An out-of-work truck driver smiled as he pleaded guilty Monday to killing two people and wounding six others at a Tennessee church last summer because he hated its liberal policies, according to the Associated Press.
“Yes, ma'am, I am guilty as charged,” Jim D. Adkisson, 58, told the judge, before she sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
Adkisson was scheduled to stand trial next month. Instead, he cut a plea agreement that means he'll likely spend the rest of his days behind bars for the July 2008 assault at the Tennessee Valley United Unitarian Church in Knoxville. That's where Adkisson carried a shotgun inside a guitar case and shot eight people during a Sunday morning children's performance of the musical “Annie.” None of the children were shot, but two adults later died.
It's not clear that Adkisson has spent much time in deep thought about his misdeeds or his victims, Greg McKendry, 60, and Linda Kraeger, 61, both of whom were known for their warmth and generosity of spirit. It's clear he never spent much time beforehand thinking about such things. And as the poet and author Wendell Berry writes…
When we cease from human thought,
a low and effective cunning
stirs in the most inhuman minds.
There are those-notably Fox viewers-who claim that President Bush kept Americans safe from terrorist attacks after 9/11, as if this redeems his many misdeeds and mismanagment.
Don't buy it. Americans have been attacked plenty by terrorists. Not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, where 5,000 Americans or so have died due to terrorist attacks, broadly defined, and many thousands more physically and emotionally wounded, Bush's pro-violence swagger-echoed by the likes of Limbaugh, Coulter, O'Reilly and Hannity-has been causative in gun violence here.
At the time of his arrest, a search of Adkisson's house recovered, among other things a suicide note that stated he was angered by “his lack of being able to obtain a job,” a reduction in his food stamp allotment and “the liberal movement.” It also turned up these books: “Liberalism is a Mental Health Disorder” by radio talk show host Michael Savage, “Let Freedom Ring” by talk show host Sean Hannity and “The O'Reilly Factor,” by television talk show host Bill O'Reilly.
I wonder, minus such inflammatory influences, would Adkisson have carried a shotgun into church. That's not terror? Tell that to members of Tennessee Valley Unitarian.
I teach a creative writing class in that building and I know it well. As I wrote last summer….
It's a space of light, charity and learned discourse, a place where luminaries, scribes and prophets from many traditions are often invoked. I've loved teaching there. On any given night rooms ring with laughter, music and conversation in this place dedicated to reason and transcendence. It's a church rooted in the principles of Enlightenment and Jeffersonian liberty. A place where not only Jesus, but Buddha and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and others might feel at home.
The church holds treasures. There's an impish and colorful self-portrait painted by the great poet of whimsical verse, E.E. Cummings, who once wrote these words in celebration of un-sung lives.
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did.
Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain.
I never think of Cummings' paintings without his words ringing through my head, so suggestive of towns I knew growing up in East Tennessee. Knoxville once seemed like “a pretty how town with up so floating many bells down,” but Cumming's more famous for this little poem, a fixture of anthologies.
who used to ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what I want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
As Delaney Dean writes at DelaneyDean.com, “I've always found this poem disturbing. The juxtaposition of beauty with death, even with wanton killing, cuts to the (sometimes very painful, always paradoxical) heart of the human condition.”
Cummings likewise cuts to the heart with “ponder, darling, these busted statues,” a carpe diem poem about the value of catching hold of life and living and loving in defiance of death and those who deal death. It's the sort of sentiment I often hear at TVUUC, and heard from some last summer.
In the wake of tragedies like this, scribes and talking heads do their best to make public sense of bloodshed. I don't have such answers. Yes, I suspect this tragedy has something to do with living in a fear-drenched country, one that glorifies guns and wars, one founded in part on killing Indians-something Buffalo Bill turned into a lucrative show-biz career. Even now ours is a country whose economy is driven largely by a military-industrial-media web that disperses resources that could otherwise do great good in this world.
In that regard, I suppose I'm aligned with Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and Greg Palast, whose book, Armed Madhouse, I wish you'd read. In that book, Palast presents the sobering news that every year many more Americans die to wanton gun violence in America than have died in the whole history of our involvement in Iraq.
Maybe he's right when he declares we bring much misery on ourselves by protecting gun producers from things such as lawsuits, and that beat down men like Adkisson have been their own worst enemy by opposing progressives, though I can't prove it. I'm not near smart enough. If only those who pontificate on the need to broaden the reach of the Second Amendment beyond any reasonable measure, would own up that they're not that smart either, I'd feel better about my fellow citizens.
I write this not as prescriptive of anything, however, only as a word of mourning for Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger, for all their friends and relations and for something more that deserves mourning. That's the lost magic and tranquility that only slowly returns—borne on flowers and candlelight services and other tokens of love and empathy from a responsive community.
Yet something was lost last summer for many of us who live in this pretty how town with up so floating many bells down. Something that begs one to ponder, darling, busted statues and broken lives and to wonder just what Mr. Death thinks of his blue-eyed boy who could break onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat…