Gunfire at elementary school shatters Chapel Hill’s feeling of safety

Last Friday the quiet tranquility of Chapel Hill on a warm spring afternoon was pierced by the sirens of emergency vehicles rushing toward a crisis. Through my office window, I saw a parade of fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances drive by in quick succession. Something was clearly going on, more than a fire drill, I thought, but nothing prepared me for the news that there was a shooting at the elementary school only two blocks away.

That was all that we knew at first: there was a shooting at the school. We didn’t know whether kids, teachers, staff, or parents were involved–how many people were hurt, who was the shooter, was he or she still on the loose, and how bad were the injuries? Memories and images from historic mass shootings went through my head, and I tried to steady my mind and keep imagination from running wild. The fact that my child was not at that school was instrumental in me being able to stay calm and focus on getting out of the area. It felt like nothing good could come from staying there, and I had to pick up kids from school across town, so I had better just get out of the neighborhood before it was closed off.

The shooting was so recent that as I was driving away, the TV news trucks passed me as they drove to the scene.

I picked up my carpool and took the kids out for frozen yogurt, as I told them the basics of what happened and scanned the news for updates.

First came the news that an adult woman had been shot multiple times and taken to the hospital, right there in front of the school just before all the kids were to be let out for the day. The shooter was still at large.

Then the news that the shooter had been caught very quickly by the Chapel Hill police, as he tried to flee in his car.

So we drove home, and we all began to worry about the woman who had been shot. Who was she? I felt guilty for wanting to make sure that my friends were safe, because I knew that no matter who was hurt, someone’s family was going to be devastated by this violence. But I had the all-too-human need to check in with my friends and make sure that they were safe and accounted for.

Shortly after 4:00 the TV news announced that the shooting victim had died. The nightmare had escalated.

At swim team practice that evening, parents were wary but calm. We still didn’t know the name of the victim. We did start to hear some details of what had happened. It was clear that the school staff had done a really good job of reacting quickly and professionally, locking the school down to keep the kids safe, and sending out emails and texts to parents immediately to let them know what was happening. The kids were in good hands. And the school principal and nurse had rushed outside to help the shooting victim, even at the risk to their own safety, not knowing where the shooter was.

It seemed that the shooter had known his victim, and this was not a random crime. Now two children would be without a mother, killed by her former partner, presumably their father.

As we waited to learn the identity of the murdered woman, I could feel my mind desperately wanting to rationalize a reason that this woman was not like me. I irrationally craved psychological distance. I imagined that the victim was as different from me as possible. That she did not actually live in the neighborhood but across town. That she was a different race, from a different culture, spoke a different language–was as unlike me and my friends as my mind could spin a story. I knew this was unfair, and inaccurate, wishful thinking and projecting a sense of the “other” that was unhealthy. Though I was conscious of the inanity of these thoughts, I could not control them.

My husband called me over to see the news online that the victim had been identified, and her name was Chahnaz Kebaier, shot by Ali Cherfaoui. I did not know her. I grieved for her children but still felt that drive to put as much distance as possible between my life and hers. I wanted to believe that we came from totally different backgrounds and had nothing in common (therefore trying to tell myself that this could never happened to someone like me).

Then, on Facebook, came a bolt of tragic news was posted by my college sweetheart: across the country in Seattle, one of our mutual friends from college, Justin Ferrari, had been shot and killed “by a stray bullet” as he drove his parents and two children on a holiday weekend outing.

I didn’t know the woman who had been brutally murdered in Chapel Hill, but I did know Justin, this 42-year old father who had been senselessly, randomly killed in Seattle. The concept of “a stray bullet” seemed completely absurd. In my worldview, bullets don’t just get lost, go astray, or show up randomly–someone fires a gun, and it is almost unimaginable to think of someone shooting a deadly projectile without being aware of and responsible for the consequences. I thought of Justin, picturing him as he arrived at college in 1987, sporting a mohawk. Half a lifetime ago I had been his resident counselor his freshman year, helping him move in the first day of school, living on his hall, and over the year, learning to put up with his freshman antics and realizing that underneath his layer of bravado and bluster, he was a good guy.

The next morning as new details were reported in Chapel Hill, I learned that Chahnaz Kebair did live in the neighborhood, and she was a PhD postdoc researcher at UNC. She was a 40-year old mother who worked in academia and lived nearby, not so different from me after all.

Chapel Hill thinks of itself as “The Southern Part of Heaven” and most of the time it is a lovely, idyllic college town, a very nice place to live. But we are not immune to the hellish realities of abuse, domestic disputes, violence and murder. What happens to one of us does affect all of us, and we should always care, whether the victim is “someone like us” or not. Because each victim is special to somebody, their family, their kids, their parents, their friends. We need to live with the realities that violence can touch any family, even “good” ones. Sadly, Chahnaz Kebaier predicted her own death at the hands of her former partner, telling friends, “This man is going to kill me.” She knew she was in danger but was unable to protect herself from the man who was determined to carry out her murder. Without blaming the victim in any way, we have to wonder what else could have been done to protect her from her assailant?

I believe that my town is about as safe today as it was last week. Quite safe, most of the time. But when our “illusion of safety” is shattered, the question arises, what can we learn from tragedies like these to help people like Chahnaz and Justin? How can we as a society figure out how to stop guns from getting into the hands of irrational or dangerous people? How can we recognize and take action when someone seems to be spiraling towards violence, teach young people how to recognize what is safe and unsafe in an intimate relationship, help people safely leave dangerous relationships, and support families to help them heal in the face of tragedy?

My thoughts and prayers are with the families of Chahnaz and Justin and all those who have lost loved ones to violence; and I am also thinking about the elementary school students, parents, teachers and staff who will be working to create a safe environment for the children during the last few days of school, and work through these issues as a community.

These Kidpower articles by Executive Director Irene van der Zande may be helpful:

Helping Children Regain Their Emotional Safety After a Tragedy

Kidpower Safety Tips: Gun Violence at School

Resisting the “Illusion of Safety”

Personal Safety to Help Stop Domestic Violence

Related news stories:

Mayor responds to shooting near school

Kebaier Colleague: “She Was A Very Selfless Person”

Friend: Dead woman feared for her life

Shock over innocent father shot: ‘This neighborhood is better than this’

This article was originally posted at

The cruelty and absurdity of John Edwards

As I am writing this, a jury in Greensboro North Carolina is deliberating John Edwards’ fate. The golden boy has fallen to Earth, but now the question is, will he go to jail? Even Edwards’ defense attorneys are arguing in essence that he’s a cad–just not a crook.

Before Barack Obama joined the Presidential race, I was an Edwards supporter for a time. He had bold Progressive ideas, charisma, and he was a home-town guy from Chapel Hill. It was intriguing to have a presidential campaign operating from Chapel Hill. But we were all taken for a ride by the smooth-talking former Senator.

Edwards’ ego, hubris, and lies were unbelievably cruel to his wife Elizabeth. For those in media or journalism who report that Elizabeth was full of anger and rage, or that she was paranoid, (see for example, the book Game Change) I say, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT????? Her husband was telling the biggest imaginable lies while Elizabeth was battling terminal cancer. Everyone around her was trying to act like things were okay (or were actively covering up the affair). And all this while he was running for President!

When John and Elizabeth renewed their wedding vows on their 30th anniversary in July 2007, Rielle Hunter was pregnant with John’s child. If that’s not enough to make you go crazy, I don’t know what would be.

I met Rielle Hunter once, at an Edwards event, a social event with a small group of supporters. His daughter Cate was in attendance as well. Elizabeth Edwards was not there. Rielle was introduced as the new campaign videographer. I don’t remember her and Edwards being in the same place at the same time during this event, so I didn’t see them interact. Rielle seemed pretty nice–she didn’t really strike me one way or the other. I certainly didn’t want to think “oh, she’s probably sleeping with the candidate,” and that is one of the pieces of fallout of this affair I have not heard discussed very much. It diminishes campaign workers and their credibility to have that question lingering in the air.

And it still makes me wonder what blinded me to the faults of John Edwards, and what I can learn from that for the future. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is. When the candidate who says he is the champion to end poverty builds the most expensive house in the county, that should have been a clue right there. (I rationalized that at the time by thinking, if he’s going to be President, this would be like his southern White House, so it would have to be big.)

I ended up catching Rielle in a snapshot from that night, in the background, by accident. Ironic. Here’s one absurdity: When I briefly talked to Rielle, I said what turned out to be one of the dumbest things ever. Since she was the campaign videographer and we were campaign volunteers, I said something like, “Oh, we’re the characters in your story.” Ha! Now we know that Rielle was the star in her own twisted romance, happy to be the mirror to reflect John’s narcissistic bliss back on himself.

So we all know that John Edwards is a rat fink liar of the highest degree. But what of the legal charges against him? I am not a lawyer, and I don’t understand all the legal details. It seems to hinge on the exact wording of the campaign finance laws as well as the donors’ intentions. But there is something completely absurd and fishy about our whole system when one the one hand, people can give only a maximum of $5000 to a campaign, and have to fill out paperwork and disclosures to do so. But on the other hand, Edwards wants to argue that his “friends” could give him more than $1 million to hide his pregnant mistress, and that’s not relevant to the campaign? And one of those “friends,” Fred Baron, was his campaign finance chair? Common sense says that these secret millions were necessary to keep the campaign going by covering up the affair, and were therefore campaign contributions. The reclusive 100-year-old heiress benefactor, the interior designer with boxes of “Bunny Money” to give to Andrew Young, and the cross-country journey to hide the pregnant mistress–you really could not make this stuff up.

But, it is not funny when you remember the sadness and betrayal of John Edwards’ family, ruining Elizabeth’s last months of life; disillusioning his older children; bilking campaign donors by raising money when the campaign was hindered by this secret fatal flaw; and potentially ruining the election for the Democrats and handing over the Presidency to the Republicans. Even in the South, I don’t think those are forgivable sins.

I for one wish campaign donors could sue Edwards for raising money on false pretenses. No candidate trotted out their “perfect family” image more than Edwards, using his family as a bolster to his credibility, and balancing out his good looks and charm with dedication to his smart, down-to-earth wife and three children. Yet it was all a flawed farce, from the first day of his campaign to the last. I am also still trying to figure out how the mainstream media utterly failed to follow up the investigative reports by the National Enquirer, which turned out to be true.

I don’t know what the legal result will be, but for all the absurdity of how Edwards got his secret cover-up money during 2008 election, now there is probably a legal way to do that through a SuperPAC, thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision. That is the lingering absurdity that should trouble us all.

[updated May 18, 2012]

Thank you President Obama! (This is what political progress looks like)

Yesterday I experienced an absolute roller coaster of emotions here in North Carolina. In the morning, I was grieving on Facebook with many friends who were devastated that our state passed a Constitutional Amendment (“Amendment One”) to ban gay marriage and domestic partnerships. It was a blow for equal rights, civil rights, in our beloved state which we had hoped would reject this measure.

Then, as we were still coming to grips with the election result, by 3 pm President Obama had announced his support for marriage rights for gay couples! This is a huge advance and I want to thank President Obama for reaching this point of public support. It made all the difference in the world to hear this on the sad day that North Carolina wrote discrimination into our State Constitution.

What does this mean for progressive causes? We should pick up this success and RUN WITH IT all the way to November, building coalitions and working together. I am disappointed that so many progressives are downplaying the significance of President Obama’s announcement, saying that it took too long, didn’t go far enough, or was done for political reasons. We need to shake that off and embrace what has happened. The President of the United States has said he supports marriage rights for gay people. That is a historic milestone. And by the way, from where I sit in North Carolina, a swing state, it took a lot of courage, leadership and vision for the President to make this announcement on the day that the state voted against marriage and partnership rights.

Democrats and Progressives need to get organized and disciplined between now and November. We are up against a very well organized Republican opposition with tons of money. (Actually the Republicans are in a world of hurt, with their coalition ripping at the seams, and a weak candidate in Mitt Romney but they are still very powerful and funded with unlimited secret money this time around.)

Thoughts on what Progressives need to do now:

We will win our causes by addition, not subtraction. We need to build our coalitions. Gay people need civil rights. In North Carolina, even with yesterday’s defeat, advocacy organizations could celebrate the amount of new supporters they had brought together. For example, Equality NC grew from 26,000 supporters to 100,000 supporters since last November. And, the LGBT community saw that their straight allies were willing to make equality a major issue in their political lives, with donations, letters to the editor, yard signs, phone banking, and voting. We had a huge voter turnout. 831,788 North Carolinians voted against Amendment One. How can we mobilize those 831,788 people between now and November?

Who else needs to have their rights protected? Women, whose reproductive rights and health care are under attack. People of color, whose voting rights are under attack in NC. The environment–all the people whose clean water and air would be threatened if fracking came to NC (hint, that is all of us, and particularly farmers and rural citizens, many of whom strongly oppose fracking). Students, who face crippling student loans as well as large cuts to educational funding from birth through college.

How can civil rights groups, economic justice groups, reproductive rights advocates, and environmentalists come together in a disciplined way and work our butts off to have greater wins in November? There are excellent groups doing this work and I will give a shout-out to Blueprint NC, which is a leader in our state.

We need to keep focused on finding Progressive allies wherever they are and not allowing ourselves to be divided. One trend I saw in the conversation on Facebook yesterday was people from the urban Triangle area where I live saying, “I’ll never set foot in the counties where they voted for Amendment One.” That is a huge mistake. We can’t write off those voters. We need to engage them–those areas won’t necessarily be a stronghold of liberal views, but how can we make a case about the economic recovery, health care, clean air and water, and other issues that we share? We need to bring more people into the fold, and come November, each and every vote will count.

Finally, this is probably a good subject for another post but I will touch on it here, I have thought a lot about the asymmetry of Tolerance versus Intolerance. It is harder to organize Tolerance because it naturally comes with a worldview that understands shades of gray and differences of opinion. A tolerant person might be personally turned off by abortion or gay marriage but would still vote in favor of other people’s rights to conduct their lives differently. The intolerance of the Right is naturally more organized because they see the world in black and white. It infuriates me that someone like Rick Santorum somehow thinks his own morality is offended if I use birth control. Intolerance is terrible social policy–and it feels threatened to the core by Tolerance itself–but it makes for a disciplined political approach if a coalition can be sustained.

So for those of us who are tolerant, Progressive, Independent, or Democrats, it’s time to seriously come together. Don’t let the Republicans divide us and for heaven’s sake don’t divide us ourselves!!!! Give President Obama credit and thanks for his support for marriage equality. See the seeds of political progress when they are in front of our eyes, and water, nurture, tend it it and GROW a movement.

Onward to November.