On Aug. 14, I attended El Paso’s memorial service for victims of the mass shooting that took the lives of 22 people from the United States and Mexico. I’m glad I did.
I’m not a big believer in coincidences, so I thought it interesting when I found myself on the same flight to El Paso as Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Mark Morgan. Morgan is the former special agent in charge of the FBI’s El Paso Field Office. I worked briefly with him at FBI HQ when I was in the Public Corruption Unit and he was serving as the acting deputy assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division.
We exchanged a few pleasantries, but his face emanated a look that was all too familiar. A consummate professional, Morgan’s smile did little to mask the seriousness and solemnity of the day. It was not unlike the look I saw on former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s face when he flew to Tucson after the mass shooting in 2011 that victimized Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.
I was assigned to the Tucson office of the FBI in 2011 when that tragedy took the life of a federal district judge and five other innocent people. Twelve others sustained injuries from gun shots, including Giffords. And like the shooting in El Paso, it was a massive shock that made victims of an entire community.
I was working an unrelated investigation that Saturday morning in 2011 when the shots rang out at that grocery store just a couple miles from my house. And when the shooting stopped, so too did every other investigation in the local FBI office. It was an all-hands effort for many weeks following the shooting. As a result, I was unable to attend the Tucson Memorial Service, so there was something cathartic about attending the service in El Paso.
El Paso is a great city, and one I’ve visited many times. But it’s not my home, it’s not my community — or so I thought.
As I approached the stadium I could see thousands of people in the stands and even more waiting in line to enter. Despite the myriad in attendance it was ominously quiet, except the intermittent flapping of an enormous American flag perched proudly atop the ladder of an El Paso fire truck.
My first human encounter was with two women outside the stadium who were volunteering to help navigate the crowd and hand out bottles of water to attendees. I was immediately taken by their earnest smiles as they greeted passers-by. I stoically declined the bottle of water, almost feeling underserving as an outsider “crashing” their community’s memorial. But like any good host, they insisted that I accept their hospitality, for the sake of overcoming the heat at least.
Getting into the stadium was unlike any entrants into a stadium I’ve ever experienced. People were kind, patient, and helpful to each other. All too often we go through our day with our heads buried in phones or with earbuds in our ears, not interested in human interaction, but wanting to be left alone. This was different. The attendees waited in line seeking eye contact and conversation with anyone and everyone around. There was solace in their tone and resolve in their eyes. It was a grandiose scene to witness.
The memorial service itself, which was riddled with Spanish- and English-speaking presenters, overflowed with powerful and uplifting messages of strength, community, and love. The commitment to transcend this tragedy stronger and undeterred was a consistent theme to this vibrant, yet massively heartbroken crowd. Poignant moments of human embrace and consoling touches cascaded throughout the stadium and throughout the service.
Undoubtedly, the most gut-wrenching moment of the night was witnessing the suffering of loved ones as the names and photos of the 22 senselessly taken innocent lives scrolled across the big screen. Though painful in the moment, I’ve come to learn that there is a salvific value in suffering. It is our suffering that is the source of newfound strength. It’s also what imprints in our hearts and minds the memories of those we’ve lost. Suffering is the gift we receive as consolation for our loss.
The service ended after the sun had set making visible something I previously missed. The infield in front of the stage of presenters contained candlelit bags in the shape of 22 stars and nine circles to memorialize the 22 lives lost in El Paso and nine lives lost in Dayton. It was witnessing the illumination of that alluring homage with the audible backdrop of bagpipes that helped me realize the error in my dithering prior to the memorial service.
We are all connected through our grief, through our humanity, and through our commitment to endure. The community that was attacked was the community we are all part of. We are all victims of El Paso. We are all victims of Dayton. We are all victims of Tucson. We are all victims when innocent lives are taken by the senseless acts of mass shooters. And we all must stand together to defeat this unconscionable violence. It is the light we exude when we are united that will eventually devour this darkness.
Jeff Cortese (@JeffreyCortese) served as acting chief of the FBI’s Public Corruption Unit before becoming financial crimes manager in the private sector. Prior to his 11-year career with the bureau, he worked as a dignitary protection agent with the U.S. Capitol Police and served on the security detail for the speaker of the House.
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