It started with the London fire.
Images of it were all over the internet, as I was getting ready for bed. A high-rise building, engulfed in flames like a torch. Eyewitness accounts of children at the upper windows while the lower floors were engulfed. “A number of deaths–” no word on how many.
“Please, don’t let it be terrorists,” said someone online, with a luridness that made me wonder if she wanted it to be terrorists.
In a way, it would be simple, if it were terrorists– if it were always terrorists, every time a disaster happens, and if terrorism was as simple as some people claim it is. If this whole group over here, in a foreign place with a funny name, who don’t keep our feasts or speak our language or look like us, was evil; if everyone living there was guilty and we were all innocent. If all we had to do was drop a big enough bomb on enough of those people, and there would be no more killing: no shootings, no bombings, no stabbings, no fires. If we could kill everyone who might be a danger to us, save our own lives, and not lose our souls in the process.
But we can’t. We can’t save our own lives.
When I woke up, I looked at the news, and found it wasn’t believed to be terrorists. No cause has been established for that fire yet. There are reports that the new cladding on the outside of the tower wasn’t fireproof, and that people had warned that the high rise was a fire risk. Other buildings constructed with the same materials have had similar fires. Residents were telling reporters they’d complained of the lack of fire escapes and smoke alarms before, but nobody listened. It was not terrorists, it was people like us, trying to save money.
No weapon could have prevented that.
I also found that the London Fire wasn’t headline news anymore, because there’d been a mass shooting in Virginia. James T. Hodgkinson, a man with a history of domestic violence, a legally-purchased firearm and a well-documented hatred of Republicans, had shot Representative Scalise and as many others as he could. He was shot in turn, and was dead. Everyone was terrified.
The person who had fretted at the thought of terrorists last night, was commenting at length about the necessity of guns and of “good men” being heavily armed, to protect us from bad men so that we would be safe.
I had an eye appointment downtown, during that awkward hour when the city buses take children home from the high school instead of their usual route, so I went downtown an hour early. I dropped in to visit the Friendship Room, with a bag of ice pops– ice pops are how Molly keeps her homeless guests alive this time of year. In the winter, she gives them soup and a warm place to rest; in the summer, she gives them ice pops, bottled water and shady place to sit in front of a fan. She can’t keep them all alive, of course. That’s not how caring for the addicted and the homeless works. People are lost in the heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter, or when a bad batch of heroin hits the streets.No weapon could protect her guests from any of that.
I went to the optometrist. He said my prescription hasn’t changed– I need glasses for everything but reading, and my husband only needs them to read. “If we had a holocaust,” he said, “You could read maps and he could look for signs.”
What a strange, ominous word, holocaust. It’s almost a contranym– a word that means two opposite things. A form of worship, or murder on a mass scale. That specific, unspeakably horrendous ethnic cleansing of mechanical efficiency in Europe seventy years ago. The carnage left by a nuclear attack; a city reduced to ashes, the citizens’ shadows burned forever into the pavement. Or, a ritual offering pleasing to the Lord. A grievous atrocity, the first sin that cried out to Heaven for vengeance repeated in the thousands and millions. Or, a whole burnt offering that pleads mercy for the sinner. The murder of Abel a million times over or the acceptable sacrifice from Abel to the Lord.
When I got home, I found out there had been another mass shooting, this one in San Francisco. A gunman killed three people and then turned the gun on himself. I didn’t even have the strength to read further.
Later, a friend confided that they couldn’t stop thinking about dying.
Well, why wouldn’t they?
Why wouldn’t anyone, at this point?
Living in a world like this one, so full of death, death you can’t protect yourself from and death you could if you were lucky; death that gets broadcast on the news, death on the streets that no one mourns; violent and tragic, painful, ugly death– it gets into your head. You could go crazy: you could come to believe that you can make yourself safe by being a good person, heavily armed. You could remain perfectly sane, still staring into the abyss, and realize there’s no way to keep yourself totally safe– and that would feel like madness.
I never have satisfactory answers. But I think that part of the answer lies in letting go of the preoccupation with being safe. Because, we never are. We take reasonable precautions, and then we let go. We mourn with those who mourn,–there’s always going to be a lot of mourning. We do what we can to help as many as we can. We take whatever effort we can to stop future deaths, if there’s a way we can do so without ourselves becoming killers. We do what is ours to do, in the Name of Christ, even if it scares us or drives us mad; even if it kills us.
That’s not a comforting thought, but I think it’s the right one.
(image via Pixabay)