In the wake of national tragedies, some words won't do
The Washington Post, January 12, 2011
There's something depressing and off-putting about the predictable political back-and-forth in the wake of the Tucson attacks. Liberals rush to blame the climate of hate they say is fueled by the right. Conservatives denounce the psychobabble and double standards of the left. Events like this bring out the worst in the commentariat, as the drive to opine collides with the delusion that we opinion-peddlers have something useful to add at such shattering moments.
With all the focus on mental illness, it's worth recalling the physicist Richard Feynman's quip that "writing commentaries is some kind of disease of the intellect."
Sensible responses to senseless violence come more from preachers than pundits. I suppose that's because clergy are called on routinely to comfort their flocks in the face of life's inexplicable horrors and loss. Wisdom, they seem to know from experience, lies in accepting that there are few answers, only questions and fears. How can there be a God if an innocent 9-year-old girl can be killed like this? What kind of warped humanity can choose to commit such acts? Then there's the fickleness of fate: an admired man and judge who's gone about his upstanding business for 20,000 days meets his end because of a fleeting impulse to greet an official with whom he's friendly. Where's the justice in that?
It's hard to cope with the confusion such events evoke. It all rushes in. The randomness of life. The fragility of everything. Horror at human cruelty and indifference. Awe in the face of everyday heroism. Bafflement at the sickness that leads a troubled soul to find assassination's path to celebrity perversely alluring.
And the urge to protect. When I first heard the news, my instinct was like that of the Roberto Benigni character in the 1997 film "Life Is Beautiful
," who concocted an elaborate game in hopes of shielding his son from the unthinkable truth of what the Nazis were up to. I wanted not to tell my 13-year-old daughter, there in the next room doing her homework, about Tucson. How do you admitlet alone explainthat the world holds such awfulness?
Twelve years ago this week , my best friend from college died in a freak skiing accident at 37, leaving behind his young wife and their 10-month-old daughter. In March I'm going to Molly's bat mitzvah. At Todd's funeral I talked about how angry I felt with God. Yes, yes, I was grateful to have had Todd. You have to say that, and it's true. But Todd missed most of his lifeand his daughter missed out on being raised by a special man she'll never knowbecause his path on a huge mountain wasn't 10 feet to the right or to the left of where it was. I'll never get this fact out of my head.
What can you do but cry? And go on. Think Samuel Beckett: "I can't go on. I'll go on."
The more you ponder, the further back it goes. "You find yourself in this world only through an infinity of chances," wrote Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher. "Your birth is due to a marriage, or rather a series of marriages of those who have gone before you. But those marriages were often the result of a chance meeting, or words uttered at random, of a hundred unforeseen and unintended occurrences."
So: We're here by accident. We produce monsters. And Mozarts. What can one make of it?
When we're thrown afresh on such ruminations, the only intelligent response seems like silence. Maybe prayer. And love. So pity the pundits. There are column inches and airtime to fill. It's impossible not to seem off-key.
In public life every incident is a political jump ball. It's only natural: Advocates seize on anything at hand to advance an agenda, and crises often offer rare chances for change. I, for one, would be happy to see new restrictions on the ability to buy semi-automatic weapons and on magazines that hold 30 bullets. They seem useful only for killing or wounding lots of people very quickly. So I'm hardly above "politicizing" this tragedy.
Still, it's only a corner of my response. I write this before President Obama speaks at a memorial service Wednesday night, but my hope is his model will be more minister than prime minister.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. With mostly mysteryand a bit of punditryin between. Now I'm guilty of it, too.