And yet, we try. To empathize with the victims and their families. To understand how this could happen again in our country, and to us in our “City of Good Neighbors.” To end this kind of senseless tragedy. To reverse the course of racism that has infected this country since the first ship carrying African slaves sailed up the James River in 1619 (before even the Pilgrims arrived).
Anne Noble and I were sitting on the stage for UB Law School’s graduation ceremony on Saturday afternoon. Directly in front of us was DA John Flynn. We chatted before the proceedings about a verdict I recently took in Rochester affecting one of his investigators. A palpable sense of joy pervaded the auditorium. Just a few minutes into the program, shortly after 3, John—looking stricken—abruptly left the stage. John didn’t return. We knew something was wrong, but we didn’t imagine the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding.
All year, I have been writing to you about the sources of light that shine through the darkness we have recently experienced. It is now darker than ever, and the need is now greater for light than at almost any time I can remember in my 62 years. I believe in death and resurrection. I believe that great suffering provides us—if we search—with great opportunity for growth. Still, I am hurting.
Perhaps the analogies I will make are not entirely fair. But I ask you to look beyond their details to grasp the larger message I endeavor to share. After the crash of Continental Flight 3407 on February 12, 2009, in the midst of their profound grief, families of the victims joined together—not only to punish those responsible, but also to lobby for necessary change in the laws regulating air travel in this country. While their efforts required years of persistence, the families succeeded in having critical legislation enacted. The victim families orchestrated revolutionary change in the regional airline industry. But now that same industry is trying to rescind many of the important changes the 3407 families inspired.
Before the sun set on September 11, 2001, this state, this country, and the entire world joined together to provide comfort, support, and physical and spiritual nourishment to those suffering from the acts of terrorism. We put aside our differences in age, and wealth, and nationality, and ideology, and yes race, to unite in a common humanitarian mission. At some point, likely because of inadvisable wars and harmful policies, and frankly because of 9/11 fatigue, we lost that celebrated sense of unity.
Most recently, after George Floyd’s public lynching in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, we gathered in communities near and far to call for an end to racist police attitudes and policies, and to require meaningful reform for our police departments. All over the world, people protested. Here, Sean Carey organized a march for lawyers and court employees. We pledged to be vigilant and diligent. But the Pandemic blunted the positive momentum of the George Floyd protests.
I cannot find adjectives sufficient enough to capture the horror of Saturday’s massacre. I doubt many of us will be able to shop at a Tops ever again, without remembering May 14, 2022. A Hollywood executive could not create a more racist villain than this outsider, wearing camouflage and body armor, wielding an assault weapon, carrying another weapon emblazoned with the N word, leaving behind a manifesto of hate, and live streaming his assault. We are profoundly sad. And justifiably outraged.
We cannot let the opportunity presented in this tragedy pass, however. More than anything, this mass shooting represents a call to action. We have silently tolerated—and even vocally encouraged—the attitudes and behaviors that underlie the systematic effort to destroy our society now underway, just another example of which occurred at the Tops on Jefferson—the January 6th attack on the Capitol, the Great Steal, the enactment of restrictive voter registration laws, the banning of books from our libraries, the efforts to prevent the teaching of “critical race theory.” In the days and weeks that follow, we must mourn the dead and comfort the grieving. But we must also act. We must speak out against racism in all forms. We must reverse the growing trend of racial hatred in America. We must work to make systemic changes locally and nationally. We cannot afford to remain apathetic, grow tired, become lazy, give up, or surrender. We must persist. We all share the responsibility to seize this opportunity. At the risk of being insensitive, we must declare war.
Some look to religious scripture in times of trouble. Mindful of the importance I ascribe to this moment in our history, I turn to American scripture. Writing to Mrs. Bixby, a mother who lost 5 sons in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln better expressed what I am trying to capture: “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice on the altar of Freedom.”
And I invoke perhaps some of the greatest words in American English: “It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated, here, to the unfinished work that they have thus so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us; that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that the Nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom.”
We owe the victims nothing less.
Hugh M. Russ, III
President, Bar Association of Erie County