Wednesday, Sept. 12, 42 A.D.
My Very Private Thoughts On A Very Public Day
You know, yesterday actually started off looking pretty good. I woke up in a fairly upbeat mood and immediately set about rapidly completing the 100 or so daily tasks I need to do before I allow myself to grab some breakfast and get to work on all the jestery undertakings my mind is inclined to tackle. Continuing to defend evolution from irrational creationist attacks in another online journal I keep was the undertaking first and foremost in my mind. Indeed, that mind was bubbling over with all the points I wanted to make in defense of logic and science.
The I got a call from Amy about 10:40 am....
"Have you had the TV on yet today?"
"You better go turn the TV on."
Even if she hadn't had a quiver in her voice, I would have known this wasn't going to be good. Nobody ever calls me up and asks me to turn on the TV in order to see a great new cat food commercial, let alone a cure for cancer.
My first thought was that there'd been a shooting spree at the school where she teaches.
The reality turned out to be... surreal.
Partly because of the nature of what I saw, of course, but also because it made me realize how unsurreal, expected, and almost trite school shootings have now become.
There was a time when I couldn't wait to get out of bed and turn on the TV just to reassure myself that the Russians hadn't nuked NYC while I'd been asleep. In fact, that time went on for years. Eventually I calmed down, chilled out, got mellow, slacked off, or simply came to take normal reality for granted like most everyone else.
Which in fact turns out to work remarkably well most of the time.
It does, however, leave me vulnerable to phone calls like yesterday's.
The last time Amy called me like this, it was about the Challenger. I guessed Muammar Qaddafi had nuked a U.S. carrier, then on patrol in the Mediterranean just off the coast of Libya. This makes me 0 for 2 and does little to increase my ability to trust reality or my understanding of it....
Amy had gone on to tell me before I got to my TV that the World Trade Center Towers had collapsed, the Pentagon had been hit, and the U.S. Capitol. It seemed quite apocalyptic, and I tried to calm both her and myself by stating a few obvious points:
----- The laws of physics remain in place
----- Bad things have happened in the past
----- Bad things will happen in the future
----- In the grand scheme of things, all of NYC could disappear in a puff of smoke and it really wouldn't matter
----- The entire US could disappear and 95% of everyone on earth today would still get up and take a piss tomorrow morning just like they always have
Actually seeing things unfolding on my TV proved to be both better and worse than I expected. No, the Capitol had not been hit, but then words on a telephone cannot begin to have the impact of the 21st century's first Zapruder film. Yes, watching two famous 110 story towers collapse is a horrible, horrible thing, but... this wasn't the end of "Failsafe." This wasn't the nuclear fireball centered on the Empire State Building that I've been expecting every day in the back of my mind for almost 40 years. The planes involved weren't loaded with deadly plutonium or anthrax which might have rendered a large area of our nation's largest city uninhabitable for a long time to come. As bad as it was, as horrid as the images were, it could have been much worse.
And for many people, it has been worse - and it is worse every day. Some 30 million people perhaps died in Mao's Great Leap Forward - when was the last time we've ever felt bad about that? In 1218 Genghis Khan conquered the great central Asian city of Samarkand and slaughtered or enslaved some 500,000 people. How many newscasters who go on and on about unprecedented horrors have ever even heard of Samarkand? How many could avoid being fired on the spot if they mentioned that the US's "greatest generation" thought nothing of incinerating tens of thousands of civilians when it rained nuclear fire down upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Yesterday's paper - yesterday's paper - tells me that 4 million babies worldwide die every year before they are a month old. And that was buried in a small article on page 8.
The mind can't handle all this data, of course. My own mind splinters into many parts in the face of it and events like those which transpired yesterday. Attempting to "put things into perspective" may be noble, but it may also be a pathetic little coping mechanism - an attempt by the rational brain to keep the blubbering, emotional Id locked up in its cage. That blubbering, emotional part of me faints at the prospect of an injection. How can I tell it the details regarding even one of yesterday's many deaths without it going all to pieces?
The human mind is simply poorly calibrated to handle mass tragedy. One death in front of our eyes can peg our catastrophe meter for a lifetime. Thousands of deaths? Millions of deaths? One may as well attempt to tell the difference between a thousand degrees and a million degrees with the touch of a finger....
Instead of even trying, other coping mechanisms kick in. Faced with a choice between collapsing into a blubbering pile of grief and coldly analyzing events, we often choose the latter. Analysis might just lead to some good, after all, even if listening to analysts reciting the most horrid facts in a tone of voice that's less emotional than a sportscaster reading today's scores exposes us to what is perhaps one of the most chilling sounds a human being is capable of making.
Yes, the mind splinters, and if there's a blubbering mess somewhere inside me (if not each one of us), there's also that coldly rational analyst.
An analyst now attempting to harness the emotional energy of that blubbering mess and use it to spin golden words of insight out of the foul-smelling flax of a horrid day....
That analyst takes some comfort from the fact that yesterday's events were apparently not orchestrated by atheists like me but by the religious fanatics whose flawed belief systems I've been trying to combat in my own small way for years.
That analyst also feels vindicated in having long ago come to the conclusion that Bush's missile defense system (like Reagan's "Star Wars" plan before it) is a stupid waste of money which could easily be circumvented by one person, one nuclear bomb, and one small boat.
And that analyst now struggles to comprehend what people mean when they say "We need to track down whoever did these things and make them pay." The people who did these things died doing them. They may well have had help, but that seems a rather minor point to me. As JFK allegedly once said (as best I can remember it): "There's really no way to stop anyone willing to exchange their life for mine." The enemy here isn't a person or a country but a mindset - and how do you apprehend a mindset? How do you put it on trial? How do you launch cruise missiles against it? As long as people believe without evidence or logic that suicide missions against the infidels (however defined) earns them an express ticket to paradise, how do you keep them from eagerly, joyfully leaping for that ticket?
And then I remember Mary Tyler Moore.
I read her autobiography once. In it she tells how she was at the studio rehearsing an episode of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" when news came that JFK had been shot. Sweet, pure Mary instantly blurted out "Thank God!" She was trying to be funny when funny was neither expected nor wanted. It was a case of her professional training kicking in automatically and that training failing her quite dismally in the face of unusual events.
Have I done any better here today?
Does it matter?
In the end, I suspect there's NO good thing that can be said here. Just like I suspect there's NO good way of approaching the horrors of life. Still, I find myself fingering the wounds to my psyche and trying.
It's what I do.
It's what I've been training myself to do in one form or another ever since I was an infant subjected to a searingly painful medical procedure.
And in all likelihood, I'll probably be back here doing it again someday.
Right now, however, I need to go cut the grass.
And no doubt ponder as I do so: Are the people driving by thinking I'm being callous or disrespectful by cutting the grass? Will I be seen by even one passing motorist as one more potential rescue worker or FBI investigator or airport security guard who chose to make long green blades small instead? Will I seem (if only to myself) a somewhat distasteful symbol of the fact that life does indeed go on even when part of me wishes life had long ago died out rather than attempt to compromise or make its peace with this sort of cosmos?
Hmmmmm, an awful lot of I's in this entry, aren't there?
The sad fact is, no matter how big or public a tragedy may be, it ultimately boils down to "I" for each one of us.
And as regrettable as that might be in a perfect world, it just might be the only thing which keeps us from going mad in this one....
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(©The Day After by DJ Birtcher merely because he didn't have the wit or ability to transform the world into something better the day before)