No Joy in Webster
Fires know no religion and take no holidays, so when the alarm went off in Webster, northeast of Rochester, volunteer firefighters Michael J. Chiapperini, 43, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, went to work. On Christmas Day, 2012, they no longer live. Had they died fighting the fire, it would have been mere tragedy, but that was a risk they knowingly undertook.
Dying in a hail of bullets as they and other vollies approached the burning house wasn't part of the deal. Fire isn't the only thing that persists despite the joyous season. So too does mental illness, of the sort that manifests itself in pointless murder.
The New York Times explains:
But it apparently was a trap, the authorities said. There were a house and a car burning. There was also a waiting killer, who had stationed himself like a sniper on a berm above the firefighters.
Before they could begin to extinguish the fire, the firefighters were met by a burst of gunfire. Four were hit by the volley of bullets, and two died.
For a few hours, the scene was chaotic: flames ignited adjacent houses as the police frantically searched for the gunman. They would find him dead near the beach, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
There will be no trial or soul searching. The shooter, 62-year-old William Spengler, is dead too, and almost certainly mentally ill. There is no reason to suspect he held any particular malice toward the two dead firefighters, but they just happened to be the ones who showed. Just doing their volunteer job of saving lives and property.
Since the Newtown tragedy, talking heads angrily debate the solution so that it never happens again. And yet it did, even if it was outside a school and the victims weren't first graders. Only people whose perspective is warped argue over which innocent victim's death is worse. They are all needless and horrible. They were all deserving of life.
All the pieces happened again in Webster. Guns. Mental illness. People who didn't deserve to die, but did. Differences, for sure, but death unifies the stories.
Most people will rejoice in the fact that Stengler, the madman who murdered the two and wounded others, took his own life, just as they did for Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter. Maybe I'm the only one who takes no comfort in the death of either. Perhaps they are as evil as most will assume, but they were still human beings, and they both suffered from their own demons who took a beautiful, pure baby and turned them into killers. Maybe with the right care, they would have done nothing to make their name known as a killer.
Despite all the years Stengler spent in prison, from 1981 to 1998, for bludgeoning his 92-yearold grandmother to death, he apparently didn't come out more mentally sound than he went in. So much for the benefits of prison for the mentally ill.
Presents under trees have been turned into cinders. Presents under trees will go unopened this morning. Instead, the ground will be opened to accept the remains of the victims. And there will be more angry debate and name calling about guns, mental illness and armed guards in schools, each voice screaming about how its solution is right and everyone else is stupid, evil, liberal and deportable.
This presupposes that there are solutions to all the bad things man can do. Pieces of the arguments make sense, but only to a degree that can be embraced by the myopic and simplistic. We are a wondrous and terrible creature. We do acts of kindness and terror. We show monumental compassion and horrible hatred. We are strong and fragile. Every solution has its merit, and yet fails to fix who and what we are. Anyone who can't see the arguments on all sides chooses to be blind.
For the families of the dead firefighters, Christmas Day will be a day of mourning, arranging for funerals and trying to find an explanation for why this happened to them. They won't find an answer, even though they may grab hold of anything that brings them a slight degree of comfort. They are entitled to whatever brings them comfort.
The rest of us are not entitled to seize other people's tragedies and use them for our own purposes. Not even if emotions are strong, and we really, really believe our solution is the answer. There is no magic bullet that will end tragedy and violence at the hands of human beings. If you feel the need to do something, anything, then gather your children today, Christmas Day, make them put down their shiny new electronic toys and make sure they know they are loved.
While even this won't prevent mental illness or access to a weapon, whether a gun or bomb, a speeding car, machete or fire, it is one of the few things we, as human beings, can do to make this a better world. And no one will call you mean names for doing so.