[I wrote this piece on October 13, 2001. This was one of several unpublished manuscripts that I submitted to newspapers and magazines in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.]
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In all the excitement about Afghanistan, we seem to have forgotten the real problem.
The real problem is not that it’s tough to fight over there, or that we have no idea how to eliminate terrorism sponsored by a state like North Korea or Iraq, or how long it will take. The real problem is that, even if every Osama suddenly dies and peace settles upon Arabia, we will still have our Timothy McVeighs.
Some twisted soul, distributing a bit of anthrax, has reminded us that mass or serial murder is not restricted to a small cadre of angry foreigners who pray five times a day. It is something that American school kids do. Remember how that worried us? It seems like a million years ago.
Multiple murder is a man who shoots up a Jewish day care in L.A. It is a person who torches a crowded disco. It is a genius in a shack in Montana, who handcrafts tricky little bombs and gets caught only after years of anonymity, when someone gives him a chance to publish what’s on his mind.
Yes, and how about that? The Unabomber, we discovered, had a grievance. Odd to think that he believed he actually had a reason to kill. Not that I know what it was; I, for one, took my cue from the media, which kept calling Ted Kaczynski’s document a “screed” or a “manifesto,” neither of which sounded like something I would want to read.
I know Tim McVeigh had a grievance. But he was nuts, right? Like the guy who crashed his semi into a government building, or the ones who went postal. There was something wrong with them. We’re pretty sure of it. They may have had their reasons, but those reasons were sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Nothing, that is, except occasional death to bystanders. Which gives me pause. What if I, or someone, took a minute to listen to these lunatics? Or what if we had a regular, public board of inquiry, staffed around the clock by people dedicated to fairness and truth? Maybe word would spread. Maybe the Kazcynskis and McVeighs would at least try to present their complaints peaceably before turning to violence.
Ah, but we know how this turns out. You start with a diligent, impartial board of inquiry, and you end up with a legal system. Then where are you? Rape victims made out to be whores; criminals going free; innocents sodomized in prison; 19-year-old potheads sentenced to, what, five years? Ten? Do I hear fifteen?
Still, the idea has potential. What if someone like McVeigh, lacking the tremendous amount of time, money, and patience required to prosecute his complaint against the government — what if it were somewhat easier for such a person to get a hearing? Easier, say, than renting a truck and filling it with fertilizer and fuel oil?
With a moment’s thought, the examples begin to multiply. What if someone would squelch a bad player whose loud music or barking dog keeps the neighborhood awake at night? What if rude driving were punished? What if divorce “proceedings” didn’t invite people to destroy each other? Maybe zero tolerance for such nonsense would make life better. Maybe it would be enough, sometimes, to keep angry neighbors, road ragers, or ex-spouses from coming back with a gun.
The more you contemplate the unrighted wrongs in your life, and in the lives of those around you, the more you may realize that Justice — that tall, stern god of the ancients — is speaking to us. He is talking very calmly, very quietly. I can hear his susurrant whisper; I’ve heard it all my life. So have we all. And though the words may be difficult to make out at first, they come through more clearly with concentration.
The words rustle in the field, where the ghost of a bankrupt farmer lingers after he shoots himself. They echo down the street, where a crooked merchant has ripped off another trusting customer. They ring across the schoolyard, where one more punk has picked on one more little Bernie Goetz.
We did not need some wacky Arab to tell us that we had a problem with justice. We’ve been hearing it for years. But we had our stock reply, and we have used it faithfully. “Life is unfair,” we tell ourselves. To which our random killers reply, “That’s right. In America, it really is.” And thus we cause a whispering god to roar.