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.