‘HOW you doing today, Barry?’
I paused for a second to consider my colleague’s question.
“Ach, not so bad,” I replied, thinking it an unremarkable response to an unremarkable enquiry.
“Really?” she said, suddenly concerned. “What’s wrong?”
Momentarily confused, I stopped to think about what I had just said.
Why should anything be wrong if I described myself as “not so bad”? It was a status which seemed quite satisfactory to someone like myself who had been born and bred in Belfast.
If you were “not so bad” then the day was going all right. No major catastrophes yet.
But I was a long way from Belfast on that summer’s day 13 years ago. I was in Washington DC, working as an intern at the Department of Labor.
And to my American colleague a day which was going “not so bad” was little short of a disaster. She was “great” that day as she was every other day.
In a land where the pursuit of happiness is written into the title deeds, anything less than wonderful is simply not good enough.
Speaking of the US constitution, there’s something else in there which seemed a bit strange to me – the right to bear arms.
And bear they did. I was in Washington back in 1999 with 30 other Irish students to learn the path to peace in the heart of the world’s greatest democracy.
So it was curious to note that DC was considerably more violent than my own country.
The District of Columbia has only a third of Northern Ireland’s population. Yet in 1999, there were 241 murders in the American capital – a higher death toll than all but five of the 25 years of the Troubles.
In other words, Washington was considerably more dangerous than Northern Ireland had ever been, even at the height of the violence in the early 1970s.
Maybe their students should have come to us to learn how to create a society with “an acceptable level of violence.”
To the people of Washington it was an unremarkable fact that every day or so someone would be shot dead in their city.
These murders would make the news, but only in the way that an accident on the M62 makes the news in the Examiner, as in, here we go again.
The same was true up the road in Baltimore where some of my American relatives live. It’s a wonderful and vibrant city, but it’s also a place where the murder rate dipped under 200 last year for the first time since the 1980s.
We need only look at the different reactions to school massacres in the US and UK to see how Americans have become numbed to this constant violence.
You may recall the awful events in Dunblane in 1995 when Thomas Hamilton used four legally-held handguns to murder 16 children and their teacher.
Following the massacre the Conservative government enacted some of the strictest gun control legislation in the Western world. There was a peep of protest from weapon owners, but it was only a peep. Their right to enjoy their hobby meant nothing next to all those dead children.
Compare and contrast with the US – where these kind of mass shootings are far more common.
With 20 children and six adults shot dead in a Connecticut elementary school, White House press secretary Jay Carney rose to the occasion on Friday by telling reporters it was “not the day” to talk about gun control.
I can’t think of a better day to talk about it. Why not look at the pictures of the terrified survivors and the grief-stricken parents and then have a wee think about whether letting just about everyone own a weapon is a good idea?
Mr Carney’s shyness was not matched by gun fans, who took the chance to weigh into the debate following Friday’s shooting.
Oregon state representative Dennis Richardson was one of many US politicians and commentators to venture the interesting opinion that the mass murder of six-year-olds showed that there are too few guns in American schools, rather than too many.
Explaining why teachers should be allowed to bring weapons into work with them, he said: “We need to ensure that our children are safe, and we can’t do that by disarming those who are on the scene.”
I don’t know whether Mr Richardson has taken leave of his sanity or his humanity. But I do know that an electorate which returned such a man to office would be demonstrating neither.
I very much doubt he, or any of his gun-toting pals, will pay the price at the ballot box for their unhinged world view.
A British politician who made similar remarks after Dunblane would have ended their career even before they finished their sentence.
At times like this “the Pond” seems more like an ocean and the concept of the UK as America’s 51st state appears neither accurate nor desirable.