The priest’s greeting to the newly-married couple and the congregation gathered to support them in the United States Naval Academy chapel was warm and moving. May all of you experience and share the peace within you, the chaplain said to all.

U.S. Naval Academy Chapel – Photo by Denis Smith.

You can certainly expect peace and love at a wedding when two families come together to celebrate the union of their children as they prepare their lives together. But there was also an added element in visiting the beautiful and charming city of Annapolis last weekend, the scene of a mass shooting just before the wedding of a family member.

Though mass shootings in this country have become too commonplace, this was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill mass shooting. The target was the Capital Gazette, a daily newspaper and the voice of all the news that’s fit to print in Maryland’s capital city.

It was this thought that went through our minds during the wedding festivities, where a celebration of love and joy took place less than five miles from the Gazette’s offices and just nine days before five people doing their jobs as watchdogs of the community were slaughtered by a man carrying both a weapon and a grudge.

Outside the offices of the Capital Gazette, Annapolis, MD. Photo by Denis Smith.

Love and hate. Good and evil. Life and death. Happiness and darkness – polar opposites all found within a five-mile drive in one of the most beautiful capital cities in the nation.
As someone who lives in Westerville, OH, where just five months ago two police officers answering a call for help in a domestic violence situation were murdered by yet another angry man holding both a gun and a grudge, I couldn’t let this mass shooting pass by like another commonplace event.

It was an easy decision. As soon as the wedding was over, my wife and I drove to the newspaper offices to pay our respects and honor those who were killed while also serving their community.

Memorial placed on the lawn in front of the Capital Gazette. Photo by Denis Smith.

The crosses and Star of David that honored the dead were placed in a grassy area just outside the building’s parking lot. They reminded us of all the decorations placed in front of our Westerville City Hall in honor of the two fallen police officers whose lives were taken in February.

One of the messages outside the newspaper offices was composed by a nine-year-old girl, while several others made the point about the importance of a free and independent media, a watchdog for all of us, as we were taught about in school.

Democracy Dies in Darkness read one sign. God Bless Free Press read another.

The day after I took these photographs, we drove home to gather up the mail and some newspapers that were delivered, including the Sunday editions of the Columbus Dispatch and the New York Times. To my great surprise and delight, I found a piece by Alan Miller, Editor of the Dispatch, which contained his strong feelings of the horror that took place in the otherwise peaceful city of Annapolis.

“Trump media attacks should end with his condolences” was the title for Miller’s commentary. Reading his fine words took the stiffness out of a seven-hour drive back home and reaffirmed my own feelings from the day before, as I stood in front of the Star of David and the crosses that mark the front of the Gazette building.

After five members of the Capital Gazette newspaper staff were shot dead in their office, President Donald Trump offered prayers and condolences to the families of the victims.

It rang hollow for some of us journalists who have weathered his baseless yet blistering verbal attacks — the kind of venom that easily could inspire or incite physical violence, especially when delivered in a constant drumbeat of hate.

Indeed, what Trump has said about reporters confirms the belief that words have meaning and, in some cases, bring consequences.

Memorial placed on the lawn in front of the Capital Gazette. Photo by Denis Smith.

The Dispatch editor’s piece continued:

[Trump] whips up crowds at his rallies by pointing to reporters in the room and calling them disgusting names. At one event, he said, “I would never kill them, but I do hate them.”

By coincidence, I had just completed reading NBC correspondent and MSNBC anchor Katy Tur’s book, Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, just days before the Annapolis Gazette massacre. After reading this very informative book, I was not surprised about what happened in Maryland’s picturesque capital.

These excerpts from Unbelievable help to explain the importance of Trump’s inflammatory language about the media and how even the sanest among us are affected by his hateful rhetoric:

“The mainstream media,” Trump says. “These people back here, they’re the worst.

“She’s back there, little Katy. She’s back there. What a lie it was. No, what a lie, Katy Tur, what a lie it was from NBC to have written that…. Third-rate reporter, remember that. Third rate. Third rate.” My heart stops. My lungs clench…They also get to find out what he thinks about yours truly. It’s clear what the crowd thinks: they love it. They turn all at once, a large animal, angry and unchained. I force a laugh. Shake it off. It’s worse if they think he scares you. Just smile. Smile and laugh. My face obeys. I throw in a wave for good measure. But inside I’m terrified. Men are standing on their chairs to get a look at me. They want to see me as they jeer. An older woman to my left is horrified. A friendly face in a crowd of thousands. I decide to tweet about it, hoping my nonchalance will project strength. I’m not going to let this guy get into my head.

“MSNBC has cleared me and my bosses want Anthony and me to get out of there as quickly as we can. I don’t quite understand why until we pack up and start to head out. A Trump staffer stops me and says, “These guys are going to walk you out.” I look over and see two Secret Service agents. Thank goodness. They walk Anthony and me along the gangway back to our car. It’s pitch black and I’m nervous. We’re parked with the crowd. Once we’re moving, I take a look at my phone. My mom has called. And called. And called. I dial her back. “Are you okay? Where are you staying? Can someone stay with you? You need security!” She is crying. And it hits me. I’m a target.”

Has it ever occurred to anyone in these Trump rallies that of the 7,591 words in the U.S. Constitution, including all 27 Amendments, that the press is the only industry specifically mentioned in the sacred document, and thus the only enterprise so uniquely protected?

Regardless of Trump’s condolences, thoughts, and prayers, what happened in Annapolis clearly is Exhibit B, along with Katy Tur’s Exhibit A, in how overheated our political and social discourse in this country has become.

Indeed, we saw so much in Annapolis to reflect upon – the happiness, love, and joy exhibited at a family wedding, and the sadness, anger, and anguish in the words left at the newspaper memorial display only a few miles away from the Naval Academy Chapel.

But we saw yet another element in our time in Annapolis, and that was evident in the young, skilled, and patriotic Navy and Marine officers, all newly-commissioned, ready to serve their country and contribute to the well-being and security of this nation. In two days of close-up observation, we saw how these new American leaders interacted with each other and with the civilians who traveled to the Naval Academy for a wedding. We saw grace, courtesy, politeness, and caring. After seeing these fine young men and women, we are assured about our nation’s future.

Young, skilled, patriotic, grace, courtesy, politeness, and caring for others are words used to describe our reaction to the talented officers we observed in Annapolis. If only such descriptors reflected the qualities of their commander-in-chief.

If only.

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