Israel live with all the time. She’d spoken about people coming to a market, a disco, a pizzeria and seeing carnage, and of people going to shop or dance or eat and being killed or horribly injured.
I didn’t think to say, ‘And it’s also what people the other side of the Israeli lines go through every time the Israeli tanks or helicopters blow up a house in which they think some malefactor they want to kill might be, and in that house are men and women and children who are not that malefactor who get blown up just because they happen to have been in that house.’
If I’d thought to have said that, Grace would have said, “Of course.”
And if I’d said, “And it’s also what the people who saw violent and gratuitous death and mutilation this year in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone through,” Grace would have said, “Yes, them too.”
This death and that death
The carnage in Santa Monica Wednesday afternoon-ten dead and five times as many injured- was caused by an 86-year-old man who got confused and hit the gas pedal when he meant to hit the brake. The carnage in the Middle East and Afghanistan and Iraq and all those other places is caused by intelligent, competent, thoughtful, righteous people who, after serious thought and consideration, find such carnage acceptable and useful.
The Palestinian who blows him- or herself up, along with a bus or dance hall full of Israelis has done the arithmetic and found the carnage acceptable and useful. The Israeli tank commander who blows up a house or a village or the bulldozer operator who rips from the earth olive trees that took generations to grow finds such violence acceptable and useful. The American pilots who fire their missiles into vehicle convoys and buildings and villages find their actions acceptable and useful. Donald Rumsfeld finds the deaths and dismemberments accruing therefrom acceptable and useful. Tony Blair finds the deaths and dismemberments accruing therefrom acceptable and useful. George W. Bush finds the deaths and dismemberments accruing therefrom acceptable and useful. Osama bin Laden finds the deaths and dismemberments he underwrites acceptable and useful.
That’s them. I keep thinking of that Santa Monica policeman, walking very fast but knowing he will never be fast enough, doing mouth-to-mouth on the three-year-old girl he knew was dead. I keep thinking of the mother and father of that three-year-old girl, whose name was Cindy Palacios Valladares. I keep thinking of George Russell Weller, that 86-year-old pathetic sonofabitch who forgot which pedal was which in his dark-red Buick LeSabre, a man who, according to everyone in his life who has known him and who has been found by the press, would never knowingly and intentionally have hurt anybody in this world.
What does intention have to do with anything? The meaning of what happened in Santa Monica is that it doesn’t have any meaning. None at all. Something stupid happened; people died.
From the point of view of the dead and the people to whom they mattered, all the deaths are like that. Palestinians and Jews and Iraqis and Americans and Russians and Somalis and Rwandans-all the deaths are like that.
Grace is right. It’s all the same. It’s horrible, it’s awful, and the explanations and justifications explain and justify nothing. From the point of view of the dead and the people who loved them, there is no difference between “My foot fell on the wrong pedal” and “God wants me to do this.” The reasons offered by terrorists of whatever stripe, whether underground or ensconced in the finest houses of state, matter not one iota to the dead and those who loved them. Love and life and death are, finally, what matters. The rest is just politics, just talk.
BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo. He is a documentary filmmaker and the author or editor of 20 other books. In 2002, the government of France honored his
ethnographic and anti-death penalty work by appointing him Chevalier, l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His new book, The Peace Bridge Chronicles, will be published next month. He also edits the Buffalo Report. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org