Nothing Left to Save?


I recently listened to the New Yorker podcast of Tobias Wolff’s “The Night in Question.” In it, a man has to save either his son or a train of strangers, including some real crooks. A brother and a sister also have to choose which versions of themselves and their families they are willing to spare or sacrifice. It’s a classic dilemma, but increasingly, our era seems to have developed a different answer: destroy oneself and others. Save none.

Indeed, the (mass) murder-suicide and suicide-bombing have permeated our world. I read a German article on the Las Vegas shootings that felt compelled to explain that such rampages in the US were like car crashes: they happen as a consequence of our infrastructure and make the news less from rareness than luridness.

Many perpetrators might imagine complete annihilation as the means to some sort of digital immortality or more enticing afterlife. Nonetheless, something greater also appears at work: utter despair. Resentment and entitlement have long motivated human vengeance, but it seems that there used to be a point in saving oneself to fight another day, or at least to die in order to aid one’s allies. Now, however, it often seems that the despair is so great that the attacker accepts in advance that the blow will hardly change the world, so there is no point in surviving, either. Such an individual has no allies, only generalized enemies. Such an individual registers a complaint rather than proposes a solution. That is a pathology of infrastructure, precisely because it has not always been with us.

When I looked back to the domestic terrorism of the 1990s to research Wisecrack, a strange glimmer of hope registered even in desperate acts. The Unabomber hid to prolong his career. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombers or 1993 World Trade Center bombers did not stay in their trucks. They believed themselves able to change the world as well as to exist in that changing world. They may not have wanted to live with pain and anger, but they didn’t necessarily want to die for them, either. I’m hardly advocating for one form of mayhem over another, but what does it means when we lose the desire to save someone?

I’m reminded of a haiku:

The lightning bug blinks
and that is its existence
which it cannot see.

1991…on repeat?

While browsing the Charlottesville public library’s basement book sale, I came across a history of the first Gulf War. Bush was president; Cheney, Powell, and Wolfowitz had leading roles; US troops were in Iraq; Iran sought to defend or extend its influence; etc. I had also recently finished a seminar in post-WWII German drama with Dr. Renate Voris at UVA and kept thinking about her discussion of Benjamin’s angel of history, in which she urged us to consider that when authors turned to historical material, they were often prompted by something in their own present.

1991: Bush was president; Cheney, Powell, and Wolfowitz had leading roles; US troops were in Iraq amid rebellions mainly in the south and north of the country; tensions were high with Iran; the US was concerned with foreign terrorism and foreign wars and would soon be blindsided by domestic bombings; the economy was wobbling.

Enter 2007 and hit repeat.

Was anything different about 1991? Yes.

Spring 1991: Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind were on the way, though Michael Jackson still held great sway. Young adults hesitated to work for large corporations; anyone interested in saving and expressing his soul pursued non-profit employment at worst. American Psycho was about to rattle many nerves. Gays and lesbians could be fired from national intelligence employment for their sexual orientation, as they were deemed more susceptible to blackmail and other security risks. The salary at grade 7, step 6 for federal employment was about $24,000. Georgia (SSR) voted to secede from the USSR, and Germany was riven East and West but on the brink of reunification with Gorbachev’s approval. The Stasi had crumbled. Detlev Rohwedder would be assassinated by the Red Army Faction for supposedly betraying the people in his attempts to help privatize the East Germany economy. Bin Laden wasn’t yet exiled from Saudi Arabia. The president Bush was father, not son. Timothy McVeigh hadn’t yet returned home, and David Koresh was largely unknown, unlike Easy E (Eric Wright) of NWA, who had just joined the Republican Senatorial Inner Circle after donating $12,500 to the party. The Lubavitcher sect in Brooklyn expected the Messiah to arrive by September 9. Kitty Kelley released her unflattering biography of Nancy Reagan. The greenhouse effect was understood in its basic elements, though the ozone hole seemed the more imminent danger. The Tea Party was a historical event in Boston. The US population of 249 million was 7.9% foreign born, higher than it had been in many decades, and the American militia movement was on the rise.

In two weeks, “The Waste Land” as revision/repetition, but before then 1) how do you remember or imagine the 1990s; and 2) how did 2007 compare to 1991?