Friday, June 17, 2016

The Only Thing We Have to Fear

On April 19, 2013, I wrote this blog about the Boston bombings. Three years later, nothing has changed but the names. News crews are in Orlando now. They’ll move on when the next killings happen. All I know for sure is that heroes walk among us.

Last year, I published a novel, The Arsonist’s Last Words, about a disaster in downtown Orlando, and the city’s response to the tragedy. This week, I meant to post a blog on the fictional anniversary of the fictional event, maybe sell a few books, right? On Monday Sunday, bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, killing 3 and wounding 264 shots rang out at the Pulse nightclub, killing 49 and wounding 53. By the way, today is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing Charleston shooting. I’m afraid that if we live long enough, we’ll have a massacre for every day of the year.

Candlelight Vigil in downtown Orlando
That’s what the terrorists want, though. They want us living in fear. In Boston Orlando, an official steps up to the podium and says, “Our hearts are broken, but our spirits are not.” We keep repeating it, over and over, but how many times can you witness the slaughter before you lose part of yourself?

In Boston Orlando, we feel the same knifing pain—the pain of knowing that someone, somewhere, plotted to kill or maim as many of his fellow humans as possible. His victims committed no crime, other than to stand on a crowded street dance floor at two in the afternoon morning. The randomness is what wrecks our sleep. How do we protect ourselves from such a fate? Where in the world are we safe?

Even as the heroes rushed in to help the wounded on Boylston Street Orange Avenue, those of us watching on TV or feverishly tapping with our thumbs demanded to know “Who?” and “Why?” As if knowing the “motive” would make any sense out of madness. Staring into the empty eyes of Adam Lanza Dylan Klebold Seung-Hui Cho Syed Farook made no sense of the shootings in Sandy Hook Columbine Virginia Tech San Bernadino. Hearing Timothy McVeigh’s “reasons” gave no peace to the survivors of Oklahoma City. I almost wish we didn’t know why the Al Qaeda hijackers wanted to kill us on 9/11. The simple answer is: Because we exist. There’s no arguing with that logic.

Having lived for half a century, I can look back on a long list of heartbreaking days, beginning with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy quickly followed. As a kid, I remember thinking it was safer not to dream. A crazy man with a gun could come along and blow your dreams away.

Fast-forward to September 11, a day that shattered every dream we had as a country. We grew up safe on these shores. No one had ever dared attack us, and if they did, we bombed them into oblivion. America was a beacon of freedom in the world, a shining city on a hill. Who didn’t love us?

How could we comprehend the level of hatred required to kill 3,000 people?

“Incomprehensible” is a word we often use at times like these. We can’t wrap our minds around the loss. Grief turns to anger. After 9/11, we sought to avenge the deaths of our brothers and sisters by fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Twelve Fifteen years later, 6,648 6,883 more American lives have been lost.

We like to say that the terrorists didn’t win, but now, we’re even at war with ourselves. Can you remember a more bitter political time? Name the subject—immigration, health care, gun control, gay rights—and we’re at each other’s throats. Bin Laden couldn’t have been happier. Since 9/11, we’ve lived with this ever-present fear, a gnawing anxiety that something bad is about to happen, and thanks to our 24-hour news cycle, something always does. Orange is our new normal on the terror scale. There isn’t a gun big enough to kill the bogeyman.

As a writer, I try to put myself in the bogeyman’s place. In Boston Orlando, I picture him sitting at a kitchen table, filling a pressure cooker magazine full of nails rifle shells. In his mind, he envisions the damage these little pieces of metal will do to flesh and bone. I can’t allow myself to believe that he pictured the faces of kids in the crowd. He didn’t have that much imagination. He was only thinking about somebody else feeling pain for a change, instead of him. This probably makes me a coward. I can’t deal with a monster. I have to make him human. The hardest part—the part that takes all my will—is remembering that he is my brother. And so was Timothy McVeigh. And so was Osama bin Laden.

If I believe in the God our politicians are so fond of quoting, I must believe that every man is my brother. Not just the ones who go to my church. Not just the ones with the same color skin. Not just the ones who wish me well. I have to love—and forgive—the ones who plot my death, and the ones who shoot my kids with a Bushmaster rifle.

This isn’t the American Way, I know. Turning the other cheek is not the way we roll. We’d rather blast the hell out of our enemies, and electrocute the ones we can reach with a plug. Please don’t get me wrong—I want justice for the victims. I just don’t want it at the expense of our own souls. We’ve grown too fond of hatred in this country, and that’s what the terrorists really want.

Patton Oswalt very eloquently told the Boston bombers, “The good outnumber you and they always will.” His words gave me comfort, and so did those of Bruce Schneier of The Atlantic, who said, “There’s one thing we can do to render terrorism ineffective: Refuse to be terrorized.”

I refuse to live in fear. I will not hate my enemies. I’ll pretend this crack in my heart isn’t there. So help me God.