Norway & Brattleboro

Norway & Brattleboro

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I don’t typically follow sensational news stories. For starters, I don’t have television. And news journals are too hefty for me–both in size and content.

I enjoy the local paper now and then, especially for the classifieds and the obituaries, but my entire day can be thrown by one sad extraneous story from across the country. I’m hard-wired that way.

Occasionally, there’s no avoiding the news–either because it’s posted all over Facebook–as with the Kasey Anthony saga, or it is so compelling that I can’t ignore it–like the massacre at the youth camp this summer in Norway.

I’ve continued following that story because I know that Norway treats its criminals with greater dignity than others societies; and I suspect that this gross violation of humanity will challenge that distinction.  I hope it doesn’t.

I’ve never been in favor of the death penalty, and never wished death on anyone until the summer when a cousin’s young friend was raped. I remember thinking that it was a good thing that I was not the officer who pulled over the car and found the missing nine-year old girl stuffed under the rapist’s back seat.

I would have strangled that man on the spot; And this realization made me more grateful than ever for our judicial system–in that it doesn’t allow people like me free range with grief.

After the atrocity in Norway, I was heartened to see a quote shared on Twitter by 18 year old, Helle Gannestead, who had been among those attacked at the youth camp:

“When one man can cause so much harm – think how much love we can create together.”

I find the same spirit alive in Brattleboro. Despite the pain that Richard Gagnon’s act has inflicted on so many, the response of this community has been one of true beauty. Though no beauty can replace life that is stolen or take away the heartbreak of those most intimate with the loss, there is hope that something good can come of that which hurts us.

Though I can’t explain it, I’ve always had a heart for those labeled “criminal.” Perhaps this is due to my early steeping in the tender teachings of Jesus, or that as the oldest of eight and later an elementary teacher, I could see that even the most hardened criminal was at one time an innocent child.

There is a quote that I know to be true even though the truth of it confounds me in the face of such horrific acts as rape and murder:

“The real measure of a society is how it treats its prisoners.”

This truth runs tandem with that which I also know to be true–that we cannot separate ourselves from our problems; that there is no way to simply get “rid” of them:  The toxic chemicals that we dispose of leach into our water and air. The children that we abandon in cities grow up to hate us. The elders that we dispose of in institutions become ourselves.  The hurt that we stuff inside one day acts out.

Though we cannot change what Richard did, we are responsible for how we respond–in our community and in ourselves.  Like Norway, I think Brattleboro is up for the challenge.

“The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded forever;
but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter;
and in these, the spirit blooms.” Santayana


Kelly Salasin, August 18, 2011

For more on the BFC tragedy, click here.

For more on Norway, watch below:



Stripped of the shock and horror that clouded my thoughts for days, I wake to the naked truth that a murder has taken place. That a man’s life has been stolen. That a family has been forced to bear not only a devastating loss, but a violent one.

I’ve lost loved ones to tragedy, but never to murder. The compassion I felt for Richard turns toward anger.  For his desecration of life and community and the cooperative. Truly there has been infinite beauty in the collective response to this tragedy, but there is no escaping the ugliness of it.

My anger quickly melts back into grief however as I view the Richard’s arraignment.  I hold my breath while the camera focuses in on the door from which he will enter the courtroom.  When he appears, I turn my head away, unable to bear his transformation from the wine guy to the criminal.

When Richard finally does make his way through that door, my hand flies to my mouth. It’s not just the grey sweatsuit that is two sizes too big, or even his hair, typically worn neat, that is now wildly disheveled, as if he spent his first night in jail ripping through it. What truly breaks my heart and brings me to tears is both his frame–bent and shuffling–and his face–ashen and lost.

He looks up and into the courtroom for just a moment, and his bottom lip droops as if he is about to crumble into tears.

And now I am angry at all of us. How could we have prevented this man from this self-inflicted hell? How could we have spared these families the loss of their loved ones?

Relieved to be 300 miles away, I share this new wave of grief with my friends at the shore; and I am surprised by what I see in their faces.  It is a mixture shock and compassion and fear.  Only the fear is not of someone like Richard, but of themselves. Fear that they too have a murderer inside. Fear that they might someday be stripped of their senses by rage.


Kelly Salasin, August 13, 2011

This is post #4 on the Brattleboro Food Co-op tragedy, click here to read the others.