At the one-year anniversary of the Parkland assault, Nancy Pelosi warned President Trump that a Democratic president could use his declaration of emergency as a precedent to take unilateral action on gun control. This post describes my engagement on the problem, though from the perspective of someone who operates at the top of the maturity scale: that is to say, in the space of imagination.
It’s framed as a presentation to the local Rotary Club – thus the reference to vaccinations.
I suffered through an epidemic in the spring of my seventh-grade year. The graduating class of eighth graders harbored a core of malcontents. This was before the iPhone, so rather than photo-bombing, they apple bombed – that is, the boys threw apples across the lawn into the girls’ lunch circles. When that was brought under control, they started pulling fire alarms. In the last few weeks of school, we could count on class being interrupted once a day.
It was an irritation but did not carry the weight of inevitability. We didn’t leave school expecting that one day they’d set it on fire.
Perhaps that history makes me sensitive to the insanity of modern education, as our youth practice for active shooter incidents with the rational expectation of an occurrence.
I could analyze the politics of that transformation, but let’s address the problem at a deeper level. The basic principles that fuel gun worship in America are at play in other situations. When ISIS beheads a journalist, when China breaks up a coral reef to make an airfield, when North Korea tests a ballistic missile, or when a president proclaims terrorist infiltration across our borders: they all beat the same drum. They beat the drum of Death.
I occasionally become embroiled elsewhere, but it is particularly in mass shootings that I become psychically enmeshed. That story tracks through darkness, but also shines with grace. I know that both of those can be challenging for those that enjoy the distance of medical vaccinations. Eradicating a disease is accomplished through financial and material exchanges that buffer the suffering. Healing psychic trauma is a far more intimate affair.
I’m not going to criticize those that lack the nerve for it. In fact, it is for that reason that those of us that maintain the barriers against darkness rarely talk about it. I reveal this now because of the Borderline shooting. I heard echoes there from 2017’s events in Las Vegas and realized that I can no longer hold the darkness at bay. Cluelessness is a gaping hole in the shield I maintain.
Let me offer a theoretical statement as prelude:
To uphold violence as a necessary element of political discourse is to worship Death.
I spent most of my formative years confronting a variation of that principle: the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction that drove Cold War thinking. Raised by parents who celebrated Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor,” I was appalled. That emotion was not idle: I spent most of my young adult years trying to understand how to make love work as a social principle. In college that carried over into my philosophy classes where I read love into the political theories of Plato, Locke and Foucault.
Perhaps for that reason my experience of mass shootings is intimate. When the Sandy Hook murders occurred, I found myself dreaming of the teacher who laid down over her huddled students to take the bullets fired from the assault rifle. I don’t feel the physical pain in such moments: rather it’s a psychic tearing that I receive in the heart and close over as the saintly spirit departs the ruined body. I witness such victims in the grace of their sacrifice. I prevent the violence from leaving a permanent mark.
That is service – though too late – on the individual scale.
On the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings, I was present at the sparsely attended observance outside the Federal Building in Westwood. I had been following the Barden’s reflections on their angel Daniel and went to bed reflecting on the apathy that condemned the nation to repeat their tragic loss. As I dreamed that night, witnessing to the Most High the great need for love to sustain us in the struggle, Debbie Barden’s grief settled in my heart. The Most High sent Daniel’s spirit to answer her need. Seeing her grief and shame as the political tide turned against her, the heart of a lion rose within him. Astonished, I heard him promise to lead the angels to find everyone who had suffered from fear of a gun – whether it was a woman in an abusive relationship, a parent that had lost a child, or a citizen whose protector had been assassinated.
We three then expanded under the protection of the Most High: the child’s determination, the philosopher’s open heart, and the mother’s wounded psyche. Love found the vibration of that wound in every cranny of American society, and angels followed behind, bearing courage and hope across time to liberate those oppressed by death.
Did it hurt? Yes, for a moment. Diagnosis is always the most painful episode in a psychic cure. But it’s possible to bear when you have faith that healing is waiting in the wings.
There are other episodes in that story, and other mass shootings to recall. The upshot was this: I considered such experiences to be a process separate from early responder activity. I would hear of a shooting and feel the call to book a ticket and fly out to minister to the survivors and reason that I would never be able to penetrate the security filters. I didn’t have institutional credentials that would allow me to get close.
And I still don’t.
But when the Country Arena shooting occurred in Las Vegas, it was simply a matter of renting a car and driving overnight to the scene. The dreams had been particularly intense. Perhaps it was due to proximity, but I think there was a further factor: the gun nuts were rattled and began to entertain guilt.
I rented a car and drove to Las Vegas.
On the way out, I had visions involving the staff of the Mandalay Bay Hotel. Upon my arrival, there were physical circumstances that corresponded to those visions, but it was my encounter with the victim’s memorial that drove events. I won’t relate the details. Time…came apart. I followed the trail of need from location to location. The culmination came at the Church of the Holy Redeemer, a Catholic congregation that anchors the opposing corner of the field fired upon by Pollard from the Mandalay Bay’s 32nd floor.
The Church had been commandeered by law enforcement in the week following the shooting, and at noon I attended their first service since the incident. The candle for the deceased was lit and the liturgy honored the Good Samaritans that had saved the wounded and led others to safety. Perhaps because the church had served as the center of the investigation, I found myself amidst the night’s events, warning the terrified crowd to “run to the cross” and “see each other so that angels can guide away the bullets.”
As communion began, the pianist meditated tenderly on “Amazing Grace.” The harmony echoed backward in time, and I felt Pollard’s desperate rage transformed into horrified realization. The purpose that moved me was then fulfilled. I had come because the Holy Spirit wanted me to confront the demon that had invaded his mind. It was trying to set up shop in the Mandalay Bay. As we wept over the phrase “that saved a wretch like me,” I caught Pollard in the embrace of Divine Mercy as he put the gun in his mouth and blew a hole in the spirit that had wound itself into his brain.
Recall my statement: “Time came apart.” You should understand that ten hours earlier as I lay in my suite I had received the souls liberated in that moment.
Sandy Hook is a town. Las Vegas is a city.
Then came Parkland.
In America, the NRA is the flimsy cover for Death’s worshippers, and Florida is the NRA’s model society. Parkland was the collision between that cult and the witness of children raised under the threat of mass shootings. Chris Hogg, Emma Gonzalez and others had the desperate temerity to shout “bullshit” back at the purveyors of death.
As the political wheels were set into motion to grind those courageous and wounded spirits into dust, I could not sleep at night. The shame of the police, the grief of parents, but most of all the bewildered violation of the promises believed by Christian youth: all of these rang in my mind every night.
I got on a plane and flew out on Thursday, arriving the night before they finished their first three days back at school.
My premonitions were fulfilled more accurately than they were in Las Vegas. No commercial motives disturbed the waters.
As I waited on Thursday morning in the Burbank Airport parking shuttle, the driver told me to get out to see the full moon on the horizon. In the Biblical Book of Revelation, a virtuous woman is declared as its avatar, and I felt upon me the beneficial omen of her smile. During the flight to Florida, I formulated an invocation of love’s twelve methods and twelve fruits. I offered it several times as I walked the two accessible sides of the school: first in the dark on Thursday night, and similarly before sunrise on Friday. Finally standing across from the entrance of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School as the full moon descended toward the horizon, feminine virtue answered my call as the invocation draped a protective tent over the campus.
Learning that the students were to be released at noon, I was back at 10:30. This time I listened to my two favorite pieces of restorative music: excerpts from Brahm’s First Piano Concerto and Beethoven’s Ninth. Sitting again across the street from the school entrance, as Ode to Joy unrolled majestically, the attention of their generation was captured. Not just in Parkland, not just in Florida, not just in America. We are the last society to remain ignorant of Death’s palsying grip upon our political process. Media coverage had touched a nerve across the globe. Conscious of Canada, Mexico, Europe, Central and South America, Asia and Africa: when the global assembly of their generation was complete, I announced firmly:
We must sing a new song.
Where I had tip-toed through raw grief on Thursday night, the atmosphere was tender on Friday night. Relieved, I spent Saturday among the memorial canopies set up outside the stage in the main park. The only recognition came from an elder who – to my admission that my contributions were “mostly abstract” – responded “Sometimes that’s the best way.”
Wishing that I could have more direct confirmation, still I reflected in awe, as the airplane lifted from the Fort Lauderdale tarmac, “I made 150 million new friends this weekend.”
When I marched in support of Ventura’s youth in last Spring’s Walk for Life, I carried a sign that read “Bear Cross plus Bare Arms equals Perfect Love” – obviously a rebuke to America’s evangelicals. There was a pregnant moment as I took the northward leg of Santa Clara. The chants of the crowd had fallen silent. I cried rhetorically: “What does love look like?” continuing without support
This is what love looks like.
But of course, I was only giving voice to the thought we had formulated before my shout rang out.
My name is Brian Balke. I live in Port Hueneme and opened my Ventura hypnotherapy practice in 2019, hoping that by preserving my attention for healing each day, I might be more sensitive to developing tragedies, able to intervene if possible, and otherwise available to pour love into the trauma meted out in mass murder.
I was at the Borderline memorial once the 101 reopened, kneeling to touch each cross. The Billy Graham Ministry chaplain caught my eye and testified “We’re lucky to have you.”
But the children that celebrated life in that building need healing still. When I lean against the cinder block corner, I imagine the empty interior, bottles and glasses still standing. I see the abandoned boots in closets. And then a vision of dancing to Christian praise from bullet hole to bullet hole, restoring the shooter’s broken hope so that he might go to his rest.
And then dancing to the DJ’s private set to kindle the space for the reopening celebration.