On two successive Saturdays in May, we were witness to the heights of heroic sportsmanship and the depths of human depravity. From the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 7 to the mass murder at the Tops Friendly Supermarket in Buffalo, New York, exactly one week later, we saw the best and the absolute worst that can happen in 21st century America.
At 80 to 1 — the longest of long shots — a horse named Rich Strike ridden with masterful precision by unheralded Jockey Sonny Leon won the Race for the Roses in a way that every underdog dreams of.
A mere seven days later, a heretofore unknown 18-year-old loner, Payton Gendron, allegedly walked into a nondescript supermarket intent on methodically murdering as many innocent victims as he could manage before the police stopped him. The alleged shooter was festooned in black tactical gear – a favorite of many white supremacists eager to display their false bravado to those around them – along with a video camera mounted on his head so those on the streaming service Twitch could watch his cowardly actions.
It took jockey Sonny Leon just two minutes to enthrall the sporting world with what a determined rider astride an eager three-year old colt can do when they set their minds to it.
It took the alleged Buffalo murderer four minutes longer – about six minutes – to shoot 13 innocent shoppers and one brave security guard. Ten of those people died as a result of merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sonny Leon was born in Venezuela in 1990, making him 32 years old at the running of the 148th Kentucky Derby. Although a jockey for several years, his name had not graced the winner’s column for a major horse race until his shocking victory at Churchill Downs. He was, before May 7, merely one of hundreds of jockeys vying for those accolades. He achieved his fame the right way, by biding his time (and the horse’s energy) and weaving a course through the dense pack of 19 other horses until he could gain the inside rail advantage for the final burst.
In what has become disturbingly familiar to citizens of the United States and to those of other countries (New Zealand among them), young, single, white male loners go on shooting rampages as a way to display their sick personality to other, perhaps like-minded sociopaths.
Factors at play in Leon’s Kentucky Derby victory are straight forward and clear – a man trained in his chosen profession who engages that training in an appropriate time, place, and manner, and achieves well-earned kudos for succeeding. His is an example to be admired, nurtured and followed by others in whatever career path they might pursue.
The much darker path evidenced by the mass murder in a Buffalo supermarket appears far more complex, yet depressingly familiar to experts who study the ways in which hatred and narcissism can meld into a toxic maelstrom, fueled at least in part by use of the internet to study and spread such bile (in this case, apparent racial hatred), particularly among lonely young men unattached to family, religion or other positive societal anchors.
Americans in all walks of life grieve for the victims of last Saturday’s mass murder. However, if we are to engage in a serious quest for ways to prevent its replication, we must ask — and not be afraid to answer — the hard questions about why so many young men are alienated and prone to drastic violence in ways essentially unknown to earlier generations of Americans.
America is a land of unbounded success for those who seek it in the right way, as Sonny Leon did; and those achievements properly should be heralded and emulated. America also is a society with the freedom to engage in extreme criminal behavior for that small minority of individuals so inclined; and their nefarious deeds, and the environments which spawned and nurtured them, must be openly and uniformly condemned, and dismantled; if not, we will be forced to endure further heart-breaking episodes.