Yesterday, the Southern Tier city of Binghamton, N.Y. literally shot into the news. I followed the tragedy as it unfolded – 14 people dead at a center that provides services for immigrants and refugees; the presumed shooter also an immigrant, also dead.
Immediately the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin’s online news site, pressconnects.com, was flooded with comments from readers: some hate filled, others keyed to retaining focus on the tragedy rather than anti-immigrant rhetoric. (See editorial about this in El Diario/La Prensa: http://www.impre.com/eldiariony/opinion/2009/4/4/tragedy-in-binghamton-117746-1.html.)
We don’t know why this happened, and no matter how much more coverage the story gets, we never will. The heart can be a dark place, and it can fill as readily with despair as it does with hope. I write a lot in this blog about the hopes of immigrants – how this virtue drives the desire to emigrate in the first place, and how it fills people after immigration – even when the new living situation seems almost as difficult as the one left behind.
But hope can die hard, in ugly ways.
Already the news reports are saying that the presumed shooter had recently lost his job. For Southern Tier cities like Binghamton – much of Central New York State really – the current economic crisis is no new experience. The region has been struggling economically for decades. Once-thriving corporations like Endicott-Johnson in Binghamton and Proctor and Gamble in Norwich filled cities and towns in this part of the world with architecturally splendid houses and buildings during prosperous times – and then, as they closed or abandoned the area, left an unfillable void and a hardscrabble reality. The family farms that also contributed to the economy of the region are artifacts of a bygone era – though some hang on, with the stubborn, admirable tenacity that is a hallmark of people there.
If it seems to you that I write about this region of New York with love, it is because I do love it. I have led a peripatetic life – but came close to finding a true home during the 14 years I lived in the Central New York towns of Earlville and Hamilton. It is a region filled with down-to-earth people, forthcoming and unpretentious, who will, quite literally, open up their wallets and give you their last 10- or 20-dollar bill if they believe you are in need.
They are, also, far more likely than people in more worldly regions to be upfront and unsubtle about their prejudices. I’ve only ever been called “spic” (to my face anyway) in Central New York. I thought about that a lot as I kept tabs on the Binghamton story yesterday. Could it be that the shooter had heard that sort of casual derogation to the point where he despaired of ever being considered a human being first – and an individual rather than a walking representation of ethnic stereotype? It is certainly possible, though Binghamton is more ethnically diverse than other towns along that stretch of Route 12, and by all accounts, fairly welcoming of the immigrants who have settled there.
It would be a mistake, though, to dismiss this as a tragedy tied solely to its region, as some of the comments posted to the Press & Sun-Bulletin web site try to do. Even in more heterogeneous communities, it is hard to escape the derogation all immigrants feel at this particular moment in U. S. history. Public figures such as Sen. Tom Tancredo, Pat Buchanan, Lou Dobbs, Sheriff Joe Arpaio – and our own Joey Vento here in Philadelphia – have so vilified immigrants and stoked xenophobia that it is impossible to be an immigrant and not feel criminalized. Or devoid of hope.
And still, there they were – the victims of this shooting – studying English as a second language and learning the civics and history necessary to pass their citizenship exams. They were the very emblem of immigrant hope.
As days pass, I count on learning more about them – so that their faces, their lives, are what I come to remember.
Economic catastrophe, the cloud of fear and persecution immigrants live under, mental derangement – ensuing reports will no doubt bring more details about the shooter and his possible motives and circumstances to light.
None of which will justify his actions or make them any easier to understand.
But perhaps understanding isn’t necessary. Just a promise. That we will not let hope die in ourselves, in those around us, or upstate from us. That when we know hope is dying, we will reach into our wallets or past our prejudices, and extend a very real hand.
In charity. In love. In the promise of hope resurrected.