Updated: Sep 26
On Aug. 28, Muhsin Mahmud, an exchange student from the UK, was making a video as he walked through the idyllic campus of my alma mater, the University of North Carolina. “You can have a little picnic here,” he said, panning around to show the tall trees and crisscrossed sidewalks with students leisurely walking to class.
That was the ironic moment when air raid style sirens abruptly began blaring throughout Chapel Hill, shattering the peace. “I have no idea what the hell that is,” Mahmud said right before loud speakers announced an "armed, dangerous person."
That was also the moment my daughter, a current student, called me.
We were on a video call for two hours as we both sifted through online rumors about what was going on. The lockdown continued for an hour more as police methodically ruled out the possibility of a mass shooting like the one that occurred at our sister school, UNC-Charlotte.
Thankfully, the terrifying incident turned out to be “only” a single murder. Outside North Carolina, it didn’t even get a lot of news coverage since it didn’t qualify as a
mass shooting event.
That changed, however, on Aug. 30 when The Daily Tar Heel — the student run newspaper published every Wednesday — appeared in newsstands. Instead of the football edition the editorial staff had already completed, the front page of the paper was covered with bold black and red text messages that students had exchanged during lockdown:
HEY — COME ON SWEETHEART — I NEED TO HEAR FROM YOU. CAN YOU HEAR ANY GUNSHOTS?
I’M IN CLASS EVERYONE IS LOSING IT PEOPLE ARE LITERALLY SHAKING.
GUYS I’M SO FUCKING SCARED.
The front page was such an authentic encapsulation of the moment that it immediately went viral. That evening President Biden posted an image of his hand holding his cell phone as he read the page. In the coming days, the young editors were being interviewed by NPR, NBC and other national press.
As my own social media filled up with posts and reposts of the page, most parents and other adults were supportive, proud, and frankly in awe of what these student journalists had accomplished; however, a small but vocal minority had perplexing reactions like these:
“Please remove this post…it contains foul language and just needs to be deleted.”
“This language is inappropriate. Take it down or blur the words."
“This post needs to come down because of the language.”
That group of adults was more outraged by F-bombs being used in college students’ texts than they were by a gun being used to commit murder and spread terror throughout the UNC campus. I think it’s important to note that these people weren’t online trolls whose purpose is to bait people into reacting emotionally. They were real people who probably believed they were being virtuous. I imagine many of them were earnest conservative Christians speaking out for their values.
I am an unaffiliated voter, part of the largest voting group in the state. While I tend to vote Democratic, I have voted for multiple Republicans and have been satisfied with several Republican officials I’ve known over the years. However, I doubt I will vote for a Republican in a partisan race for at least ten years, and the reason is related to the “outrage” reactions I witnessed on social media after the shooting.
I’ve been watching closely and from what I see, the Republican Party is no longer interested in governing or solving problems or doing anything constructive. They don’t think it’s the government’s role to provide a safety net for the vulnerable or to ensure communities have safe water or to provide public education for all children. The only thing they seem to care about is the outrage of the week, which often makes no sense to anybody else. So instead of talking about ways to prevent terrorist-style events from happening on our college campuses, they were talking about how offended they were by strong language.
Other things they are outraged about? Books with same-sex parents. (Not my family’s values!) The separation of church and state. (There should be prayer in school!) And anything they label as woke. (Removing Confederate statues! The anti-patriarchy of the Barbie movie! The footwear on the Green M&M!)
It is ridiculous.
It’s ridiculous but it’s also terrifying. The flash-in-the-pan outrage parade serves to manipulate a large voting bloc of evangelical Christians who strive to put their faith first. I believe these people are sincere and well-intentioned, but from my perspective, in recent years the vast majority tend to support any politician who makes a lot of noise about Christian values, even as that person is advocating legislation that harms Americans, the Earth we share, and global stability and often behaving in most un-Christian ways.
From what I was taught growing up in a Southern Baptist church, many of the actual policies pushed by these extremely religious-sounding politicians directly oppose the foundational teachings of Christ.
Also, from what I see, these leaders are exclusively Republicans.
My parents were Republicans and I have been an engaged voter for more than 40 years. I feel confident in saying the Republican Party of the past does not exist today. I find this upsetting because I believe a healthy two-party system in which ideas can be debated is important, but I know we can’t pretend that today’s Republicans are working to create anything other than chaos to achieve an authoritarian right-wing state in which they control everything and everybody. It is not hyperbole to say they are following a fascist playbook.
The outrage of the week is fundamental to their effort. The outrage of the week is the Pied Piper of the radical right-wing movement, causing a huge voting bloc of people to elect legislators who will make drag shows illegal but not child marriage, who argue that a microscopic embryo has more rights than a ten-year-old rape victim, who will deliberately make it more difficult for people of color to vote, who will criticize college students’ text messages rather than challenge the gun lobby.
To have a choice in future elections we have to defeat authoritarians who have co-opted the Republican label. I’m asking other unaffiliated voters to re-examine the idea that we currently have two legitimate parties to choose from. I’m asking them to think about joining a coalition of people — including many former leaders in the Republican party (Stuart Stevens, Jennifer Rubin, Steve Schmidt, Justice Michael Luttig, Tom Nichols, Nicolle Wallace, Christine Todd Whitman, and many others) — in voting Blue.
From my perspective, the faster we elect Democrats in a landslide, the faster we can put guardrails back in place (such as passing the Voting Rights Act) and the faster we can rebuild a two-party system that reflects the will of the people.
I am cautiously optimistic. I have to believe that most Americans are in favor of limiting the proliferation of AK-15s in our communities. I have to believe that most people support our public education system. I have to believe that most people want voting to be accessible for all eligible Americans. I have to believe that most people will come to see beyond the outrage of the week and realize we have to address issues that affect people’s lives rather than made-up offenses.
Elizabeth Gibson is a freelance writer who learned to meet deadline using black manual typewriters at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has lived in the mountains of Western North Carolina for more than 30 years.