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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The thing might be funny, except that somebody died. That part isn’t funny at all. But the rest of it, the moments before Justin Valdez was killed, read like some twisted skit on Saturday Night Live.

You have to get the picture as captured on surveillance video and described by authorities in a story published last week by the San Francisco Chronicle. You have to see the suspect, 30-year-old Nikhom Thephakaysone, sitting on the light-rail train, pulling out his .45-caliber pistol, pointing it across the aisle, putting it back, pulling it out several times again, and at one point wiping his nose with the hand holding the gun — and nobody notices because they’re too busy staring down at their smartphones and tablet computers. We’re talking about a train crowded with commuters and this guy is waving a gun around but nobody sees him, so engrossed are they in texting, tweeting and playing Angry Birds.

Finally, according to police, Thephakaysone shot Valdez in the back of the head as the 20-year-old college student was exiting the train. That got people’s attention. Indeed, the apparently random Sept. 23 tragedy has rocked the Bay Area. It ought to rock the whole country.

In the murder of Justin Valdez and the bizarre scenario leading up to it, we find fresh, albeit bloody, evidence of how social media and high technology have changed us. These devices and new platforms of communication were supposed to allow us to be better-connected to one another. Take this murder as Exhibit A for the argument that they actually do the opposite.

Granted, they provide a link to someone who is not there, but it is at the cost of separation from someone who is. Next time you’re on a plane waiting for takeoff, next time you’re on public transit, next time you’re in a restaurant, count all the eyes fixed to all the screens, all the ears stuffed with tiny white buds, all the spaces that once would have been filled with casual conversation and eye contact, now filled by the silence of people who are not there, people who occupy the same place at the same time worlds apart.

Then these people go home to their families where they watch separate programs in separate rooms while the kids retreat to rooms of their own to text and tweet the night away. Because we have all these new options for self-entertainment and the option we most frequently choose, it seems, is to be alone, together.

Your humble correspondent is as guilty as anyone. Indeed, with an introvert’s instinct for solitude, he may be guiltier than most.

  • sigrid28

    Or as Emerson put it, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”

    • Mark Forsyth

      or Thoreau-“We do not ride upon the railroad,it rides upon us”

  • stcroixcarp

    Why was the killer allowed to have a gun on a crowded train in the first place. Don’t spout second amendment to me, this act of murder with a gun is not about the right for the state to maintain a citizen militia. (Actually read the second amendment to see what I mean)

    • sigrid28

      You ask the pertinent question, which is answered by the prevalence of conceal and carry laws operational now in many states. One day last week, I was taking my morning power walk on the beautiful lanes of our local arboretum–alone, except for a person walking toward me with his hands stuffed all the way down into his jacket pockets, the way kids do when they pout. His hat was pulled down over his eyes and he was scowling. Nevertheless, the unwritten rule is that even joggers or walkers with earbuds greet each other, I suppose to indicate that we are friendly but not intrusive. So, idiot that I am, I chirped, “Hi” in the way fellow joggers sometimes greet each other. He did not say a thing and walked past as if I did not exist, which is when I noticed that he was wearing earbuds. Even so, that’s when fear came over me. By belligerently skipping the rules of the world where electronics dominate, he immediately set off the social alarms–harsh, immutable rules I had learned on the streets of Chicago, where strangers dare not meet each other eyes and joggers take the nearest path to the right or to the left rather than crossing the path of a stranger. Here, in Iowa, he might have had a gun.