June 20, 2021

Van Nostrand: We don’t know what it’s like

You may have heard the Native American phrase that goes something like to know what it feels like to be another person, walk in their shoes.

There are some people who I don’t want to walk in their shoes, but I still have great respect for them.

During my career in this business, I have covered a murder. What made it harder for me is I knew, and the rest of my family knew, the suspect and victims.

I won’t get into all the details, so the easy way to explain it is the murder happened within a family unit. One family member went after others. The victim family wasn’t our best friends, but the relationship was still strong enough to always stop in the store to say hello when we met. Or there were times when some of their children had occasional play dates with my children.

I didn’t know what to say or do when law enforcement arrived at the scene to begin their investigation. I stood outside on the street outside the crime scene not long after sunrise and tried to guess what had happened. When the officials held the press conference later in the day at the town’s community building, it was even harder for me to comprehend hearing the victim and details of what happened to the victims. That feeling lasted through the court case with a conviction of murder and a sentence.

A similar feeling hits me every time the country has had a mass shooting. I don’t know what to say or do since I have never been a part of a shooting. Like I did standing on the street, or in the audience during the press conference, I felt like a fan in the stands at a game. I have no experiences to give empathy. I have plenty of sympathy.

I admit, I am one of the people who has been partially desensitized over the years by the shootings, no matter where they occur. They are just so common.

We’ve gone from shootings at educational facilities to places of work. There might be others who fret when and where the next one will happen. That’s my problem; society only wonders when and where the next one will be. Legislative and grassroots efforts to curb those incidents are much appreciated; but it has not been enough to show a difference.

Maybe the closest shooting incident to our section of the state isn’t even in Iowa, barely. A mall in Omaha, Nebraska, had a shooting in 2007 with nine deaths including the suspect. An other fatal shooting happened at the same mall earlier this year. But it’s still not close enough for me to change my ways.

No place is immune to those incidents. But I do feel somewhat safe in Southwest Iowa and I’m not sure I know why. Our section of the state has had violent crime before; but nowhere near like the mass shootings in other parts of the country.

I don’t feel threatened walking from the courthouse to residential areas in Clarinda. I’ve enjoyed my time standing on the street with others at the popular ice cream shop in Bedford. In Creston, I don’t feel any different walking through store parking lots. Years ago, a prisoner escaped from Clarinda’s state prison and was found days later and shot by a man in a rural, Taylor County home. I don’t think even that event changed the perceptions in the area. Life didn’t change because of it.

I know, there are other parts of states and regions in the country that have not suffered through like what happened in El Paso, Texas, or Orlando, Florida. We are not alone.

So why does Southwest Iowa appear to be a safer haven? What do we have that places that have had those tragedies don’t?

I will just keep watching it all from the stands.


An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.