February 15th, 2008
01:07 PM ET
12 years ago

Across America with Bob Greene: 'Stages'

Students console one another after Thursday's tragedy at Northern Illinois University.

Students console one another after Thursday's tragedy at Northern Illinois University.

CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) - There are two Americas, all right, but not in the sense that any presidential candidate has ever used the phrase on a campaign-rally stage.

It was from a stage 65 miles west of here, on the campus of Northern Illinois University, that a gunman opened fire yesterday into a class full of students listening to an ocean sciences lecture. That's the most haunting of all the haunting images of the massacre: a man stepping suddenly out of nowhere and onto a stage, and beginning to shoot at the audience.

It's too early, before the funerals have been held, to dwell too closely on the symbolism of that - the previously anonymous would-be murderer seeking, literally, a public stage - but it's not too early to consider the two Americas. They have nothing to do with left or right, with Republican or Democrat, with affluent or impoverished.

They have to do with the America that makes sense - the country in which all of the candidates, regardless of political party, reside - and the America that doesn't, which seems, increasingly, to be the country in which we all too often find ourselves living.

The words that the candidates from both parties have been using on campaign stages for months now - “change,” and “hope,” and “future,” and “progress” - are words from that logical and linear America, the one that relies upon a belief that morning will inexorably follow the darkness. In the other America, though - the insane one, the one we don't like to look at - those words, on a day like today, seem like taunts.

A presidential campaign provides the useful and comforting illusion of controlled chaos - of frantic fighting that, ultimately, is settled with handshakes and smiles and precisely tabulated victories and losses. After months of insults and ill feelings, Mitt Romney and John McCain stand before the cameras together as comrades. The message is: order, in the end, rules. Please disregard the previous mayhem.

If only we could count on the rest of life following the same kind of steadfast script. Lacking the ability to make our world stay safely on the road of reason, we invest an almost childlike faith in the magical power of cameras to render things understandable. If we can capture the image of the confusion, freeze it, then perhaps we can convince ourselves that we rule it.

But the cameras are everywhere now, and their presence does not help. At Northern Illinois yesterday, camera phones recorded the sights and sounds of the students being rushed from the lecture hall to ambulances; in New York City this week, security cameras recorded the man with the two suitcases entering the building on East 79th Street where he would butcher a psychologist and a psychiatrist, killing one and leaving the other in critical condition; security cameras recorded the man with the suitcases leaving the building afterward. False security, defined.

In the erratic America, the one separate from the campaign speeches, we seem ever more disconnected from the most basic things that should bind us, that should make us whole. In Kansas this month, right around the time of the state's presidential caucuses, a 16-year-old boy in the town of Gardner was beaten to death after school by another boy as at least four others watched. Dakota DeRemus, according to his parents, was bullied for years at school; he had a heart condition, yet as one fellow student pummeled him in the chest, ribs and back the others stood and watched it like a show. Police said that one of the boys made a video recording of the beating on his cellphone camera. When Dakota DeRemus collapsed, apparently the boy with the camera phone did not consider the fact that the phone could also be used for making calls. He did not call 911, did not summon help. The boys departed, leaving Dakota DeRemus on the ground to die alone.

There will be funerals in Illinois in the days ahead, and, because it must, around the country a presidential campaign will go on. Words of hope and words of acrimony will alternate from political stages, but as confusing and seemingly unpredictable as the campaign may appear, in the end, like clockwork, there will be an inauguration and a methodical transition next January. That's the America we tell ourselves is the real one, even as we fear the inevitable reemergence of the other one, the one we can't control.

Bob Greene is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author.

Filed under: Bob Greene
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Bob

    Nice words, Bob Greene. Nice, cheap words.

    February 15, 2008 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  2. kathe oakland, california

    Bob Green what the heck are you talking about.

    How dare you compare politics in any form with the horrible events in Illinois. What is wrong with you – Maybe there are TWO BOB GREENS too.

    How stupid and how heartless.

    February 15, 2008 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  3. Jordi

    Not to dimish your point, Mr. Greene, but it is truly tragic that so many politicians elected to office at the national level have been either won over or silenced by the gun lobby. The words ring especially false when they offer condolences when tragedy strikes but do nothing to stem the extreme violence and suffering caused by ubiquitous and utterly irresponsible gun possession.

    These two Americas that you talk about are very much intertwined–and it is the hubris and folly of one that allows the other to exist as it does.

    February 15, 2008 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  4. mama

    The America we can't control? Or the America we won't control?

    February 15, 2008 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  5. rachel


    Please don't pull this unfortunate incident into the primary cycle. It has no place in the CNN online political forum; certainly not in the dramatized fashion which makes your books so intriging.

    February 15, 2008 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  6. RPF

    A very touching article, Bob, but one thing has nothing to do with the other. However, it is not the government's job to change the soul of America and people need to stop looking to it to do so.

    February 15, 2008 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  7. Jaik , chicago, IL

    this is a poor analogy. It borders on poor taste as well.

    February 15, 2008 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  8. Grif

    The Rage of Change, too much for some young folk.

    Rush to "Change" Makes time, a minus...

    February 15, 2008 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  9. Bill, Covington,LA

    Bob Green:

    You are brilliant beyond all imagination. Yes there are two (2) Americas.

    (1) North America
    (2) South America

    I can provide a mapif you need it to find them.

    February 15, 2008 05:57 pm at 5:57 pm |
  10. Charlotte

    New Orleans will soon get all the help they need if Obama is the next President. We won't have to worry anymore about anything, life will be all milk and honey, all our troops will be home, jobs for everyone, health insurance for those that can afford it, the will of the people will be all that matters,no more lobbist in Washington, just ask any Obama-bot.

    February 15, 2008 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |