My wife and daughters were just a block and a half away from West and Chambers Streets yesterday when the shooting started — far enough away but not far enough; they most danger they were in, ironically, was when they were nearly run down by first responders speeding down Chambers Street at 60 miles per. The “story was developing,” as the media would have it, as they made their way home, so they were unaware of what was really happening, and besides it was Halloween. They had trick-or-treating on their minds, and mercifully they didn’t think about it much. I imagine that the grief counsellors that the district hired to populate the hallways at their school, also just around the corner from West and Chambers, will traumatize them enough today. We’re keeping an eye on them.
As you now know, most of the eight victims of yesterday’s attack weren’t American: five were Argentine tourists, and one was Belgian. For all of Trump’s desire to keep America safe, his travel ban wouldn’t have prevented Sayfullo Saipov from getting into the country; Uzbekistan was not on the list. Only the guns that the police carried could fire any bullets, one of them into Saipov’s abdomen. And like recent events in England and France, it appears that Saipov was “inspired” to his vicious act by the Islamic State rather than driven by any international conspiracy. ISIS hasn’t claimed responsibility yet, though I imagine they will before the day is through; like some other people I can think of, they have a tendency to take credit for things they had no direct responsibility for.
Saipov had a screw loose. A paranoiac sense of oppression married to violent religious propaganda is obviously a dangerous thing, but the Muslim religion can’t be blamed for it; extremists of Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist stripes have all conducted similar campaigns of terror throughout our long history on this planet. Theology may provide a tipping point, but it’s the sociopathic hostility that kills, and sociopathy doesn’t exclusively belong to any faith. It’s the sociopathy that has me worried. Cultures that valorize violence and polarized cultural and religious thinking tend to encourage the insane to legitimize and act upon their violent impulses; add to this an overheated, sensationalistic news, media, and celebrity machine that we can carry around with us in our pockets all day long and — well, they do make for long days.
If this is the New Normal — if we must learn to live with it somehow — it’s been a long time coming, but its main characteristic seems to be the arbitrariness of violence. I was assaulted myself not long ago in broad daylight, and not to get into the details, but it came out of the blue, and my attacker was as white as myself: much taller and heavier and younger (and drunker). The assault was sudden, it was violent, but fortunately it left me with nothing but a bloody lip. I was discussing this the other day with a friend of mine at Cafe Katja. “And as a Christian, of course, I was forgiving and didn’t press charges,” I said; “As a Jew, I’d have pressed charges,” my friend said. And we both laughed, recognizing that both of us were right and wrong at the same time.
I’ve seen In Cold Blood and read about Sandy Hook, so I know that leaving New York (or any city) doesn’t get you out of the line of fire. Obviously, yesterday’s event leaves us all with more of a sense of dread than we had before, and it was already pretty significant. You can be as defiant and proud as you want, but if some workman accidentally drops a hammer on your head from twenty floors above you, that won’t help, and that’s just as arbitrary as a rented Home Depot truck coming at your back or getting into Stephen Paddock’s sights.
These incidents are becoming less rare than they used to be. I’m a pessimist, really, so I’m of the belief that “things” generally tend to get worse over time; optimists tell me that they’re not worse, only different. I think this is unnecessarily narrow-minded. Things can be both worse and different at the same time. Guys like Charles Whitman used to come along once every decade; now they come along every few months. The fabric of society may be unravelling, but I hope I never accommodate myself to the New Normal. Now that, my friends, would be giving in.