Rubbernecking

from the Boston Globe

from the Boston Globe

It is fashionable to express contempt for those who drive past an accident and slow down to look. According to the critics, rubbernecking signifies a prurient interest in the misfortunes of others, a fundamental and irresistible inhumanity automatically triggered by the prospect of blood, gore, and emotional wreckage. The same principle applies to other varieties of voyeurism activated by celebrity meltdowns, tell-all memoirs, sexual indiscretions, mass tragedies, noble sacrifices, and spectacular acts of strength and courage. If we were a better species, not so prone to viewing destruction and exposure as entertainment, so the story goes, our curiosity would not be so much on display.

Personally, I’m not convinced that our human interest in calamity (and calamity barely averted) stems from something sordid that sprouts from the brickwork of civilization. In a work of literature, captivation begins where good luck runs out, and we attribute the burning compulsion to turn the page to curiosity or a search for meaning rather than bad character. When disaster hits bricks-and-mortar reality, though, the same impulse seems outré. If the medium is the message, then Twitter, facebook, Reddit, and the blogosphere seem to lead us towards the worst of both fiction and reality, where facts and meaning are equally elusive.

Yes, I am talking about the Boston Marathon bombings.

When I see a car accident, I always, always look. I am not ashamed of looking. I want to know two things: Is it someone I know? and Are the victims okay? I do not seek the frisson of adrenaline rush that comes from contorted metal or imagining something worse behind the ambulances and fire trucks. In a work study job cataloguing historical photos when I was an undergraduate, police photos of local car crashes comprised a good portion of the collection, but I couldn’t bear to look at them; and in high school Driver’s Ed, when we were forced to watch several editions of the car-crash scare series Red Asphalt, I became so terrified I would kill someone that once I finally got my license I didn’t want to drive. In other words, I am looking for reassurance, not a cheap thrill at someone else’s expense.

I think that something similar happens when someone seemingly “normal”—or at least normal enough—commits a large-scale atrocity. Some people complain that we are more interested in the perpetrators than in the victims, who are more deserving of media attention. But, to me (and, I suspect, to others), the victims’ role is not nearly as frightening as the perpetrators’. Certain horrific acts, like what took place at the Boston Marathon, or Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Tuscon, make us seek answers to our most terrifying questions: Who could be capable of such a thing? Could I? Could someone I know? Would I recognize such a person? How does someone make the decision to become a terrorist? Could he have been stopped?

At least from the preliminary reports, both the Boston Marathon bombers turned to violence in response to ordinary human pain: parents’ divorce, immigration, a best friend’s murder. The evidently more volatile brother, who already felt out of place in the United States, lost the possibility of citizenship when he committed domestic violence, and, in response, threw away his own humanity to retaliate with terrorism. He went to Bunker Hill Community College (where I have colleagues), and then dropped out while immigrants with similar problems kept going. The younger brother, the one almost universally described as warm, kind, and popular, bafflingly went along with his brother’s plans—why?

Peter Young Hoffmeister, a high school teacher and former Huffington Post blogger, lost his HuffPost blogging gig when he submitted a post recounting his past as an angry, lonely, gun-obsessed young man. After being expelled for carrying a loaded, stolen handgun to high school, he got kicked out of two more schools before “the support of some incredible adults” and an outdoor program for troubled teens inspired him to straighten out. Compassion saves, at least sometimes. Maybe there will always be Loughners and Holmeses who spiral out of reach, but on the other side there are also Hoffmeisters who force us to ask, Couldn’t something have been done?

I have noticed that it’s much easier to throw around the “evil” label, to dehumanize, to call for the torture and death of the “monsters,” than to ask such questions—at least judging by the talk shows, media rhetoric, and inflammatory facebook posts that have rippled through my feed the past few days. Now that the victims are maimed or dead, it’s too late for compassion to make a difference in the outcome, but to look for reasons is to acknowledge that there might have been a moment, or even moments, when someone might have intervened, or some time when a few kind words might have helped prevent so many worlds from breaking.

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I Should Be Scared of You

I am not a particularly fearless person. Every day, I am scared of about 1,307 things, most of them too embarrassing and irrelevant to list. Most of the time, my fears seem invisible to others. Maybe everyone else is the same way, and we’re all running around thinking we’re the only ones freaking out. I only know that when I look around me, I feel like Jell-O in a world of hard candy.

But, mysteriously, there are a number of things that – objectively speaking – should get to me more than they do. I am a small woman, five feet tall in heels, not particularly agile or athletic, and yet my friends frequently seem more concerned for my safety than I am. Often they quiz me about why I am inappropriately blasé about crime (or, for that matter, about occasionally having students in class who are most likely armed). I try to explain that if someone attacks me, it will be terrible, but if I worry needlessly about being attacked, every minute will be terrible.

The crazy thing is that I am much more afraid of things that, on the face of it, are not especially hazardous. For example, I am more scared that my writing will bore a reader than I am that someone will assault me. Fear is capricious – but so is danger.

A case in point: After I finished my undergraduate degree, I moved to Seattle, dutifully choosing a neighborhood by quizzing people on which part of town was safest. I landed in a building constructed the same year as the Space Needle, complete with Jetson’s-type angles and a bright green shag carpet that turned out to be swarming with fleas. I could walk to the grocery store, a bookstore, and an espresso shop whose proprietor was the first human being I met in Seattle willing to explain the difference between coffee and espresso.

The apartments in my building surrounded a courtyard with an assortment of mistreated rhododendrons. Down the breezeway, an elderly couple’s apartment leached a thick, boiled-cabbagey smell every night, evidently cooked up by a nervous grandmotherly retiree in a house dress. I made friends with a dissipated twenty-something disk jockey across the courtyard and an artist who spent every few evenings spray painting ugly colors onto huge canvases.

I spent part of my first grown-up paycheck on a futon and frame. When the delivery man arrived, the cabbage husband lurched up to us, howling so loudly that I was a drug dealer that his voice echoed through the courtyard and roused my neighbors. His wife darted out of their apartment, pulling his arm and begging him to come back inside. Just feet from my open doorway, in full view of everyone home on a Saturday and under a clear blue sky, he started to hit and shove her.

If you’d asked me before that moment whether I was a runner or a fighter, I would have said “Runner,” without question. But the first words out of my mouth were to his wife: “Do you want to come in?”

“No,” she quavered. “Just call the police!”

The police, when I called, showed little interest in the incident. That was, until the elderly gentleman returned with a rifle, intending to shoot me. I cowered inside my apartment with the futon delivery man, who told me with authority that in battle one must not give in to cowardice. He looked like he knew.

After the police dragged Mr. Cabbage to the local hospital to sober up and then released him without charge, after my landlord told me that my next-door neighbor had overdosed the night after I moved in and implied that I was responsible, after I complained about the gun and he said, “Well, we never had any trouble till you came”: after all that, terror set in.

The unfair accusations of being a troublemaker and a drug dealer had even more impact on me than the threat of violence. Even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, I felt ashamed and afraid of what might happen when Mr. Cabbage went on another bender. I found an apartment on Capitol Hill, the fun part of town people had told me to avoid, reasoning that since safety had been such a bust, I might as well try risk. (For the record, I felt perfectly safe on Capitol Hill when I lived there.) Until I moved, though, I had to walk past the cabbage apartment to get to the laundry room, and each time I felt like a horror-movie heroine about to buy the farm.

Nevertheless, I discovered that whether I felt courage or fear didn’t matter much in the actual moment of danger. A few months later, another menace appeared in the guise of three men harassing a woman at a bus stop, and my instinct, again, was to come to her aid. Who was I, this person who couldn’t stand in a crowded bus without feeling claustrophobic, but would speak sharply to a group of malingerers twice her size? What else might she be capable of battling?

Maybe everything. Maybe nothing. I was surprised by my own relative courage, and in the future I am just as likely to be surprised by my own cowardice. The tides of bravery and fear wash over me in precarious balance, and I have only moments to surface or sink. If I sometimes act a little cavalier about some of the risks of living in a big city, it’s only because both possibilities seem unthinkable and unpredictable, with barely a sliver of difference between worry and disregard.