On Wednesday, December 2, 2015, a couple walked into a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino and murdered fourteen people. They shot a bunch of other people, too, and then they fled and were chased down and killed in turn. They weren’t, as far as anyone can tell, aiming for anyone in particular so much as they were hoping to disrupt American complacency and the security our society so often takes for granted. The killers wanted to do this for a number of reasons—religious fanaticism, political principle, delusional grandeur, etc.—but that second-degree motivation, the why behind the what, was probably less important to them, and is certainly less important to me, than the result. Their objective was to sow fear. And it worked.
[The attack was carried out] with a single, repugnant purpose: to harm, frighten and intimidate anyone who believes in open and tolerant societies; in free and democratic governments, and in the right of every human being to live in peace, security and freedom.
“Let America know a new era,” one celebrant of the attacks posted on Twitter a few hours after the attack, using the hashtag “AmericaBurning.” Another said, “May god spread fear in the homes of the Crusaders.” More than likely, these and other celebratory declarations were spontaneous reactions to an act that was planned and executed without the knowledge of, let alone direction from, any central ISIS command. The killers may have been inspired by a jihaDIY article in Dabiq, ISIS’s sleek and sophisticated glossy, they may have received weapons and cash from a friend or from some unknown source, and they may have been planning something else, instead of or in addition to the Regional Center shooting, maybe since as far back as 2012. But to my mind none of that matters. What matters is that a few dozen people were telling bad jokes and posing for cheesy pictures and fibbing about craaaazy New Year’s Eves back in the day, in one of the least assuming organizations in one of the least sexy cities in America, and now a bunch of them are dead and wounded and scarred for life.
It hit home for a number of reasons. One, the proximity—San Bernardino is 73.4 miles due east of my apartment. Two, my wife knows the wife of one of the men that was murdered—a father of six and, apparently, the gunman Syed Farook’s supervisor. Three, in the days following the attacks, there were rumors that her building in downtown Los Angeles had been cased by Farook’s wife, Tashfeen Malik—it turned out to be speculation, but the effect—That could have been my wife—had been produced. The terror had taken hold. And now we’re going to New York for Christmas—it’s always difficult to visit that city without thinking about terrorism on American soil, and right now it’s pretty much impossible.
More than anything, though, especially since the initial shock of it’s worn off, it’s the six-month-old babies that really got me.
I have one, a boy, our first, and Farook and Malik had one, a girl, their first. They dropped her at a relative’s that Wednesday morning, just like I drop Oliver at daycare, and I can’t help but imagine one of them bending to kiss her little head, feeling the blip of a heartbeat press up through her silky fontanelle, while the other, pausing in the doorway, says an extra goodbye on the way out. I wonder when, during the hours that followed, the last few of their lives, they thought about their daughter, what she meant to them, what they’d hoped for her. Did they picture her when they were locking and loading and donning their vests? Did they hear her coos and laughter as they squeezed their triggers? While they fled what they had to know (didn’t they?) was certain doom? As they lay bleeding out in the street? Did they think about her at all? Or were their minds blank? Or filled with rage? Or fear? Or righteousness or passion or regret?
Did they do it for her?
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The first thing to crack me open after 9/11, after three days of numbness, was a short piece by the English novelist Ian McEwan, in the September 15th issue of The Guardian. In “Only Love and Then Oblivion” McEwan describes a news segment showing a San Francisco man replaying a message on his answering machine, a call that he’d slept through. His wife was in one of the towers, sure that she was trapped and would die, and was calling to say goodbye. She called to say, “I love you.”
“She said it over and again before the line went dead,” McEwan wrote. “And that is what they were all saying down their phones, from the hijacked planes and the burning towers. There is only love, and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against the hatred of their murderers.”
It’s a powerful piece. It was emotionally devastating when I first read it, and it moves me every September 11th, my sole and private marking of the day. And it rang true when I read it again earlier this month, after hearing about the phone calls and text messages the scared and wounded and, in a couple cases, dying sent from where they lay or crouched or as they ran. But where I used to think McEwan was spot on about every bit, over the last few years my ideas have started to change. And then they changed in a hurry when I saw pictures of the killers’ home, their daughter’s jumper and toys, the same as our son’s, taking up the same room, left where the kid abandoned them because we/they/we were too tired to straighten up.
McEwan goes on to say, “If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed. It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality. The hijackers used fanatical certainty, misplaced religious faith, and dehumanising hatred to purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy. Among their crimes was a failure of the imagination.”
This is probably true of some terrorists. Probably most. It’s certainly true of soldiers—there’ve been libraries worth written about the dehumanizing nature of warfare, as both a regrettable consequence a prerequisite. And it’s how we explain psychopaths and serial killers and all those “unstable” or “mentally ill” “loners” (read: “white”), the mass murderers that for some crazy reason receive sympathy from the mainstream media.
But to say that terrorists have no empathy and suffer from a criminal lack of imagination is to do our own dehumanizing, to distance us “normal” or “sane” or “civilized” people from the kind of “crazy” “fucked-up” “savages” that would do such a thing. Hannah Arendt may only have coined the infinitely repeatable phrase “the banality of evil” fifty-some years ago, but people have been saying goodbye to their kids and going off to kill other humans literally forever. It’s only “evil” when enough people don’t like the results.
I don’t mean to imply that what Farook and Malik did wasn’t among the most awful things one human can do to another, or that understanding their motivations mitigates the horror of their actions. I simply hope to suggest that dividing us from them, saying “those people are savages and we are not,” as natural and understandable a reaction as that is, is too simple, and ultimately does nothing to decrease the chance of it happening again, let alone even begin to address the conditions under which an attack like this seemed like a good idea, a viable plan, an inspired bit of theater—their only option. Whether Farook was “radicalized” (a rather problematic term most of the U.S.—media, politicians, your average Joe—uses these days only in reference to Muslims) or not, he was an American, born in Chicago, raised in Riverside, a low-key health inspector in San Bernardino. This is not someone else’s problem, some other country’s or some other religion’s. Syed Farook is an American problem. No American, and no Saudi or Syrian or Pakistani or anyone else of any other nationality, is to blame for what Farook and Malik did—only the two of them are—but it and they are our responsibility.
Even if we grant the inevitability of history—that things had to happen in the way they have, that the force and trajectory of history is beyond any real influence—and that America’s and Western Europe’s and Eastern Europe’s and Russia’s and the Levant’s and Persia’s and Arabia’s and Northern Africa’s political and military actions were all the only things that could have happened, thereby negating the entire concept of “blame”—even then, the reality we live in now is our responsibility. In this reality, people who are born in this country take up arms and kill strangers wholesale on a terrifyingly regular basis, for any number of reasons, including religious conviction or the infinitely simpler purpose of inciting terror. And it’s not until we can survey our sociopolitical and cultural landscapes with a clear-eyed determination to understand it that we have a hope of altering its course.
# # #
Bringing a child into the world challenges you to confront a lot of things you’d rather not think about. Nine million things can go wrong during a pregnancy, and while fewer can and do during labor and delivery, the tension and the stakes seem higher. We’ve been blessed with a healthy, alert, incredibly loving child who makes parenting an easy joy, which in turn makes it very easy to defer worrying or even thinking about the thousand-thousand pitfalls, real or imagined, that life holds for any human. “The heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” &c. But I’ve been thinking again over the last few weeks, since Paris but especially since San Bernardino, of the fragility of life, and I feel challenged to confront all the possibilities that living in this world at this time contains.
Being a middle-class SoCal WASP, I have the luxury of this being a rather infrequent experience. See one of the innumerable pictures of the millions of Syrian refugees, or scroll for two minutes through “The Syrian Americans” series on Humans of New York, or think for a second about Gaza or the Congo or North Korea or Ukraine or Argentina in the late ’70s or Russia in the ’30s or South Central Los Angeles in ’93 or Baltimore in 2015 or or or or . . . and you’ll find an inexhaustible number of people who had and have to accept fragility and accommodate terror on a daily basis, as a prerequisite to any other action or emotion. So yes, this is new for me, and yes, it pales in comparison to what others have to go through and live with, some for basically their entire lives, and it does inspire gratitude for the health and safety and security I and mine have. But the very idea that no one is exempt is kind of, or part of, the point.
# # #
There’s a Buddhist mantra, a kind of recitation or reminder of the fundamental facts of existence, that I say every morning ahead of my twenty minutes on the pillow:
The preciousness of human life and the good fortune of being born human.
The reality of death; it comes suddenly and without warning.
The entrapment of karma; everything you do furthers cause and effect.
The intensity and inevitability of suffering.
I’d reached a point some months ago, one of those troughs you’re bound to go through over the course of any long and repetitive practice, when those words had become little more than sounds I mumbled as I creaked into position. Suddenly, though, they have direct bearing on my life. Especially the first two lines, and, basking as I currently am in the warm sunlight of good fortune, that looming, portentous, antepenultimate word.
You cannot evade the experience of suffering—due to sickness, death, tragedy, whatever. Something wicked is always this way coming.
The purpose of these sentences is disrupt our complacency and the security we so often take for granted. They’re not meant to be a comfort. Buddhism is not interested in comforting its practitioners. Buddhism is interested in its practitioners knowing the truth about reality, facing it, seeing it clearly. It is a responsibility that can sometimes feel like a burden, to live without fantasy, to constantly be plucking the wool from before your own eyes, and I have to say, right now, I’m not happy about it.
Normally, I like the sense of seeing and understanding the way things are. Normally, I think of penetrating to the root of existence and all that heady philosophical stuff as more or less my raison d’être. But now that it’s no longer theoretical, now that, as my wife describes having a child, a part of my heart broke off and is walking around out in the world, I kind of just want all the bad stuff to go away and it all to be all right, and if that means denying the existence or permanence or intractability of certain aspects of our society and reality—if it means stapling that wool visor to my face—some days I think, well, bring it on.
# # #
I’m reading War and Peace again, and Petya Rostov has just died—a senseless death on a battlefield he had no business being anywhere near. His sister Natasha has just suffered her own crisis, watching the man she loved and spurned and loved again die in front of her, and she feels hollowed out and disconnected from her family, impatient with what she imagines can only be some trivial drama even as she crosses the drawing room to go into her mother. But she finds, surprisingly and almost incomprehensibly to herself, that her love for the world, her capacity to care about others, is rekindled by her mother’s grief. She’s reminded by her mother’s pain of the profundity of love and what it adds to our existence.
Tolstoy’s masterpiece has played a key part in the life and times of my heart before—long story short, the book was my entrée into a friendship that opened me back up to the possibility of, and, in its way, paved the way for, the life and the love that I regained, that I have now, in my wife and our new son and my friends and family and the thousand-thousand good things that life and existence and the future also hold.
# # #
It’s important to me, when I go to optimism, and gratitude, that I don’t forget the other sides of those coins; that I’m here because of others’ pain, and that no one is exempt from their own.
# # #
Ta-Nehisi Coates, who’s recently received a lot of (well-deserved) recognition for his work—a MacArthur Fellowship (aka “Genius Grant”), a National Book Award—talks often about the intractability of the status quo and the impossibility of large-scale change. His work focuses almost exclusively on racial injustice, but there are some general parallels with the feelings of helplessness and despondency many people feel in the face of terrorism—American racism being, after all, a 400-plus-year campaign of domestic terrorism. As his new book Between the World and Me makes perfectly clear, Coates doesn’t harbor any kind of hope for a post-racial or post-racist or even moderately fair world. Others assume this is the same as pessimism, and Coates is roundly, if gently, chided for it. The incomparable Michelle Alexander, who wrote the essay linked to up there (so definitely go read it), says she “cannot pretend to be entirely satisfied. Like Baldwin, I tend to think we must not ask whether it is possible for a human being or society to become just or moral; we must believe it is possible.” Even President Obama urged Coates, “Don’t despair.” But Coates’s attitude is that things don’t have to get better for there to be a reason to go on doing your part to make them so. In the words of the title of his first memoir, it’s the struggle itself that is beautiful. It’s recognizing the truth of the world we live in and our own limitations to change it, and committing oneself to the difficult and uncomfortable task of confronting that truth at every opportunity, so that those in our society, community, and family cannot help but acknowledge it too. It’s saying, “There is no outside of this,” and not flinching as you carry on.
And I confess that is what gives me strength. Not comfort, not a sense that things are going to be okay, because that’s not necessarily true. It’s certainly not knowable. In fact, much of the evidence points to the contrary.
The absence of that conviction leaves you with only one real option, and that’s to focus on your immediate community, on your circle of influence. It requires not that you disregard the terror that is inherent in our reality, but that you work to undermine that terror at the micro level at every opportunity.
But that’s impossible to do when you’re lying awake in bed at night, counting the ways chance could ruin our lives. You can’t do that when you’re paralyzed with fear at your desk, the only muscles capable of movement those required to keep that endless scroll of bad news and worse forecasts coming.
You can’t do it when terror is winning.
I used to think of writing as a way of “exorcising my demons,” as an end in and of itself, as the dramatic and self-important capital-W Writer part of my ego likes to contend. But I try to live a little differently than that nowadays. I have to, now that I have a wife and a son that need me to be something other than self-consumed all the time, but I like to think I’d be headed towards a more useful mode of life anyway. And so I use writing—all of it, really, the stories and the novels and the scripts and the 2,500 words you’ve gotten through so far—as a way to work through the neuroses and self-absorbing fears and obsessions that keep me from being useful to those around me. I’ve done it this way so long that writing has become one of the few ways I have—and often the only way I choose—to work out my troubles, and I consider it my job, part of my responsibility as a member of the human race, of my society, my community, my family, to conjure some kind of resolution out of all this spilled ink.
In doing this, in trying to disentangle my fears and putting them behind me and engaging wholeheartedly and undistractedly with reality in general and my loved ones in particular—which is the result of all that other work—terror is no longer operative. Its causes persist, the conditions under which it flourishes continue to percolate, future expressions of it wait in the wings—it remains inevitable—but it recedes again to its proper place among the infinite facets of reality. I watch it go, knowing with what feels like a seasoned and steady acceptance that it will, someday, return.
And then I turn my attention to other things.