Quintessence of Dust
Last night, thanks to the cleverness and curiosity of internet geeks, my husband and I were able to listen for about three hours to Boston police scanners—live-streamed over the internet—during the operation that captured the Boston bombing suspect. We knew, before it was broadcast on the TV news shows, that he was hiding in a boat parked in a driveway on Franklin Street. I can tell you that the words “the suspect is in custody” were announced on the police scanner at 8:42 p.m. EST.
We had the TV on, too, but muted. We saw the images of police vehicles and ambulances gathered in the streets of Watertown, Massachusetts, with hundreds of law enforcement people standing around for hours, watching and waiting. We didn’t have to listen, though, to the news show hosts chattering away to fill the wait time, conveying no actual information and interviewing whatever tangentially relevant guest they could get on the phone. Instead we heard the police doing their job. It was fascinating.
What impressed me most was the careful competence of the Watertown, Boston, and state police; the FBI; and the various bomb squads, special ops, K-9 units, hostage rescue teams, EMTs, and firefighters. It took a long time to get the guy because they were thinking through every possibility—does he have bombs? could he blow up the boat’s gas tank? if there’s a firefight, would all our guys be out of the line of fire? should we use the FBI dog or the Boston police dog if he runs? We didn’t hear them ask these questions, but we could surmise them from the communications. We heard the people on the ground call for light from the helicopters to check for movement in the boat. We heard them report the use of the flash-bang to stun the guy. They communicated with each other, thought of possible scenarios, relied on their training. They were very, very patient because they had to get it right.
After it was over, before we started seeing video on TV of the law enforcement people leaving Watertown to the grateful cheers of residents—an impromptu small-town parade, complete with people waving American flags—we heard the various units congratulating each other over police radio. “Great job, everyone.” “High fives all around.” “You guys were awesome.” Even from 800 miles away, I felt grateful, too, for all these people in high-stakes jobs doing their work well, behaving with professionalism and care, serving others.
Of course, the law enforcement people were only part of the heartening side of this story. Many people acted generously and heroically in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. The FBI actually crowd-sourced the suspect identification project, and within hours they had identified the bombers. (Excuse me: alleged bombers.) The people of Watertown, though terrified, cooperated with police and stayed in lock-down for about 24 hours. So many people honored the basic social contract of being good citizens, helping others—so much decency, common sense, and care.
What do I make, then, of the dark discouragement that has been on my mind most of this week? A fertilizer factory explosion in Texas killed 14 people and wounded 200, with 60 still missing. Congress utterly failed to pass even the easiest measure in a series of proposed new gun laws, the background checks that a huge majority of Americans favor. A This American Life episode from a few weeks ago described in heartbreaking detail how a high school in South Chicago manages to struggle through the days when they lose, as a matter of course, several students per year to neighborhood gun violence.
One more. I had the privilege last weekend of attending the premier of my colleague Stephanie Sandberg’s new play, Grains of Hope. Stephanie interviewed over a hundred refugees and refugee advocates living the Grand Rapids area and, with her students, she created an inspiring play to tell their stories. All the words in the play come directly from the interviews. Since I’ve been studying immigration issues with my own students all semester, I knew these stories, but seeing them performed was a visceral reminder of the terror and fear from which many of them come. In many places in the world, the social contract has collapsed completely. Militants arrest people randomly in the middle of the night, people are forced into refugee camps, boys are brainwashed into rogue militias, women are captured and gang-raped. Decency and good will are overwhelmed by evil and rage. It can happen very quickly.
So today, I don’t know what to make of these contrasts. People can be so desperately evil; people can be so bravely good.
I could “explain” it theologically. I know the terms, I know the routine. But right now, the theological explanations seem like sticks we throw helplessly at a terrible mystery.
I wondered, as we listened to the police scanner live-feed, what the young man in Watertown was thinking as he lay in that boat for hours. For the last two of those hours, he was surrounded by the full-on power of just about every law enforcement outfit in New England. He had to know there was no way out. Did he feel remorse? Was he pondering the moral quandary of his existential state? Was he balanced on that narrow line—so dangerously narrow—between our darkest impulses and our better selves, thinking perhaps of the violent history of his Chechen heritage, contrasting that with the cheerful complacency of decent Americans among whom he had lived for many years? Was he writhing in the grip of some warped view of reality in which he was a hero, surrounded by oppressive tyrants? Or was he just too exhausted and injured to think? We may never know.
I wonder: how does God tolerate, let alone love, the exasperating contradiction of the human race?