We were struck by Douglas County’s Robert Leo Heilman’s latest essay: Broken Glass, Broken Trust, published at The Daily Yonder. Robert eloquently describes what it’s been like living in Douglas County through the “Timber Wars” through now, when he recently had his home vandalized in the middle of the night in response to one of his columns in the Douglas County newspaper, the News-Review. Robert’s analysis of what this escalating economic desperation, divisiveness, and scapegoating means for our democracy is harrowing. What Robert describes in Douglas County is not much different from the stories we are hearing from around the state. It resonates with me personally as an organizer in Clatsop County, where group members have been stalked, harassed on social media, and threatened at their place of work for speaking out publicly. What is our way forward in rural communities with this divide? What will it take to alleviate some of this fear and see each other again as neighbors? Please reach out to me with any thoughts or examples from your own community at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Commentary: Broken Glass, Broken Trust
“There is no way of knowing, only uncertainty as dark as our lawn at three in the morning.” – Robert Leo Heilman reflects on the recent acts of violence targeting him and his family.
July 22, 2021
The bullet hole Robert Leo Heilman found in one of his windows. He’s still uncertain if it was an unlucky ricochet or a deliberate threat. (Photo by Robert Leo Heilman)
A .22 caliber bullet came through our dining room window, passed through our dining room wall, and out into our bedroom early in the dark morning hours of Memorial Day. My first assumption was that it was done deliberately as an act of intimidation. Given the circumstances, it was a natural suspicion to have.
I am a writer and I live in Douglas County, Oregon, which calls itself the “One Hundred Valleys of the Umpqua” and takes pride in proclaiming itself the “Timber Capital of the Nation.” It is a place that has a fulsome history of politically motivated vandalism and harassment, and these are particularly dark times in which to be publicly expressing controversial opinions. My most recent column, “Of Tyrants and Tyranny,” had pointed to both the dangers and the absurdity of using extreme rhetoric and I have learned, over the years, that if I write about fear and anger, the fearful people will get angry at me.
We called the sheriff’s office and had a deputy come out, cleaned up the glass, and filed the insurance claim and, eventually, were told that the most likely explanation was that the slug had ricocheted through our window. No shot had been heard, a .22 round can travel a long way before it strikes anything and people squeezing off random shots does happen sometimes in the countryside around here where poachers spotlight deer in the dead of night. That it passed through our house along a line running from the top of our driveway along the road could have been a coincidence after all, and the elevation of it seemed higher than what you might expect from someone leaning out of a vehicle window for a downhill pot-shot.
It was a comforting conclusion.
Two weeks later, at three in the morning, it was a rock that shattered the same window glass and landed on the dining room floor. It was thrown hard enough to cross the room, strike a chair on the far side of our old oak table and bounce off under the table. I jumped out of bed, ran out to the dining room, and, this time, heard a car drive off. Once again, we had police in our house asking whether I had any beef with my neighbors and, once again, the tinkling broom and dustpan sound from cleaning up shards of broken glass. This time the intent was unmistakable.
Someone obviously wants me to be afraid.
It’s a sobering thought to realize that I am currently the object of someone’s fear and hatred.
People don’t hate what they don’t fear. Mostly, I find, what people hate most in others is what they fear in themselves. I am not fearless but, though I do fear the fearful people, I do not hate them. My feelings are almost always more likely to turn to pity and sadness than to disdain and anger when I come across disagreeable notions. But now, a new fear confronts me—fearing for the safety of those I love, my wife and her elderly mother, because it is not just myself being attacked but my family and my home as well.
Hamlet-like I pondered whether to speak out publicly about what is happening here in my home, on the land that I’ve lived on for the past forty-three years. I am a writer and have been for decades now. My columns and commentaries have been distributed locally, regionally, and nationally in print and on the air. I write because it’s my natural inclination to reach out to others, to make, “…the cry of some lonely human being sent out into the wide world till it reaches the ears of another lonely human being who is moved to answer it.” To speak up or not to speak up? That was the question or at least one of many questions that came to me in rapid-fire uneasy ways.
So much is unknown and unknowable about these two attacks, which is—if it is not the point of the attack or the strategy used—what makes this so hard to bear. I wish that I knew who did this and why it was done. I wish I could determine whether it is the result of a cold calculation or unhinged rage. Some of my neighbors have taken to proposing the necessity of waging a civil war. Have we become victims of that longing for civil unrest, early casualties in a newly begun insurrection? Is this the work of someone driven mad by the sort of over-wrought talk that I warned against in my column?
There is no way of knowing, only uncertainty as dark as our lawn at three in the morning.
The first of the forty columns that I have written for our local daily newspaper came out on November 13th 1990. It was written in response to the revelation that several local environmental activists had been receiving death threats and personal attacks from timber industry supporters here in “The Timber Capital of the Nation.” I waited for two weeks following the newspaper accounts which appeared in The Oregonian first and then the News-Review. The only public statement that came out was in the form of a letter to the editor of the News-Review in which one of the victims, Gene Lawhorn, was denounced as a “traitor” who deserved what had happened to him. It seemed odd to me back then that no one else had commented on the story—not one local politician, judge, law enforcement officer, preacher, teacher or editor was willing to speak out against politically motivated harassment.
“Tolerance used to be a hallmark of life here in the Hundred Valleys of the Umpqua, but now we have become the land of the anonymous death threat, the window broken in the night, the job lost because of political beliefs and the whispered accusation that turns neighbor against neighbor—a cowardly land of ‘us and them,’” I wrote.
It is a shameful way of life and one we all bear responsibility for. We have killed our hearts because we found pain there, the pain of hard choices. What we have left now is something inhuman and heartless. We have learned to hate one another. Because we could not trust ourselves to love we have given in to fear.”
Over the past thirty-one years, I have remained the only Umpquan to publicly say that neighbors shouldn’t threaten violence against each other over their political differences. Over those years many of my neighbors have thanked me for the columns that I wrote for the local paper and then, too often, went on to tell me about their fear of speaking out publicly. The risk has always seemed small to me, just a necessary trade-off between the risk of being disliked and the certainty of despising myself for my silence. It just never occurred to me that by sharing my thoughts about our lives here I might be endangering those whom I love too.
On October 4, 1980, I fell from a ladder while working as a roofer, a fall that landed me in a wilderness of fear and resentment. The injury was physically painful, what amounted to a severe whiplash injury, but the experience of going through the worker’s compensation system damaged me worse than the chronic pain in my neck and shoulders. My employer under-reported my earnings to his insurance company, made an illegal deduction from my last paycheck, claimed that I was drawing compensation while working at another job and fired me while I was still laid-up. My claim also became caught up in a dispute between two insurance companies neither of which sent any payments for several months while the dispute dragged on.
Stuck at home while living in pain and being unable to provide for my wife and son I became depressed and angry. I began to fantasize about taking violent revenge, imagining demanding justice at gunpoint and contemplating the means of shooting out an insurance company’s windows in the dead of night. I felt trapped, unable to escape either the chronic pain of my body or of my legal troubles.
I spent some months writing a bitter one-act play in which a hapless injured worker held everyone at his hearing hostage at gunpoint in order to assert his humanity. “Nothing Personal” was the title of it. At the end, the hero, Eckes, turned the gun on himself as police sirens wailed outside. Thirty years later I found the yellowing old script in a dusty cardboard box and fed the pages, one-by-one, into my wood burner.
Trapped. Of course, the shooter feels trapped but by what?
I’ve met many extremists over the years, both on a casual level and as part of my writing work and it has always seemed to me that whatever injustices they are telling me about are not really what has driven them to embrace their cause. Something as abstract as an ideology couldn’t produce the visceral hatred necessary to putting a bullet through your neighbor’s window or for storming the nation’s capitol.
At heart, the extremist feels loss: a loss of pride, a loss of comfort, a loss of identity, a loss of a dream of longed-for success in love and in life. Perhaps it has been there all along from childhood and life-long into old age. Perhaps it came suddenly as unexpected trouble in the midst of contentment, a shock that drives someone relentlessly inward with surly thoughts running in ever-narrowing circles.
It is through the search for a way out of the trap that ideology offers itself as an explanation for the fear brought on by soul-crushing loss. It is ideology that provides a justification for desperate actions that promise release. In the use of violence, that promise is one of immediacy, the lure of one quick final act to end all torment and bring the hoped-for restoration, an end to pain.
In 1989, during the so-called “Timber Wars” over whether or not to list the Northern Spotted Owl as an endangered species, copies of the Douglas Timber Operator’s magazine were sent out to thousands of local mill workers, loggers and log truck drivers. The cover featured Portland timber industry lawyer Mark Rutzik standing in front of a mill log deck. Above the lawyer was the title of counselor Rutzik’s essay, “You Have Enemies Who Want to Destroy You.” It was a claim that was echoed at pro-timber rallies for several years afterward by one of our county commissioners.
Those who lead lost souls to commit terrorism in the name of ideology or personal gain are, of course, to be blamed more than those who have been led astray, and yet the demagogues among us are seldom held accountable for the actions of their followers. In Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno the Fomenters of Discord occupy the eighth of the nine rings of Hell along with the False Counselors and the Falsifiers while the Wrathful and Sullen are assigned to the fifth circle with its less severe punishments. In Dante’s Hell, unlike here on earth, the punishments are always just ones and all who are punished are always guilty of having committed their transgressions.
Taught by politicians and public relations hacks to accept the habit of angry speech the people here are much less likely now to respect the wise admonition that “circumstances alter cusses.” A local fellow has taken to driving around town in his Jeep mounting a large sign that bluntly says, “Fuck You Kate Brown.”
Ms. Brown, the much-maligned Oregon governor, was recently featured on a photocopied Wanted poster which was posted on telephone poles in several local small towns accusing her of “Crimes against the people of Oregon including betrayal of her oath of office and treason against the United States of America.” The newspaper cartoon character Calvin, I see, has been peeing on Joe Biden in pick-up truck rear windows lately.
Like many rural places, ours has become attractive to a hodge-podge of survivalists, White Supremacists, antitaxation Sovereign Citizenship proponents, and others who have left their increasingly liberal suburban neighborhoods to come to a place where they hope to feel more comfortable living among others who never challenge their beliefs. As a result of these trends, our county has become an increasingly bitter conservative pocket in an overwhelmingly liberal-voting state.
What is most troubling to me about these extremists is not the broken glass, both here in my home and in Washington D.C., but the broken trust in each other and in our democracy that such fear inevitably brings. “The price of fearfulness is either the hard struggle to accept uncertainty as the cost of living in an open society or the death of openness in our society… ,” I wrote in that first local newspaper column thirty-one years ago.