Raise your hand if you've ever played a team sport. Now raise your hand if one of your teammates woke up one morning years later, drove to two separate military service centers in your community and sprayed both sites with enough bullets to kill four Marines and injure three other people.
Can you possibly imagine how that might feel?
"My jaw dropped," said Ryan Smith, who wrestled with 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez when they were both students at Red Bank High School. "When you're on a wrestling team, you're family — a really close family. We stayed in hotel rooms together. We puked in the same trash can together to make weight. He was a good friend. I didn't want to believe this could be true."
But Smith hadn't seen his good friend in more than a year. He'd seen only the mug shot of Abdulazeez sporting a heavy beard after he'd been arrested for a DUI in April. He'd followed him on Facebook some, but then his Facebook site disappeared.
"It was like he'd fallen off the face of the earth," Smith said.
And then came Thursday morning, as bad and sad a morning as Chattanooga ever has seen. Armed with nasty weapons and plenty of rounds of ammunition to use in them, Abdulazeez began his one-man assault on our freedom and our false sense of security regarding that freedom.
You want to know a statistic about Thursday's attack that may surprise you? Those four murdered Marines equal the number killed by the Tsarnaev brothers in the Boston Marathon bombing. Actually, it surpasses by one the number killed in the bombing, but the brothers also later murdered a Massachusetts Institute of Technology policeman.
Nor should we simply write "four Marines." They had names: Carson Holmquist, Thomas J. Sullivan, Skip Wells, David Wyatt. They had families. They had lives to live.
A single story of those unfairly unfulfilled lives: According to The Associated Press, Wells was in the middle of texting his girlfriend of two years, Caroline Dove, just before Abdulazeez fired round after round of hate on the Marine reserve center on Amnicola Highway.
Having been apart since Valentine's Day, Dove was texting Wells to let him know she was flying in for a visit.
"Can't wait anymore," Wells texted.
"Yes you can honey," she replied.
His next text to her, his last text ever, was two words long: "ACTIVE SHOOTER."
This is where it becomes difficult for those who thought they knew Abdulazeez well during his high school days at Red Bank.
His former wrestling coach, Kevin Emily, who now teaches at West High School in Waterloo, Iowa, told CNN on Thursday that Abdulazeez was a "great student" and "humble," and that there were "no red flags."
Smith called him "one of the funniest guys I've ever known, and one of the smartest. He seemed to have such a bright future."
Yet think back to Boston and the same could be said of the Tsarnaev brothers during their time in this country. They were well-liked, fine athletes, strong students. Then something changed, especially for the older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed before he could stand trial with younger brother Dzhokhar, who recently received the death penalty.
There was talk then that Tamerlan had gone abroad for a time, that he hadn't been seen in his Boston mosque much in the months before the attack. Despite living in the United States for years, despite once making it his goal to fight for the U.S. boxing team in the Olympics, he also said that he didn't understand Americans and that he didn't have a single American friend.
Now closely study Abdulazeez. He left here for several months at one point to live in the Middle East. He'd grown distant from his high school friends and his mosque. He apparently struggled to land permanent employment despite an electrical engineering degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He seemed somewhat adrift.
And there was this quote in his Red Bank yearbook upon his graduation, one that seemed funny and light-hearted at the time, but not so much today.
Attributed to "Hijabman," an American-Pakistani activist, it read: "My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?"
Now that name causes national anger and hurt and alarm. Now it brings to mind Boston and 9/11 and Charleston, all acts of unthinkable evil by those who've somehow come to hate either our country, certain citizens of this country or both.
Which brings us to Kamlesh Patel, who owns a Bell's Smoke Shop on South Broad Street and moved here in 2001, not long before the World Trade Center towers crumbled, along with our innocence.
Though not a Muslim, the native of India has plenty of friends who are. He worries that the sins of Abdulazeez will be visited on his family and friends, that anger over these murders will cause "the whole (Muslim) community to be blamed."
But more than that, he wonders why Abdulazeez did what he did.
"You come here for the opportunity of a better life," he said. "If you don't like it, if it doesn't work out the way you had hoped, then leave. I don't understand this."
He pointed to his right forearm, covered in goosebumps.
"It's been that way since I first heard what happened," Patel said. "And don't tell me this was over religion. There's not a religion in the world that teaches you to kill somebody in favor of religion. These terrorists just say that to justify their barbaric behavior. I came to Chattanooga for a better life. I love this city. And if I could take a bullet for one of those Marines to show my love for this city and this country, I would. This should never have happened."
There are those who would question the notion that Islam never promotes violence.
Yet Bassam Issa, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, emotionally told this newspaper Thursday that he condemned the act "in the strongest possible terms as one of cowardice and hate. We don't see our community center as a 'Muslim' community; we are Chattanoogans first, and we see ourselves as part of the larger community of Tennesseans grieving today's act."
The FBI said Friday it is investigating more than 70 leads. The truth of how and why this happened will one day surface, though it's hard to see it bringing much comfort to the families of Holmquist, Sullivan, Wells and Wyatt.
But for now, not 48 hours come and gone since the worst day in Chattanooga history, the words of Abdulazeez's Red Bank High wrestling teammate Smith remain the one certainty in an endless sea of questions. Said Smith on Friday: "We're all still in shock."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.
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