The wail is the same. It doesn’t matter which side the wail comes from. Wail of loss. Wail of pain. It’s all the same wail.
We don’t have cell phone video of the moments in Dallas when wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, lovers, dear friends of the Dallas police officers killed Thursday night learned that their ever-lurking nightmare had come true. Their loved one would never come home again.
We do have video of the moment when Diamond Reynolds wailed. She had been maintaining incredible composure while her boyfriend, Philando Castile, bled out and died on the car seat next to her in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Finally her composure broke, and her shrieking wail carried her into a dark realm on the far border of sanity.
Her 4-year-old daughter can be heard but not seen in the back seat, saying, “It’s OK, Mommy. It’s OK. I’m right here with you.”
What ancient wisdom, lost to conscious memory, tells a 4-year-old to bring her mother back from the place of the wail?
The wail itself, after all — uncontrolled, unmitigated, — can take us away from every meaningful human connection and into a land of savagery from which we might never return. I got enough of that in my text messages the morning after the shootings.
Most of the friends and acquaintances who texted me were old white people, because … now, why would that be? Oh, right, I’m an old white person.
Some were furious about the police deaths. Their hearts were overwhelmed with wrath and groaning beneath the weight of their grief. I don’t believe there was an ounce of posturing or insincerity in any of it. Their angry text messages were their wails.
But I also have friends and family members, white and black, whose hearts were ripped in half by the voice of that child calling her mother back from that place where wrath and pain might take her beyond returning.
Think about it. All of the sloganeering and posturing that calls for more violence — more violence against black people, more violence against white cops — all of it is a shrieking wail that, allowed its way, will carry us to hell. This horrific night in Dallas was a window on that hell.
Interesting thing about hell: Nobody backs down. Read the history. Nobody backed down in Northern Ireland or South Africa. Nobody is backing down today in Syria.
Have you seen pictures of Homs, once Syria’s third-largest city, where entire districts have been reduced to dystopian rubble? Those are portraits of the landscape of the wail. Do you think it can’t happen here? Are we not the same beings they are, with the same broken hearts?
There is no moral equivalency between the deaths of police officers bravely performing their duty to protect others and the death of a barricaded gunman murdering from cover. But there is every equivalency in the hearts of the families of the police officers and the hearts of black Americans whose loved ones were shot by police when they did not have to be shot.
Argue against it if you wish, give me every complicated explanation you can think of why a man already pinned to the ground needs to be shot in the chest multiple times: I’m just telling you nobody on the other side of that question is ever going to believe a single word you are saying, and, if you want to settle the question by force, then nobody is ever going to back down or come back alive. Welcome to the landscape of the wail.
On the other hand, we all can allow ourselves to be called back. We can all control ourselves, no matter how terrible our grief. We have it in us.
Shetamia Taylor, a black 38-year-old mother of three who lives in Garland, took her four boys to the Black Lives Matter march in Dallas Thursday to see history happening, according to her two sisters, who spoke to me and other reporters outside Baylor Hospital early Friday morning.
Taylor was shot in the right calf fleeing gunfire. One son, 15, lay with her on the ground until police were able to move her. Her three other sons, scattered by the melee, rejoined her later at the hospital. Her sister, Theresa Williams told us about walking into the Baylor Emergency Center and finding her there: “There was a lot of blood when we walked in there,” Williams said, “and it was a scary thing to see when you walk in, and you see all blood.”
Taylor was watching television reports of the carnage while doctors waited for an operating room to open for her.
“All she could say,” Williams said, “was, ‘I feel for the families.’ That’s all she was worried about. Even to the officer who came and stood outside of her door at the hospital, when they opened that door, she was heavily medicated, but when he turned around all she could say was, ‘Thank you. Thank you for all that you guys do, and I am sorry for your loss.’
“She was not even worried about laying there on that bed in pain. She wanted him to know that, ‘I feel for you guys.’”
In remarks he made in Poland on Friday only hours before gunfire erupted in Dallas, President Obama asked all Americans to think hard about the loved ones of the black Americans whose deaths have been chronicled in grisly cellphone videos: “I’d just ask folks to step back and think, what if this happened to somebody in your family?” the president said. “How would you feel?”
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The next day after the gunfire in Dallas, the president spoke again, saying in part, “Today our focus is on the victims and their families. They are heartbroken. The entire city of Dallas is grieving. Police across America, which is a tight-knit family, feel this loss to their core. And we're grieving with them.
“I’d ask all Americans to say a prayer for these officers and their families. Keep them in your thoughts. And as a nation, let’s remember to express our profound gratitude to our men and women in blue — not just today, but every day.”
All of those words, Shetamia Taylor’s as quoted by her sisters and the president’s, are like the voice of the 4-year-old girl in the back seat of the car, speaking from a core of being we can no longer name, telling us we are not alone, calling us back from our wails to the here and the now.
The here and the now is gray, complicated, less satisfying in some ways than the wail, less unitary and drunk on pain. But we all know the truth here. That gray complicated world is where life happens. The shrieking wailing world, the world drunk on pain, is the graveyard.