We All Bear the Mark

“Have a nice weekend,” I called out to my technician last Friday shortly after 4:00 PM. “Off to get a haircut. It’s getting a little out of hand,” I chuckled. I patted the top of my crown where a shock of unruly hair shot straight up, trying in vain to press it down flat. I looked like Einstein after sticking his finger in a light socket.

When I stepped outside, I heard the sirens in full, 360 degree surround sound. From every direction came the warbling wail; if the sun hadn’t been shining I would’ve sworn there was a tornado on the ground. Still, I’m used to MedFlight helicopters hovering overhead and the sound of sirens, so I thought little of it.

As I looked left toward Madison Street and turned right on Whitesburg Drive, I noticed a flurry of activity around Huntsville Hospital near the Emergency Room entrance. Nothing unusual.

But a few minutes later when I made my customary left on to Carl T. Jones Drive, I started to see them whizz past me in the opposite direction, Huntsville Police Department units, their plexiglass bubble tops popping like disco strobe lights, all making their way north. I began to think that something big must be going down, but I held the thought only briefly, focusing instead on making it to the styling salon before closing time.

Once there, I signed in, saw that it was going to be a while, and rather than picking up the latest issue of People magazine, I pulled out my iPhone and checked my Facebook page and Twitter feed instead. That was the moment that I started to put two and two together, when the Huntsville Times started to “tweet” on the events unfolding with deadly speed at the University of Alabama-Huntsville:

“Several people shot at UAH’s Shelby Center. More details coming soon.”

“3 people dead in shooting at UAH.”

“Does anyone have any information on Dr. Amy Bishop or Jim Anderson?”

By that time, the radio station that had been playing classic rock was weighing in as well, and I rose from my straight back, plastic chair and walked closer to a speaker so I could hear over the background chatter of the salon. That’s when my faithful stylist, the only one who can consistently tame my stray mop to my satisfaction, noticed me.

“What’s wrong, Mike?” she called out as she applied her clippers to the back of another middle-aged man’s neck.

“There’s been a shooting at UAH, Shelby Center. At least 3 people killed, several injured. Shooter in custody–they think,” I responded in short, Twitter-like bursts, 140 characters or less.

She stopped her work for a second, her eyes wide open now, and I knew what she was thinking: her son is a science student at UAH and takes classes in Shelby. The man in the chair, oblivious to that important piece of background information, smiled and said, “Oh well, all we can do is pray,” and then returned to the previous topic of conversation.

By the time I sat in her chair, my stylist was breathing rapidly and her hands had started to shake. I tried to speak calmly and slowly and not add to the problem. I was concerned for her and her son, and, I’ll admit, not too crazy about her coming near me with the clippers at that particular moment.

She was paralyzed out of fear of the unknown, and she stood there as if she was waiting for someone to tell her what to do. So I did. “Check your cell. Maybe he’s already tried to contact you. Just call him.”

She turned and grabbed her purse and fumbled through it for several seconds before finding her phone. She took a deep breath and flipped it open. As it turned out, he had already texted her: “There’s been a shooting at school. Don’t worry, I’m ok.”

We tried our best to pretend that things were normal and to make the usual small talk about job and family, but the conversation kept coming back round to murder, craziness and just how in the world something like that could happen in Huntsville, Alabama. We’re a medium-sized Southern city (and by Dixie standards, quite progressive). We have a medium-sized, but up-and-coming national-class research university. One might presume, then, that we would have only medium-sized problems, not the large, headline-news kind splashed all over the front pages of The New York Times and CNN.com.

Despite the bad news, she kept it together and did her usual professional job. There was a half-price sale on haircuts that day, but I gave her usual full tip anyway. She smiled and said “Thank you, Mike” and gave me a hug as I walked out the door. “Take care of yourself,” she said.

I walked to my car and pulled out my phone and updated my Twitter and Facebook pages: “3 faculty dead, several critically wounded at UAH.” And in an instant, many of you knew as well.

I consider it my “job” on this blog to “look around and try to put it all together,” to generate some thoughts about why things are the way they are. But in the wake of the Amy Bishop’s UAH shooting rampage, and the execution-style slaying of one local middle schooler by another the previous week, I’ve struggled to find the words. And I’m not alone.

But as I’ve taken in all the odd twists and turns of this story and the troubling history of Amy Bishop’s life, my mind keeps returning to the beginning, to a hoary, ancient tale that is too often not given its due. I’ve always had a soft spot for the book of Genesis, feeling as I do that’s it’s often misunderstood and misused. Many fundamentalist Christians believe that every jot and tittle must be interpreted literally, followed like a blueprint. Many modern skeptics dismiss it out of hand and consign it to the dustbin of history, just another tattered, irrelevant fable piled on top of Mount Olympus.

Neither group, I feel, is correct. You don’t have to take everything in Genesis literally to take it seriously. And when one correctly views it as what it is–one ancient Near East writer’s attempt to “look around and try to put it all together”–one begins to appreciate the full weight of its capital-T Truth:

That we are more than mere matter and molecules (and we feel it in the marrow of our bones); that things were meant to be bright and beautiful and harmonious, and for some reason they are not; that we are wandering in search of truth and beauty, longing for a genuine and lasting connection to each other, to the creation and to its author, whomever that may be. In short, that we are trying to make our way back to Eden, but we are lost, and unsure of the way home.

And I believe that powerful, old story gives us a clue as to why Amy Bishop made that horrid and fateful decision to spill blood–the fear of rejection chills us to our core, conjuring up our worst angels and driving us to hurt the very people we love.  Despite all our “progress,” the same cold-blooded murder present in the beginning is still with us and will be till the end. There is indeed “nothing new under the sun.”

Huntsville is a birthplace of hope, a shining symbol of the promise of science and technology, and Amy Bishop was one of its bright stars. But there are some things, like a person’s sin-sick soul, that science will never fix. Amy Bishop, as progressive as they come, chose to go primeval instead. She thought more highly of herself than she ought and followed the path of her brother Cain. In the end, she made herself God, deciding who lives and who dies.

And now we all bear the mark.

  1. JRB on Facebook

    “That’s a beautiful piece, MTEG, and true. It’s an awful moment, but there is absolutely nothing new under the bright sun.”

  2. Donna on Facebook

    “Great article. Puts it all in perspective.”

  3. Mike the Eyeguy

    Thanks. This has been a burr in my side for the past week, and I’ve found myself thinking about little else. It felt good to get this one off my chest.

  4. Bill Gnade

    Michael, I am sorry for all of Huntsville. It is a tragic story. Thanks for your gentle telling of a difficult tale.

    I am sure you’ve read about Ms. Bishop’s history up here in New England. Just dreadful. The story is wildly controversial in the Boston media, particularly talk radio, and it has all the fixings of a cover-up scandal. It may even have implications that reach all the way into the halls of Congress. Wild stuff.

    I spotted this as quoted in the WSJ Online. It’s from a Christian Science Monitor article about the “cause” of the shooting:

    ‘”You have to talk about Amy Bishop’s mental health in this situation as one of the variables, but being denied tenure when you’re in your mid-40s at an out-of-the-way obscure rural campus in the deep South is a catastrophic loss, and people don’t understand that,” says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. “If you’re denied tenure, you’re fired. And in this economy chances are you’ll have to change your career, which is pretty hard for a woman who’s spent a decade in graduate school on a prestigious campus, Harvard, and had a good reputation for scholarship. Where is she going to go?”‘

    As many have already pointed out at the WSJ, this is liberal condescension at its best. I thought you’d like to know how most liberals in the northeast view pretty much ANYTHING south of Silver Spring, Maryland.

    Anyhow, again, sorry to hear about the horrors in your lovely town. Sad, too, to learn that my beloved New England may have been the indirect cause of something so terrible.

    Peace. BG

  5. Bill Gnade

    Oiks. No paragraph breaks! Sorry. Thought it was WYSIWYG. Didn’t know I’d need to add html tags. 

  6. Mike the Eyeguy

    Sorry about the HTML glitch, Bill. This WP theme has a few quirks and that’s apparently one of them. Funny thing is, when I’m logged in and leave a comment, I can do paragraphs. Weird.

    I added a few breaks–they may not be what you intended, but hopefully they’ll be okay. 🙂

    I’ve thought about you these past few days and wondered if you were listening in as this hit the airwaves in Boston, so I appreciate your weighing in.

    This case already has more twists and turns than a dime store paperback and we’re only a week in! Each day her husband speaks to the media, it seems, and adds some more spin. Over the weekend, a good friend of mine, a prominent local defense attorney, represented her briefly and was most likely the first lawyer to tell her husband, “Please, just shut up!” But each day he talks anyway.

    My friend no longer represents her since she filed an affidavit stating that she cannot afford representation, so now she has been appointed a public defender.

    “Out-of-the-way, obscure campus in the Deep South?” Oy.

    I’ve read similar comments elsewhere (certainly not heard them from anybody around here), and all I can say is that such pundits betray their ignorance of the situation and their deep-seated provincialism. And I think I’m being kind here.

    According to her husband (and again, consider the source), she had a “Plan B” which included leads on multiple faculty positions and working full time in industry. Indeed, their business partner in their well-publicized and funded biotech venture said that their new product was set to launch this summer and poised to do well. What he didn’t know about, apparently, was her “Plan C.”

    Yes, it is hard to recover from tenure denial in your forties (most academics deal with their first tenure denial in their mid-30s), but certainly not impossible.

    I think back on my friend R. who landed at Virginia Tech after being denied tenure at a particularly prominent university in Pennsylvania despite an impressive string of publications and a stellar teaching record.R. was black and an evangelical Christian, and although he never made a big deal about it, I could tell that he thought his faith and race had rubbed some of his fellow faculty the wrong way and figured prominently in the decision.

    R. got busy at Tech, continued his path of excellence, and today is a happy, tenured full professor who, if I had to guess, still enjoys driving through downtown Blacksburg in his Mercedes with the top down.

    I wonder how the good Mr. Levin would process that story?

    Peace to you, Bill. I always appreciate your perspectives and good will. I hope that someday I can make it up your way so we can finally share that cup of coffee (or glass of a good Merlot!) in person.

  7. Keith Brenton

    This tragedy was especially real for my family … last week, my wife had to tell one of her long-time associates why her tenure would have to be denied. I don’t claim to understand all arcane university customs, but I do understand that your employment as instructor at one is a kind of contract that you will do certain things to qualify for tenure.I think Amy Bishop’s reaction is an out-of-proportion mirror to the way I (and the rest of society) react when failing to live up to our end of a social contract. We tend to blame everyone else; put the responsibility on them, the system, the rules, the circumstances – even God.You’re right. We do all bear the mark.

  8. Mike the Eyeguy


    From what I’m hearing, it seems to be a little tougher to get tenure now that it was 20 years ago. I’m sure economics plays into that to some degree, as well as a rising talent pool that pushes one to become “higher, stronger and faster” in order to get recognized and rewarded.

    Bishops vitae is actually still available online here. It’s certainly not horrible, and she has had several several primary authorships, although I know little about her field and am unable to judge the relative worth of the particular journals that published her work.

    Still, averaging less than one publication per year since coming to UAHuntsville strikes me as a little “light,” and the 3 year gap with no publications and then the sudden appearance of 3 in 2009 is a little odd. And indeed, the committees who decided her case apparently felt that she didn’t publish some of those latter ones in time to meet the deadline for tenure.

    I’m sure there are two sides to the story. But still, please, most of us go hit a punching bag or kick the cat or something.

    If there are any academics lurking here, especially tenure-track ones, I would covet a comment and some enlightenment.

  9. Mike the Eyeguy

    And, I might add, publications are only part of the equation. Obviously, teaching, committee work, community and campus service, as well as numerous other “intangibles” probably factored into the decision.

  10. Greg "Stoogelover" England

    The only perspective that is real is that of a fallen people. You put it in about as real a perspective as possible. Out here where people do stupid things on a regular basis and where we lived through the OJ trials, we almost pay no attention to any of it,

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