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Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2002/ 18 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Suzanne Fields

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No islands left in a global world | Tribune Media Services The sniper strikes in Washington and its environs but the impact is felt far away. Sudden and violent death, delivered at random, strikes fear in everyone. The .223-caliber bullets from out of the dark, cutting down a man in the parking lot at a steakhouse in Virginia, then a bus driver waiting for commuters in Maryland, mesmerizes audiences in distant points of the world.

The newspapers and television stations juxtapose this retail death with the words and pictures of a bus blown up by suicide terrorists in Israel, and we look with horror at the flaming bus, unable to put out of our minds the agony of the passengers who died that most awful of awful deaths. Unlike the retail terror in Washington, where horror is compounded with frustration because we don't know the authors of the evil, there is no mystery in Israel. Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian terrorist organization, was pleased to take "credit" for the massacre.

The politics of process (if not peace) surrounds tragedy in the Middle East, but in Washington there is only mystery as the experts draw their psychological portraits. One television commentator, with the enthusiasm of bad taste, even wrote a gushing letter to the "Son of Sam," seeking his insights. (With more taste than his interlocutor, he declined to get into the discussion.) But it's an election year, so the unknown sniper enters the debate over gun control, law and order.

The pundits search for references to find even a modicum of human understanding for insights into such evil. Some of us survey the literature for familiar poetic and philosophical perceptions that are not the last word, but may offer contemplative calm.

David Gelernter, writing in The Wall Street Journal, recalls that famous line of John Donne in the 17th century, once committed to memory by every school boy and girl: "No man is an island." But sometimes he is. He observes that a serial killer may well be an island, a loner at large beyond the boundaries of civilization as we know it.

Daniel Henninger of the Journal recalls a PBS television series of three decades ago. Sir Kenneth Clark of "Civilization" narrated a wonderfully intelligent history of the art and culture of the West, the creative side of society that transcended the brute nature in man. Great art and great books reflect man in a myriad of images that identify the better angels and nastier devils of our nature, mediating the inevitable conflicts between good and evil. We are forced to take sides as we reflect on the unknowable.

We play a perverse parlor game, trying to unravel the mystery sniper. Is he an embittered Muslim? A benighted Christian, a warped Jew? The French government sent a warning that an accomplished sharpshooter has deserted from its army and is believed to be "vacationing" in North America. But will it make a difference whether the sniper is black, white, swarthy, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, or whether he's from Israel, Palestine, Cuba, Russia, France or North Korea?

Of course it will. We will naturally seek explanations and generalizations in culture and color, race and religion. But unless there is a strong political motivation, his background is considerably less significant than his personal malevolence and/or psychopathology. There really isn't a fundamental moral difference, it seems to me, between a loner killing innocents to avenge society's slights real or imagined, and a suicide bomber killing innocents on a bus to become a martyr, anticipating an excess of virgins in the next world.

Both lack a cultivated conscience rooted in civilized notions of right and wrong. Suicide bombers may be brainwashed, but they could ask their handlers why they have been chosen for martyrdom, if martyrdom is such a great honor, and their handlers have not. Unhappy childhood or not, the sniper is clearly intelligent, and smart enough to know what he is doing.

Those who died in suburban Maryland and rural Virginia are no less the victims of terrorism than those who died in Bali and who die daily in the Middle East, all the prey of the brutish nature of man. "Any man's death diminishes me," John Donne continued, "because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Kenneth Clark, concluding his celebrated series on "Civilization," was more pragmatic than philosophical: "The dreary fact remains, that, even in the darkest ages, it was institutions that made society work, and if civilization is to survive society must somehow be made to work."

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS