I was born in March of 1987. Since then, terrorists have killed 17,294 men, women, and children in attacks around the world. At this rate, I can expect about 600 deaths every year until I’m dead. If I live to 79, the normal life expectancy for a man in this country, just under 30,000 more will lose their lives to fanatics: 47,220 men, women, and children.
The magnitude and horror of these losses are hidden—mercifully—in the cold nature of numbers. But these numbers are more than a divisible part of a larger statistic. They were (and will be) mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, friends and lovers. They believed (and will believe) in Gods—many of them by default and some more than others. They had (and will have) that night where they looked up at the sky from their place on a planet floating in a galaxy of gas and rock and they felt alive. And they were (and will be) killed when they least expect it, at a market or a festival, at a restaurant or a concert, in some inventively cruel way.
But enough with the abstract, which like numbers, make it too easy to ignore the awfulness of it all. As far as I can tell, the first major attack to happen after I was born took place on July 6, 1989 in Tel Aviv. Shouting “Allahu Akbar!,” a twenty-five year old fundamentalist wrestled the steering wheel of a commercial bus from the driver who fought back with “all [his] strength” but lost. The young man sent the bus careening four hundred feet into a ravine. The victims bodies were “burned beyond recognition.”
In the days following the attack, details about the man, details that are now all too familiar, even cliché, trickled out: by all accounts, he was normal, he had a family and no criminal record and had adopted much of the culture of Jerusalem. Also familiar were the retributive attacks on Muslims in the days that followed, with chants in the streets of “Death to the Arabs!” and the murder of a Palestinian man—someone’s son, maybe someone’s father too, who knows—after he was struck by a stone launched by an Israeli while he was driving down the street—maybe on his way to work or to visit his wife.
How little things have changed.
I’m afraid of New York Times‘ notifications on my phone now. “What this time?” I think reflexively as I slide my thumb down the screen to reveal the preview of the alert. Another slaughter of gay men doing nothing else than having some fun dancing? Dancing for Christ’s sake. Or maybe another truck driven into revelers on a street on the sea—this time watching a parade instead of fireworks? The details of how are mostly irrelevant at this point although they never cease to shock me. “They did what?” All that really matters is that with every attack I can’t decide what is more depressing: that another mother is somewhere crying because the last thing her son smelled was gun powder or that it is only a matter of time before it happens again.
I have to will myself to read the stories about the victims. The least they deserve, having been robbed of their humanity usually so early in their lives, is for someone, even a stranger a thousand miles away, to know that they were here and to feel so gut-achingly sad that they are gone. In the beginning, I did not always shed tears but my eyes well up nowadays. Even more so, when I read that this child wanted to grow up to be a doctor and was the light of her family’s world. I wonder who she won’t be able to save now because no one was able to save her.
Orlando hit me particularly hard. My imagination is not great enough to grasp how terrifying it must have been to be in that club and realize that there was no easy way out. You’re just waiting for your turn, stomach turned inside out: “It’s happening to me.” Nor is it great enough to imagine how painful it must be for a father to see his son’s name appear on a list on some government website that he kept refreshing over and over again, hoping that his son lost his cell phone in the chaos and that’s why he hasn’t heard from him.
That’s what happened to Drew Leinonen’s father, Mark. His son had been at Pulse the night a shooter armed to the teeth killed forty-nine people. Mark admitted after the attack that he was “not thrilled” to discover that his son was gay. But he accepted it however begrudgingly. Drew was a psychologist and had moved from Michigan to Florida, where he grew up, with his mother. Left with nothing else to do, Mark wrote a letter that slowly turned from sadness to anger.
“[Drew] was very idealistic about the human race, and he did not want to see the evil in the world or even to believe it existed,” he said. After 9/11, “he made the giant leap to believing there are evil people in the world, but not far enough to acquaint himself with firearms, or to get a permit to carry.” If maybe he had a gun, he could have fought back, he thought.
In the days following that attack, I attended a vigil on Christopher Street here in New York, home to Stonewall, the bar where a brick launched the gay rights movement. I left feeling worse than when I came. Nothing makes you feel more helpless than seeing repurposed phrases used like ad libs, #WeAre_____ or #StandWith_____, or the clichés like Love Conquers Hate. Their familiarity only reinforces that we have become too good at feeling bad; practice, I guess, makes perfect.
But to what end? These tailor-made responses make us—the living—feel better by making us feel less helpless than we really are. The dead care little about vigils and hashtags and superimposed flags on your Facebook profile picture. The Onion, in its first issue after 9/11, brilliantly encapsulated this is one headline: “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake.” The dead don’t care about our cakes either—even patriotic ones.
My parents’ generation had Vietnam. We have “international terrorism.” It’s quite a thing to think—with the deepest respect to those who lost their lives in Vietnam—that, if you have to choose a tragedy, Vietnam must be preferable to this infinite morass in which we find ourselves. At least that generation knew in what country the war was; it was on a map. They didn’t have the always present fear lurking in the back of their mind that some religiously distorted madmen might shoot up a subway car one day on their morning commute.
I would rather write about hope than all of this. And there is hope out there. There really really is. But we need also to realize that the situation is dire. The vigils and rallies don’t erase the tragedy; they don’t bring the dead back to life. This fucking war is so draining because there’s so little we can do to immediately save ourselves from its roiling sadness. It is a decades’ long, if not generations’ long, battle between good and evil, sanity and insanity, the right to live in peace or in fear.
And in the meantime the only thing we can do, however unsatisfying of a reaction it may be, is to keep going, to keep living our lives. To love our neighbors more today than yesterday and recognize forcefully the humanity—the shared humanity—in everyone, especially those who look different than we do, believe in a different God or no God at all, or think differently. We are all mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, friends and lovers. Sure this reaction isn’t as outwardly satisfying as holding a candle at a rally or attending a thousand-person vigil, and sure it doesn’t make for as good of a soundbite on the evening news but it’s more lasting and meaningful in its ultimate, peaceful effect on the world.
Image courtesy of Tim Wang. Some rights reserved.