How will Chattanooga mend its broken heart?
How will a city rocked to its core by something that should never have happened here — should never happen anywhere — heal?
These are questions we all have asked ourselves right after we whispered prayers for six broken families who lost loved ones in a bloody rampage here just over a week ago when Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, 24, of Hixson, unleashed a barrage of gunfire at two Chattanooga military facilities. First he drove a rented silver Mustang convertible in front of the Army recruiting center on Lee Highway and sprayed bullets into the window. Then he drove several miles to a Navy and Marine reserve center where he ran inside and began shooting. In a matter of minutes, four Marines were dead, and a sailor lay fatally wounded. Abdulazeez died during the ensuing gun battle with police. Another Marine and a Chattanooga police officer were injured.
Abdulazeez, 24, was a Kuwait-born, Chattanooga-raised Jordanian whose parents were of Palestinian descent. On Wednesday, the FBI called him a "homegrown violent extremist," but said it is too early to say whether he was "radicalized" before the attacks. Meanwhile the shooter's uncle in Jordan, with whom he recently spent several months, had been detained for questioning since the day after the attacks on July 16.
Forget the semantics involved in the terms "homegrown violent extremist," "domestic terror" suspect or simply "mass-murder" suspect — the fact remains that we and our Chattanooga have been slapped, battered, critically wounded and left emotionally vulnerable. Our leaders have termed it heart broken. But that may be too kind.
Locally and abroad, 700 to 1,000 federal and international investigators are looking to unravel just what led up to the rampage and tragedy.
As the investigation continues, Chattanoogans are left to pick up the pieces of our psyches and our beautiful city nestled between mountains and river, our city that just a month before was named "Best Town Ever" by Outside magazine.
Of course, we already knew that — until now.
We knew that until, for days on end, we were the thing talked about on national and cable television news.
We knew that until the row upon row of flags and mementos left in an impromptu monument out of respect for the dead was erected on our own streets.
So how do we heal? How does a city make itself feel whole and safe again? How do we turn our backs on fear and stereotyping? How do we refuse to let ourselves sort our neighbors and visitors into piles of race or nationality or class or any other unnecessary label that will keep us off balance?
Certainly there is prayer. Prayer should never be discounted.
But we will need more.
We will need to talk the talk and walk the walk.
We will have to live our prayers for peace — much as the neighbors of the Abdulazeez family have done, tending the family's Hixson yard while that family grieves for their son, the servicemen and their city — Chattanooga.
We have to serve. A Rhodes scholar named Eric Greitens realized this in the 1990s while working with refugees and landmine survivors in Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia. He noticed that among teenagers in traumatic circumstances, the ones who fared best were the ones who helped others. Later, after he had served in the Navy Seals in Iraq and Afghanistan, Greitens had conversations with wounded troops, and a similar picture emerged. In retirement, Greitens started a nonprofit group called The Mission Continues. Its goal was to engage veterans in public service as a way to help them heal. The effort is still going strong. It offers us a great lesson.
In Chattanooga, we also will do well to remember that we and our parents and grandparents have built a city that already could bask in the limelight of a reputation as a super comeback kid. We fought back after EPA and Walter Cronkite more than 40 years ago tagged us the dirtiest and most polluted city in America. A few decades later, we became one of the first to really clean up our air.
We're also pushed back against the defeat of recession and manufacturing losses in the 1980s. We transformed a desolate downtown of empty storefronts to a city that draws thousands each month to its riverfront, entertainment and outdoor venues. We became the only major U.S. city that lost more than 10 percent of its population then regained that lost growth in just two decades.
We will heal. We'll do it by helping each other. We'll do by helping our city.
Chattanooga strong. Chattanooga stronger tomorrow.