Broken Glass, Broken Trust

A sermon, first read at the Umpqua Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Roseburg in spring 2022

A photo of a bullet hole in a pane of glass against a white background

Early in the dark morning hours of Memorial Day 2021, a .22-caliber bullet came through our dining room window, passing through the dining room wall and into our bedroom. 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 “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. My most recent column in the News-Review, our local daily newspaper, 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 to have a deputy come out, cleaned up the glass, and filed an insurance claim. The deputy said 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 do sometimes squeeze off random shots in the countryside around here, where poachers spotlight deer in the dead of night. That the bullet passed through our house along a trajectory in line with the top of our driveway at the road could have been a coincidence, and the elevation of the impact seemed higher than what you might expect from someone leaning out of a vehicle window for a downhill potshot.

It was a comforting conclusion.

Two weeks later, at three in the morning, a rock shattered the same window 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 under the table. I jumped out of bed, ran to the dining room, and 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 we cleaned up shards of broken glass, which made a tinkling sound as we swept them into the dustpan. This time the intent was unmistakable. 

Someone obviously wants me to be afraid.


People don’t hate what they don’t fear. What people hate most in others is often what they most fear in themselves. I am not fearless. I do fear the fearful people, but 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—fear for the safety of those I love, my wife and her elderly mother—because it is not just me being attacked, but my family and my home as well.

I pondered, Hamlet-like, 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. 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, in Goethe’s words, “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 attacks or the strategy used—what makes them so hard to bear. I wish I knew who did this and why it was done. I wish I could determine whether it is the result of cold calculation or unhinged rage. Some of my neighbors have lately taken to proposing the necessity of waging civil war. Have we become victims of that longing for civil unrest, early casualties in a newly begun insurrection? Is my broken window the work of someone driven mad by the sort of overwrought talk 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 I have written for the News-Review came out on November 13, 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 after the newspaper accounts of these threats appeared, first in the Oregonian 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 one another with violence over their political differences. During that time, many of my neighbors have thanked me for my columns and then, too often, gone 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 never occurred to me that sharing my thoughts about our lives here might endanger those I love as well. 


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, which amounted to severe whiplash, was physically painful, 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 underreported my earnings to his insurance company, made an illegal deduction from my last paycheck, claimed I was drawing compensation while working at another job, and fired me while I was still laid up. My claim 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, living in pain and 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 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. 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 put a bullet through your neighbor’s window or to storm 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 this loss has been there all along, from childhood into old age. Perhaps it came on suddenly as an unexpected trouble amid contentment, a shock driving someone relentlessly inward with surly thoughts running in ever-narrowing circles.

It is in the search for a way out of the trap that ideology offers itself up 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, waged over whether or not to list the northern spotted owl as an endangered species, copies of the Douglas Timber Operators’ magazine were sent out to thousands of local mill workers, loggers, and log-truck drivers. The cover featured Portland timber industry lawyer Mark Rutzick standing in front of a mill’s log deck above the title of his article: “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 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 in Douglas County are much less likely now to respect Ogden Nash’s wise admonition that “circumstances alter cusses.” A local fellow has taken to driving around town in his Jeep with 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 displayed on telephone poles in several local small towns. These posters accuse her of “Crimes against the people of Oregon including betrayal of her oath of office and treason against the United States of America.” And I see that the newspaper cartoon character Calvin has been peeing on Joe Biden in the rear windows of pickup trucks lately.


Like many rural places, ours has become attractive to a hodgepodge of survivalists, White supremacists, anti-taxation “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, DC, but the broken trust in each other and in our democracy that such fear inevitably brings. As I wrote in that first newspaper column thirty-one years ago, “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.”


Civic Life, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Politics, Media and Journalism, Violence, Writing, Freedom, Fear


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