That last one clangs like a cymbal in a flute solo. We're Americans; when slapped by suffering, we get practical. We move ahead soberly and briskly, with confidence and resolve. Introspection isn't our style. A call to repentance may even seem cruel, as if it implied that this disaster was our own making. When we can see hard-faced mugshots of killers on TV, we're not confused about who the bad guys are.
Yet there's good spiritual precedent for taking a moment for reflection and assessment in any time of sorrow. The Hebrew scriptures show a consistent pattern: a devastating loss was a signal to repent, turn, and change. That didn't mean that the enemy was "right" or that God liked them better, just that it was time to learn a hard lesson.
A lesson, that is. The Bible wasn't talking about mere punishment. The goal was renewal. As Ezekiel wrote, Jerusalem would fall to forces of sacrilege and terror, but the plan went further. The beloved people of God would be changed. "Thus says the Lord God: I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh."
For us, some of this assessment began instantly and without too much pondering. It was obvious that now was not the most tasteful time to release a Schwartznegger flick about a man avenging the death of his family at the hands of terrorists. Likewise pulled: a hip-hop CD cover that showed the artist about to detonate the World Trade Center. For the past week, entertainment violence has not been included in the category of "general fun." We've had decades of peace and plenty, and the persistent human need for thrills was met by lots of spatter. When the real thing comes, it makes playacting look stupid.
In fact, let's dump entertainment based on insult, loss, and ridicule. Smart-mouthed sitcom kids and their potty-mouthed parents just aren't funny any more, not when families have been ripped to shreds. There used to be other kinds of humor--sheer silliness and absurdity, the Marx Brothers and screwball comedies. Does anybody remember how to do that any more?
The same thing goes for the visual arts. How about this: no more rotting carcasses encased in glass. No more stuff designed merely to shock. We've seen the truly shocking now and it's not a game. Get over the idea that art must be ugly in order to be true. Most generations before us have had the idea that truth was connected to beauty. We're hungry for some beauty now.
And can we stop being ironic? Can we just say what we mean, instead of saying it backwards for the sake of sarcasm? Wouldn't it be refreshing if people were just genuine?
This attitude adjustment is broad, but not deep. Let's go further. Can we do a better job of protecting the innocence of children? It's tragic that even 7-year-old girls are trained to think of themselves as tempting. They deserve better than this. Can we see their purity as something beautiful and precious, and protect it?
Most seriously, I was troubled to realize that the number of victims on Tuesday is not far off from the toll for abortion: the toll, that is, every day. Even those of us who championed legalized abortion never foresaw this. We pictured a few cases of extreme necessity. Instead it's a stream of tiny bodies, thousands of them, every day of the week, month after month, for a couple of dozen years now. You don't have to agree that a fetus is a full human life to be disturbed at this. Suddenly, the loss of any life is tragic. If we learned that the buffalo population, for example, was miscarrying every fourth pregnancy, we'd launch an emergency drive to find out what in their environment was causing such toxic stress. Why can't we do the same for women?
At this point we reach touchy topics, things on which Americans have disagreed for a long time. Perhaps we can agree, though, that something has been out of order, something has been sick, with the way things stand. We'd gotten complacent about it; we'd even taken sneaky pleasure in things ugly and sick because our safe lives were so boring. Maybe this sudden battering will wake us, to lay aside old feuds and work together for the kind of society our nation deserves--something healthy, loving, and fine. If so, we can glean good in the midst of tragedy and crush our enemies' hopes. We can say to them the words of Joseph: "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good."