8th Nov 2013

My Night with the New Jersey SWAT Team, and Our Miserable Culture of Lockdown

by Kathryn Jean Lopez


The SWAT team cleared the way for a hundred or so of us who had spent a few hours in Nordstrom at the Paramus shopping center.

Walking with my hands above my head on an escalator wasn’t exactly how I expected Monday to end when I went to the mall to try on dresses for an upcoming wedding.

A little earlier, after a quick detour and purchase, I had headed with purpose toward the escalator as a couple, pale with shock but a sober calm about them, stopped anyone from leaving the floor. Down, it turned out, is where they heard a gunshot, as a Nordstrom employee hit the floor to protect himself from any additional gunfire.

And then we waited. Uncertain if the man who had fired the gun was now inside or outside, in police custody or in our very store. Early on, store staff explained where we would go if told to run — there was an emergency exit, which we never did use. A lot of the rest of the story was waiting to be told. We did lot of waiting, wondering, with unsettling but inconclusive public-service announcements; we saw flashes of light through the windows, suggesting the gunman could be anywhere — even the roof?

Checking online news, getting calls from the outside, we knew that Garden State police had swarmed the place, and we were surrounded. But we still had no idea what was going on — where whoever had fired a gun by the jewelry department was, what he was doing, what he might do next.

During those hours — an intense evening and early morning — I was subject to some questioning: How has this changed your views on gun laws? How did you feel being held prisoner of a police state?

Is this what was being discussed in lockdown? Is this what was on the minds of shoppers? No, getting home alive was more of a priority. These were questions being tweeted and emailed to me. The primary questions we ought to be asking, having been a part of this media frenzy this week, look much more like: Why do we do this to ourselves? Some 20-year-old young man took to a mall to kill himself. And we watch it like it’s a mere television show. We’re done with it come midnight or so, ready for the next one.

And, of course, there will be a next one.

I could have spent the entire next morning on TV. Believe me, I was asked. I turned down every interview request because I genuinely had nothing to report save for the uncertainty and obviously unsettling nature of the night. And I was in a penitential mood. Ours can be a throwaway culture of virtual faux encounter. And I had just contributed to it.

“I stopped reading at your artsy still-life.”

A loved one, with a vested interest in me staying alive, having been informed by Anderson Cooper that I was tweeting live from the shopping mall in lockdown, tuned out right about the time I tweeted a Blackberry photo of someone’s uneaten dinner, as the Nordstrom crowd was cleared and moved to Joe’s American Bar and Grill, where, hours before, people sensibly fled — orders in progress, stove jets still on — upon word that a gunman was a store or two away.

I myself knew things had gotten out of hand when I began composing my Second Amendment policy in 140 characters or less, responding to responses to my situation I saw on Twitter.

I did at least stop before I hit “tweet” that time.

It was somewhere near 11 p.m., and the customers and employees of the Paramus Nordstrom had been ordered to the café on the first floor. A security guard took a head count. People talked. People tried to keep themselves from imagining what might happen next.

And I looked for an electrical outlet.

Thanks be to God I had my charger with the longer cord in my purse!

Another warning sign? When plugging in said charger in an precarious position at Joe’s, I was asked to confirm that I would leave it behind if instructed to move — the gunman still unaccounted for, a SWAT dog having just walked past me. I had to think about it.

With a respectable number of followers, and being in the news-and-opinion business, it was only natural to make mention of the scene on the ground, so to speak. Once I realized people were watching, I felt a certain sense of obligation. My intentions were, to some extent, good. When we first heard that people may have died — four was the rumor, called in from someone who had heard a news report — the women gathered around the third floor lounge were reflective and prayerful. Quickly it was clear that we could remain calm and rational so long as we kept off our iPhones and Blackberrys so as not to be exposed to rumors masquerading as news. This I realized even as I fed the beast, and even as we all shared news from the outside — news from people who, it turned out, knew even less than we did about our live situation.

We’ve come so accustomed to these “breaking news” stories. Media outlets have to report something, so they may find themselves reporting anything. The death of Richard Shoop, the gunman who ultimately shot himself in the head that night, relatively privately in a remote section of the mall, his body found after 3 a.m., should be a moment of introspection for each one of us who ever drank in the live coverage of a shooting or police chase. “Why?” many news anchors asked the morning after. Perhaps because we keep watching. And yes, we keep tweeting. For a troubled young man who can’t seem to get the love or attention he craves — or can’t see that he is loved, which each and every one of us is, however lost we may feel — this seems like a way to go, on the way out.

I could have spent all day Tuesday on television. “National Review reporter Kathryn Jean Lopez” was on the scene and tweeting! She was in high demand. A little free PR for National Review, perhaps a way to process what had just happened. The bookers and producers could not have been nicer, many mentioning prayer, some sending me official police updates along the way. Mercifully, I opted for an off-year election day routine and prayer instead of Today until the next news cycle.

When I saw that photo of Pope Francis the other day, embracing the man with the disfigured face, I prayed the next Richard Shoop might see it — the next young man who doesn’t know what else to do other than what he saw the last guy do, getting himself in the news, assured his life would be noticed, even as it ends.

This isn’t cops and robbers anymore. This is a deeply wounded culture, losing more men and women to virtual unsatisfying gratifications, superficial connetions, their pain unaddressed, in need of healing. When you consider that even Rick Warren’s son, whose life was overwhelmed with love, could not be reached, we will begin to realize the urgency of confronting the piercing wounds and address them instead of pretending that taking all the guns away is the solution. Lost souls in agony will find another way to terrorize in our culture of death and avoidance.

The Gospel readings this week have us dining with the crippled and loving our neighbor, with real love, radically so. Hours after the mall incident, I picked up Magnificat magazine, in which it was explained by Madeleine Delbrêl “Why God Invites Us to the Great Dinner”:

Love has made you a Christian
and you are a Christian for Love.
Nothing else made you a Christian
and you were made a Christian for not other reason.

If you forget Love you make yourself absurd;
if you betray Love you become monstrous.
No justice can ever dispense you
from the law of Love.

If you turn away from Love
To receive something greater
You are preferring riches to Life.

If you turn away from Love
so as to give something greater than Love,
you deprive the world of the one treasure
that you were destined to give it.

We are free of every obligation
but totally dependent
on the one things necessary: Love …

Love is our life becoming eternal life.
When we give up Love, we give up our own life….
One act of Love is one immediate resurrection…..
You win Love by desiring it, asking for it,
receiving it, and passing it on.

We don’t learn Love, we get to know it little by little as we get to know Christ.
Faith in Christ makes us capable of Love;
the life of Christ reveals to us what Love is;
the life of Christ shows us how to desire Love
and how to receive Love.
The Spirit of Christ makes us alive with Love,
active with Love,
fruitful with Love.

Everything can be of service to Love.
But without it everything is barren—
First and foremost ourselves.

Pope Francis keeps talking about Divine Mercy. He’s trying to confound us with love, so that we might see that it is who we are, why we are. We have to help people know.

Maybe Richard knew. But something was stopping him from seeing the Love of His Creator, from seeing Love in him and for him.

A day later, also in Magnificat, the reflection was from Catherine de Hueck Doherty, foundress of Madonna House: “Faith assures us that when we come close to God with sorrow in our heart, his consuming fire cleanses everything in us. His arms reach out and take is in and rock us back and forth. We rest against his breast and are lulled by the heartbeats of God.”

We need to be His arms. We need to bring people to life in His Sacred Heart. Everything else is misery.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA and blogs on Catholic things at K-Lo@Large.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)