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Jewish World Review Sept. 27 1999/ 17 Tishrei, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Must we wait for the next massacre? -- WHEN BABE RUTH died, his body was put in an open coffin at Yankee stadium for fans to file past to pay their last respects. A young boy, not yet 10, was lifted by his dad to see the great Babe. He dropped a baseball inside the coffin inscribed with three little words: "Safe at home."

What a remarkably fitting phrase for the athlete who had walked, run and slid into home plate so many times for so many years. This reflected the wonderfully unifying symbol of baseball, the national sport that made us all feel "safe at home."

But more than that, it celebrated the faith that in death all of G-d's children will be "safe at home."

Babe Ruth was a man of contrasts, both kind and crude. But more important than the man was the mythology. If half the stories about him are true, he was not only a great athlete but a generous man who could hit a home run for a dying child, pointing to the fence where he intended to send the ball flying.

Everybody knew the Babe's shortcomings, his expansive and insatiable appetites for women, booze and food. But more important to the fans of the man was that unifying mythology he nurtured in making Americans feel safe at home.

Such reflections were spurred by a film documentary of the Babe shown on HBO in the days after seven young Christians were killed by a madman in a Baptist church in Fort Worth. Americans can no longer feel safe at home, neither in their house nor in G-d's house. The roster of terrifying events lengthens with the shootings at schools in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Colorado, in a prayer meeting in Kentucky, a preschool nursery, in a synagogue in Los Angeles, at a workplace in Atlanta.

The random acts of crazy people undercut the secure feelings we have always had at school, church, synagogue and work -- our home plates. Unifying mythologies are hard to come by. They are quickly deconstructed by inexplicable violence.

A New York Times reporter sat outside a blood bank in Fort Worth where men and women sat around seeking meaning in the senseless deaths as they waited to do the one thing they could do to help the surviving victims in the hospital. Giving blood gave them an opportunity to show generosity, the random act of kindness.

What was startling in their conversations was the lack of mindless glibness in describing easy scapegoats. No one blamed guns, not in Texas. In fact, these Texans had grown up with guns in their houses and they understood how such a weapon required respect, humility and responsibility.

They were more likely to consider the torn fabric of social life. They lamented the loss of community. One woman who had lived in the same neighborhood for 23 years noted how people no longer know their neighbors. It was not until she invited a neighbor over for dinner that she learned the woman's husband and daughter were seriously ill.

Many neighbors of the gunman spoke about his weird behavior. Teen-agers called him "Crazy Larry." But what was anybody to do? One young man said the tragedy emphasizes that "we're not safe anywhere."

In so many neighborhoods across this big and wonderful country, nobody is home during the day. It's considerably more difficult to be neighborly after a long day's work. Gone is the front porch and the busybody aunt who notices strangers who come to the street, and who keeps track of what the neighbor's kids are doing.

Gone too is the sense of belonging extended to those we now call "dysfunctional," the man that people in small towns used to call the "village idiot." Such weirdos got absorbed, if only at the margins, into community life. Today they're ignored and further alienated. The Fort Worth gunman, described by his family as a paranoid schizophrenic, was ignored and further alienated. It's possible there was nothing anybody could have done for him until he murdered someone. But it makes you wonder.

"There seems to be a wave of evil passing through America," a saddened Gov. George W. Bush said. "We as a society can pass laws and hold people accountable for the decisions they make, but our hopes and prayers have got to be that there is more love in society." This, it seems to me, struck the proper note, by a leader confronting an evil that can't be legislated away nor understood with the fullness of intellect.

The Jewish admonition of "love thy neighbor" is not a bad place to start.


09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate