Editorial: A Pure, High Note of Anguish
By Barbara Kingsolver
I want to do something to help right now. But I cant
give blood (my hematocrit always runs too low), and Im too far
away to give anybody shelter or a drink of water. I can only give words.
My verbal hemoglobin never seems to wane, so words are what Ill
offer up in this time that asks of us the best citizenship weve
ever mustered. I dont mean to say I have a cure. Answers to the
main questions of the dayWhere was that fourth plane headed? How
did they get knives through security?I dont know any of
that. I have some answers, but only to the questions nobody is asking
right now but my five-year old. Why did all those people die when they
didnt do anything wrong? Will it happen to me? Is this the worst
thing thats ever happened? Who were those children cheering that
they showed for just a minute, and why were they glad? Please, will
this ever, ever happen to me?
There are so many answers, and none: It is desperately painful to see
people die without having done anything to deserve it, and yet this
is how lives end nearly always. We get old or we dont, we get
cancer, we starve, we are battered, we get on a plane thinking were
going home but never make it. There are blessings and wonders and horrific
bad luck and no guarantees. We like to pretend life is different from
that, more like a game we can actually win with the right strategy,
but it isnt. And, yes, its the worst thing thats
happened, but only this week. Two years ago, an earthquake in Turkey
people in a day, babies and mothers and businessmen, and not one of
them did a thing to cause it. The November before that, a hurricane
hit Honduras and Nicaragua and killed even more, buried whole villages
and erased family lines and even now, people wake up there empty-handed.
Which end of the world shall we talk about? Sixty years ago, Japanese
airplanes bombed Navy boys who were sleeping on ships in gentle Pacific
waters. Three and a half years later, American planes bombed a plaza
in Japan where men and women were going to work, where schoolchildren
were playing, and more humans died at once than anyone thought possible.
Seventy thousand in a minute. Imagine. Then twice that many more, slowly,
from the inside.
There are no worst days, it seems. Ten years ago, early on a January
morning, bombs rained down from the sky and caused great buildings
the city of Baghdad to fall downhotels, hospitals, palaces, buildings
with mothers and soldiers insideand here in the place I want to
love best, I had to watch people cheering about it. In Baghdad, survivors
shook their fists at the sky and said the word evil. When
many lives are lost all at once, people gather together and say words
like heinous and honor and revenge,
presuming to make this awful moment stand apart somehow from the ways
people die a little each day from sickness or hunger. They raise up
their compatriots lives to a sacred placewe do this, all
of us who are humanthinking our own citizens to be more worthy
of grief and less willingly risked than lives on other soil. But broken
hearts are not mended in this ceremony, because, really, every life
that ends is utterly its own eventand also in some way its
the same as all others, a light going out that ached to burn longer.
Even if you never had the chance to love the light thats gone,
you miss it. You should. You bear this world and everything thats
wrong with it by holding life still precious, each time, and starting
And those children dancing in the street? That is the hardest question.
We would rather discuss trails of evidence and whom to stamp out, even
the size and shape of the cage we might put ourselves in to stay safe,
than to mention the fact that our nation is not universally beloved;
we are also despised. And not just by The Terrorist, that
lone, deranged non-man in a bad photograph whose opinion we can clearly
dismiss, but by ordinary people in many lands. Even by little boyswhole
towns full of them it looked likejumping for joy in school shoes
and pilled woolen sweaters.
There are a hundred ways to be a good citizen, and one of them is to
look finally at the things we dont want to see. In a week of terrifying
events, here is one awful, true thing that hasnt much been mentioned:
Some people believe our country needed to learn how to hurt in this
new way. This is such a large lesson, so hatefully, wrongfully taught,
but many people before us have learned honest truths from wrongful deaths.
It still may be within our capacity of mercy to say this much is true:
We didnt really understand how it felt when citizens were buried
alive in Turkey or Nicaragua or Hiroshima. Or that night in Baghdad.
And we havent cared enough for the particular brothers and mothers
taken down a limb or a life at a time, for such a span of years, that
those little, briefly jubilant boys have grown up with twisted hearts.
How could we keep raining down bombs and selling weapons, if we had?
How can our president still use that word attack so casually,
like a move in a checker game, now that we have awakened to see that
word in our own newspapers, used like this: Attack on America.
Surely, the whole world grieves for us right now. And surely it also
hopes we might have learned, from the taste of our own blood, that every
war is both won and lost, and that loss is a pure, high note of anguish
like a mother singing to any empty bed. The mortal citizens of a planet
are praying right now that we will bear in mind, better than ever before,
that no kind of bomb ever built will extinguish hatred.
Will this happen to me? is the wrong question, Im
sad to say. It always was.
Barbara Kingsolver is an essayist and author of numerous novels
including The Poisonwood Bible (HarperPerennial Library). Her
most recent novel is Prodigal Summer (HarperCollins). She lives in Tucson,
AZ. This article is reprinted with kind permission from the author.