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On the London Bombings
July 07, 2005
This time of year, living within fifteen minutes' brisk walk of Vineyard Haven center is a definite plus. Year-rounders run their in-town errands on good beach days, because when the weather is lousy everyone who would otherwise be at the beach is crawling through downtown Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, or Edgartown in their cars looking for things to buy, do, or eat. This morning was overcast and downright chilly. My writers' group meets for breakfast most Thursdays. Since Bon Go, our regular venue, closed this past winter, we've been trying out various alternatives. Our needs are pretty simple -- decent food, good coffee, not too pricey, adequate seating -- but not all that easy to find on Martha's Vineyard, where restaurants can turn even breakfast (my favorite meal of the day) into an upscale, overpriced ordeal. We've tentatively settled in at the Daily Grind, which offers the additional advantages of parking and picnic tables. It was too cold and blowy to eat outside this morning, though. I should have thrown a jacket on over my T-shirt and cut-offs. Rhodry was more appropriately dressed.
Wendy mentioned the bombs in London's Underground. I hadn't heard yet. Home after doing errands -- inquiring about replacing a favorite earring that I lost en route to Cambridge last Friday; making a bank deposit for a friend who's out of the country for three weeks -- I downloaded e-mail. The bombings had generated some anxious inquiries on my copyediting e-list; it's an international list, and several active participants live in or near London. The Londoners have been checking in to let the rest of us know that they're OK. Words like "horrifying" and "incomprehensible" have been used. Such words appeared frequently in the news stories I skimmed online later.
Horrifying. The violence that human beings do is indeed horrifying. I grieve, I'm disgusted, I think "those poor people," but "horrified" implies surprise, shock, something out of the ordinary. Human beings doing appalling things to other human beings, hand-to-hand or from a distance, is nothing out of the ordinary. I wish I were more horrified.
Incomprehensible. To whom? I have never seriously injured or threatened the life of another human being. I have never been seriously injured or threatened either. But I know enough history to comprehend that terror begets terror begets terror, and that "horrifying" and "incomprehensible" depend on which side you're on and where you pick up the story. In In the Devil's Snare, her exploration of the causes of the Salem witch crisis of the 1690s, Mary Beth Norton evokes the violence of the colonial frontier. Anglos and Wabanaki did appalling things to each other, to women and small children and old people as well as men in arms. Both Anglos and Wabanaki were fighting for their homes and for their future. Who were the terrorists and who the counterterrorists? Who started it? Who's justified? Who won? As Lillian Smith noted, "the winner names the age," and yesterday's terrorists are transformed by victory into today's political leaders.
If tomorrow the government of the United States handed Martha's Vineyard over to another country in settlement of some agreements that my people had no part in making, and if that country immediately moved to restrict the rights, mobility, and safety of my people, I would be horrified. I would find that act "incomprehensible." And I suspect that my ideas about when violence is justified would begin to change.