Update from Italy: Anniversaries

Riding the waves of world events. Photo by Thomas Ashlock on Unsplash

I had forgotten, until the BBC app notified me on my phone, that today is the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. Twenty-five years ago, my senior year in college; I was 21, more than half my lifetime ago. It was a Wednesday morning. I had gotten up and out of my apartment for my 9:30 Spanish Lit course, so was already walking up to campus a few minutes after nine. I had no idea. I sat down, put my backpack on the floor, ready for an invigorating discussion about Latin American literature.

Our professor came in to the classroom, a thin Peruvian who wore the same, too-large tweed sportscoat almost every day. His high forehead, thick eyebrows, and shock of black hair belied a tender heart. He peppered his lectures with personal anecdotes of his Life Before, as a professional engineer and a Shining Path survivor.

Y esto! Professor Marquez said, y esto de la bomba en Oklahoma City!? What’s he talking about? I thought. Maybe a small pipe bomb. Dr. Marquez went on with his lecture; I have no recollection what we were reading, as my mind had started its uneasy buzzing in the back row.

I hurried back to my apartment and turned on my television (no cable, no internet then). I had a homemade antenna to get the public channels. I sank down in front of my tv and stayed there for three days, a cold lump in my chest. Angry that it had happened, in a state where everyone had always said nothing ever happened here. Now it was clear where that insulation had gotten us. The rumours flew at first that it was the work of Muslim extremists, of course. Members of our own nutty congressional delegation said this on the news.

Those were rough days, but you know what got even rougher? When the truth emerged, and everyone had to deal with the fact that it was a man who looked and sounded like them. Not a stranger. Not a Muslim to conveniently scapegoat. Not an unknown person, wishing ill on a modest landlocked state. No, a person who thought he was winning vengeance for the Branch Davidians. Remember them? That happened when I was studying abroad in Spain, two years earlier in 1993, but after the first World Trade Center bombing (January 1993), back when my friend Amy and I would tiptoe down freezing stone stairs in woolen blankets of our residencia estudiantil to curl up on a wooden-railed sofa and blearily watch Peter Jennings on ABC.

I knew people who died in the bombing. I went to funerals. In a too-close-to-home doppelganger scenario, a young woman named Julie from Oklahoma City for whom I’d done freelance translation work before had died in the SSA office, hired because she was bilingual in Spanish. In 1995 this was a dream job of mine. To work bilingually, in any capacity, really. In another strange twist, Julie had ties to the same rural province in Spain that I did, and that summer, when I returned, her teary friends recounted to me in a bar in Pontevedra how this Julie died doing what she loved. Speaking Spanish to people about their social security questions. She was so warm, we loved her, they said looking away, choking.

The month of the bombing, though, a main concern of mine was how it would impact my international travel and study abroad plans. I was trying to get myself to Strasbourg for the following academic year to burn a year of my twenties learning French in situ so I could be employable. (Recall that the frontal cortex is not fully developed until age 25.) Would my parents still let me go to France? Now that insulated, landlocked Oklahoma was just as unsafe as, say, New York, or Madrid in the 70s, or Beirut in the 80s or Jersualem in the 90s? You have to let me go now, I may or may not have told them, this is proof that misfortune in the form of violence can happen anywhere. That year in Europe, everywhere I went, when I told people where I was from la bombe, mais non, c’est vrai? eyes growing wide, estuviste alli cuando ha pasado la bomba? Were you there when the bomb happened? Country to country to country with my purple nylon backpack, there I was, fielding questions in many languages plus broken English. I soon grew tired of being the onsite reporter for that terrorist attack. I didn’t agree with the person who did it, of course, but neither did I agree with the culture that said they couldn’t believe it happened there. I could.

April 19, 1995 was a day much like March 9, 2020. A day when everything suddenly shifted and my eyes were opened to a new reality, when at that moment it felt heavy to breathe and I heard something rolling in whose impact would be felt for years. After I returned from that year in France, my first professional job was at Catholic Charities. My best friend from high school worked there too, as a social worker; she had just finished her MSW, and her clients were all bombing survivors. Traci has to be one of the most patient-hearted people I have ever known in my life, and she did that work for years for a pittance, helping the many survivors, some seriously and permanently injured, try to get their lives back on track.

I did visit the Oklahoma City memorial once or twice, but it was hard, and made me so angry. The Terrorism Museum was unfathomable. Of course the state did not ask for that to happen to them, but the event really sort of took over the local identity for years. It was inescapable. And if they had been honest about it, they might have admitted that some of the received opinions floating around that part of the prairie had made ongoing contributions to extremist action. There could have been a choice to engage in dialogue, on a socio-cultural level, but that was just not possible. And so it didn’t happen. And so that part of history reinforced local identity.

So, here we are, in an increasingly interconnected Indra’s Net, with today’s headlines featuring not terrorism but pandemic. Much like the Midnight Train to Zagreb later on that same year, April 19 was a day that shifted my understanding of the forces at play in the world, and showed me how we are all snared in global events.

Be safe – safe at home. And listen to other people, for heaven’s sake. Really listen to them and let them finish what they need to say. And answer thoughtfully, when you can. This all takes time. Understanding does not happen overnight, and when we are surfing at the crest of today’s current events, it can be hard to see how and where exactly that wave will break on the beach. But it will. How will you understand the ride?