To Fly Alone, Or Not At All
by Michael Spencer
Note: The following article is based purely on my own experiences with young people, and is in no way a claim to know anything about the motives or personal experience of Charles Bishop. I grieve with his family in the loss of a beloved young man, and no lessons drawn from his strange and tragic flight can compensate for that loss. I write from humility and respect.
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Charles Bishop flew alone, at last. A solo pilot of fifteen, free from the many little prisons of his world. Free to go, to be, to see, to find. Captain and commander of his own fate. For these moments, he was whatever he would choose to be. He knew that he would not return to earth and resume his life, but for these moments, it did not matter. He was flying solo, the achievement of a lifetime. Would anyone ever be proud of him for such an accomplishment?
The stereotyped descriptions of young Charles Bishop as a “troubled and depressed loner” only show the eagerness of our jaded media to get the story out as fast as possible. So what if it sounds like every other teenage tragedy? Aren’t they all alike anyway? Perhaps, but as anyone who works with teenagers knows, each one is different as well. Each story is its own tragic script, traveling down roads that may be familiar, but which always take unique turns and arrive at unthought of destinations. Who would have predicted young Charles Bishop, the quiet boy walking his beloved dog, the front-row-sitting honor student, the secret pilot, the dreamer, would end his short life in a sad remake of the 9-11 suicide attacks? Who would have thought such a quiet and unassuming child would leave a note expressing sympathy for Muslim fanatic murderers half a world away, and support for the murder of thousands of his fellow Americans?
There is the familiar story of an absent father. Has anyone the courage to calculate what the failure of men to be fathers to their children is doing to those children, and through them, to all of us? It is a tsunami of anger and discontent, a seemingly endless well of bitterness that is reaching down to the waters we all drink, and poisoning us all. Dads-please do this small thing for your children and for all of us: be part of the lives of those you have created. Your rejection cannot be papered over with Playstations and nice clothes. These children need to know that in your eyes- in your sorry, unworthy eyes-they have a reason for being. They need to know they are loved and wanted. Only you can do this. No mentor or teacher or big brother can do it. Only you.
Some saw a young man alone, behind sunglasses, afraid to speak. Others, his teachers, saw a bright and beautiful mind, a young man who took pride in the work necessary to be on the honor roll. A student who spoke to no one, yet spoke to one adult about what good friends pets could be.
This is the picture of so many of our young people. Two-sided. Many-sided. Showing darkness to some and light to others. They show promise and fear, confidence and anger. They are both painted in the sullen colors of adolescence and in the brighter colors of young adulthood. This is not abnormal or scary. This is what it means to be young. It is to be troubled and to feel awkward, ugly, out of place and unwanted. Despite the times they will warm to the affection and efforts of teachers and coaches, most young people continue to feel the nagging doubt of their own worthiness. And it is no wonder. We have allowed the corporate masters of our culture to create a world for teenagers that is both unreal and cruel, a world where no one can be thin enough, popular enough, smart enough, wealthy enough, experienced enough, accepted enough to be happy. By creating a youth culture of chronic unhappiness, they are enriched, and our children learn to pretend, conform, consume, or to give up.
Yet it is the flying that most catches my attention. Flying is not a group activity. It is not a “normal” activity for fifteen-year-olds. I have worked with hundreds of them and I cannot recall a single young man that age taking flying lessons. But Charles Bishop had taken these lessons for almost a year. He had worked around the airfield and earned the trust of the instructors. There is no mistaking the dream that is behind all this. It predates 9-11. It is the dream of flying alone, and perhaps the dream of being a pilot.
Flying is the supreme achievement of personal competence for many people. It is the defiance of all that is true on this earth and the exploration of a new world of wonder. To fly is to control, to be in charge, to know deep within yourself, that you are different from others. Better. Braver. Charles Bishop knew this about himself. He might be a geekish looking silent fifteen-year-old in the world, but in the clouds he was a man, a different and daring soul who did not need the approval of anyone. Not of father or peers or teachers. To fly alone was to be above them all.
So what ruined such aspirations? We will never know. How did the feelings of rejection and unworthiness take over the quest for wings? It will be a mystery, but somewhere in Charles Bishop’s mind and heart, the hurts that he carried, the rejection that he felt, the unacceptability he sensed, became welded to the mad acts of terror and the mad motives of the terrorists. Somehow these monsters become heroic as they hurt the world we live in and take for granted. There is some talk that Bishop’s father was Arabic. Perhaps there is a connection of that sort, but it doesn’t matter. The real and deeper connection, the energy that took Charles into that bank in downtown Tampa and gave him the anger to take his own life, was the energy of identification with rejection and bitter anger at the normal world.
I cannot help but think there lurks, well behind the headlines, the familiar scenes of cruelty that I have seen acted out hundreds of times between young people. The odd one, the unusual one, the quiet one, the strange one is singled out and humiliated. Laughed at, made the butt of humor that becomes as familiar as the other sounds of a school day. Perhaps no such bullies existed. But it is hard to believe such terrible despair can invade one with such promise and courage from nowhere. In my experience, there usually is a personification of our wretched cruelty, and schools are full of them.
But Charles did not need to look far to find permission to hate us. In American youth culture, our young people are drowning in a sea of images, lyrics, words and messengers that all say our life in America is rotten. Groups like Staind ring out the message of bitter and victimized youth. Rappers ridicule everything our country and culture holds as good. Hollywood produces virtually nothing but cynical shlock and violent filth. A week of MTV is the dream of any revolutionary wanting to overturn our culture. There are no heroes other than those who despise everything good and decent. But I am more distressed by what all this takes away from our children. Their innocence was taken long ago. Now they are being enlisted in a liberal vision of injustice, victimization, hypocrisy and moral emptiness. The elites of this culture are systematically taking away from our children any reason to dream, and only giving them a reason to steal, riot or party. Or kill themselves and others.
What kind of culture can create a fifteen-year-old pilot who hates himself and us so much he kills himself, and hopes to kill others, as a cry of bitter revenge? What kind of youth culture can, amidst all the patriotism and good-heartedness since 9-11, still feed the self-destructive, revengeful fantasies of Charles Bishop? Before we shake our heads and call this young man sick, we need to look around us with open eyes and open hearts.
It is heartbreaking to think of the thrill that must have accompanied his take-off- his first solo take off. Those moments of freedom before the coast guard helicopter began following him and trying to force him down. Did he forget, for a moment, his note and his plan? Did he remember the dream of flying, and all that it meant about who he was, and could be if he chose? Chances are, he had never learned to land, and he never planned to land anyway. There would be no going back to before all this, only going forward to the end of it.
His name will be remembered only for those words on the note, words associating him with the most evil man of our generation. Perhaps some of us might remember him as he must have thought of himself for a few moments- the Charles Bishop who could fly, and chose to do so.