(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, August 20, 2016)
HAMILTON, CANADA ✦ It’s funny how you can give a torch to someone and he’ll light up the world, and give the same torch to someone else and he’ll burn the place down.
It’s like love and hate. They’re both consuming fires, but with different ends. (The ultimate difference is that hate is all-consuming, and, like evil, will eventually consume itself.)
Yes, there must have been a few fluttering heartbeats and sweaty palms and somersaults in the stomachs of those killers as they carried the torch for their causes in this, our summer of hate.
Forty-nine people shot dead in a gay bar in Orlando; 45 bombed to eternity at Istanbul’s airport; 85 mowed down by a truck on a beach on Bastille Day; still in France, a dedicated priest’s throat slashed in a cathedral for the online world to see. These, all inspired (if that’s the right word) by ISIL. Then Munich, where run-of-the-mill, garden-variety disturbed hatred caused a teen to shoot dead nine kids just wanting a burger.
This is the Summer of ‘16, a summer with the largest number of terror deaths since the summer of 9/11. Even from a distance, it can feel personal. The Bastille Day massacre fell on my birthday. As a boy, I lived near Munich. I’ve walked the streets of Istanbul several times.
I even once wept over the news of the day. It was Easter last year when, at a university in Kenya, 148 were killed by al-Shabaab. This, at sunrise, by men who’ll tell you that God is great before they put a bullet in your head.
In response, in neighbouring Uganda, enough expatriates left, including close friends at our university home. My family stayed, a few ivory faces amidst thousands of Africans. It was back in Canada, unpacking it all with someone, when I later wept.
This is it. We’re blood and flesh and nerves, every one of us. (Husbands and fathers, I’m told, often feel the weight of these things more.) This is what we know. The world is a dangerous place. But the world never promised anyone a safe ride while living, or dying, in it. It’s foolish and presumptuous to think otherwise.
This is the good news about the bad news: it unhinges you from false notions and securities. The long tomorrow, eternally speaking, gets more vivid. You realize we’re each a refugee, homeless in a different way, unsettled with even the best of this world.
The other good news is that our era may not be so dangerous after all. No, maybe the times aren’t as dangerous as they’re remarkable for, say, ease of travel or longevity or, yes, peace.
There’s a case to be made that, broadly speaking, war and violent crime is actually down, at least as a percentage of the world’s populace. In his book The Better Angels of our Nature, Harvard professor Stephen Pinker concludes this, that many anxieties over today’s global dangers are anxieties over an illusion.
Believe otherwise and you’ll get off-kilter, distracted, like a one-eyed mule, burdened and stumbling. You’ll be unable to live differently with different relationships and different joys, different and deeper experiences with people who are different than you.
They’re black while you’re white. They’re poor while you’re rich. Gay while you’re straight. Old while you’re young. Muslim while you’re pagan. Or you’re the old, rich, white, gay Muslim. Or Christian. Or whatever.
This is our world. You can pout and refuse to sit at the dinner table with such an eclectic mix. Or you can move alongside someone who’s different from you and pass the salt, be the light.
Look at that torch in Rio where 207 nations and territories have come together to compete, sure, but also to reflect the ongoing human journey.
This is what the haters especially seem to hate, this essence of being a human being, being a mixed bag, really, not unlike a human body.
A body’s individual parts work very differently but, remarkably, in unison. One part does what other parts could never imagine. When a highly-tuned body works in top form, there’s a striking beauty to it. Look at those Olympians.
The haters would blow up that body.
They’ll win some battles but lose the war.