Tuesday, April 23, 2013

All tragedy is...tragic.

An 8-year-old boy is dead. So are two other race-goers. A young girl lost a limb, as did many others. Mothers and fathers grieve...in Boston, and in foreign nations with strange spellings and unpronounceable names. The anguished wails are no less heart-rending in Chechnyan or Arabic, after all.

I feel bad for all concerned today. I feel bad for the innocent Bostonians, of course. And I feel bad for the two brothers who brought all this on, and for those who love them. Tragedy is tragedy, regardless of who "started it."

Regulars will recognize the path I'm going down, which we've been down several times before. It seems worth restating here, however politically incorrect (if not offensive to some) it may be.


I believe in absolute mechanical determinism. Nothing begins or ends in the moment of its occurrence; everything has a history of antecedent events that made the current event not just likely but inexorable. Which is to say, everything had to happen, and we know this simply because it did. You cannot find a coin in your pocket that didn't get there somehow. And that coin had to be minted, and you had to buy the pants, and wear those pants that day (because your others are at the cleaner's or this pair goes better with your shirt/tie, and so on). Somewhere along the line, perhaps, you had to buy a pizza or pack of gum and get the change back. And why did you buy the pizza? Did you buy the gum because you ate something spicy for breakfast and wanted to freshen your breath? And did you eat the spicy thing because it was leftover from the previous night's dinner, when some friend invited you out for Indian food...? And why did they pick the Indian food? And on and on it goes, an endless regression that begins, literally, with the Big Bang or whatever formative circumstances produced our universe as we know it. This is massively oversimplifiedthe cause-and-effect is never that overt or streamlinedbut you get my drift.

One is reminded of the modern-classic coin-toss scene from No Country for Old Men, above. 

As a thought experiment, try to imagine a world in which things that happen did not necessarily have to happen. Is such randomness possible? Is action without ironclad causation possible? Think about it: If it were, wouldn't our world be a never-ending sequence of bizarre events? Yes, I know that life can be pretty scary and seemingly random as it is, but it is scary and "random" in mostly predictable ways. Men may snap or fall under the thrall of extremism and plant bombs at races, but men do not suddenly morph into giant fanged emus and begin laying waste to the landscape. That doesn't happen because the variables that would conspire to produce such events do not exist.

Similarly, I do not believe that we can think something for literally no reason. No more than a properly functioning computer can perform a totally random operation. Unless something goes amiss in the software or hardware or you hit a wrong keyand those events still have causesthe computer will spit out whatever is programmed in. So too, the universe, known and unknown, is a closed system. Everything that can happen is already built-in, and must happen. The Marathon bombing was in the cards, inexorably, long before the two perpetrators were born. Things that seem "new" or "unexpected" are merely, in fact, products of variables heretofore unknown.

There is no free will.

In this conception of life, then, those brothers were much like a tornado that rolled into Boston and blighted the city. Pawns of the inscrutable forces that interacted to drive them, they had no more control over their murderous actions than does a killer storm. And yetunlike a stormthey have parents and friends who love them. They also have (or had) feelings and hopes of their own, however misguided those feelings and hopes may be to the rest of us. And while parents bury 8-year-old Martin Richard, a Boston hospital holds a young man with a hole in his neck and no future ahead of him who in a way is equally a captive of what he did, necessarily, to others and himself.

Some might say to me (as many have), You can't think that way, Steve, because it negates right and wrong. So? We can't refuse to certify the validity of a concept simply because we don't like its implications for life. I don't like termites, either, but there they are. I didn't like my stroke; it happened anyway, as it was going to since...always. I can't wish it away. And actually, this kind of thinking doesn't negate right and wrong, per sewe may have some idea of what those constructs are, or should be in some idealized world (where we all agree on what's right and what's wrong, which is another hurdle). It's just that we can't always meet that bar, and when we don't, we can't help it. 

It's like the notion of killing in self-defense. Who are we to determine when self-defense is warranted and when it isn't? I think we all, at some level, act continually in self-defense. Consider the battered wife who's been "taking it" from her husabnd for years, and who feels trapped, and who knows that on certain types of nights, like this one, when they watch a movie and he drinks, things will end badly for her. Is it not a form of self-defense if she suddenly, in the middle of the movie, develops an overwhelming dread of what's to come, creeps up behind him and shoots him in the back of the head without warning? Who are you or I to determine when someone else is compelled to act in self-defense? One might argue that all homicide in self-defense, or defense of something...except that we're not always privy to the internal variables that made the action "necessary," so we don't understand it. We call it senseless. 

Perhaps even these brothers felt, and honestly believed, that by attacking the Marathon they were defending themselves or something central to themselves. Maybe we'll never know. Maybe they never knew. Sometimes we are the last people to know and understand the forces that compel us to act. I even feel bad for Charlie Manson, trapped as he is by being Charlie Manson. What must his internal life be like? What a waste.

It's easy for us to avoid pity and compassion by saying that those two young bombers invited their fate, that the older brother brought on his own death by killing others. Deterministically or not, that is true. It's also true that for a civilized society to exist, people who perpetrate such crimes must be punished, separated from the rest of us. Also, the consequences we inflict on them become a scripted part of the universal architecture that may prompt better behavior from others in the future. That should help me deal with the deaths, with the tragedy, with the unfathomable waste, but somehow it doesn't.

Which is why I would amend the famous Steinbeck quote as follows: All of us live in rooms of experience no one else can ever enter. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know you don't approve personal comments, so instead of saying you're insane, I'll say that this post is insane. How's that?