Monday, May 6, 2013

Stranger than fiction...

As one who hails from Boston, MA...

I have very little to convey of our city's recent few days in the national spotlight.  I was at work, sitting in front of a lap-top in a quiet office when a co-worker said she'd heard about the Marathon explosions on Twitter.  (I'd heard about 9/11 in much the same way.) The next day, I get a robo-call from the city telling me the subway has been shut down.  As it slowly sank in that, for all intents and purposes, the city itself had been shut down, it felt increasingly surreal.

Like a modern-day version of some cheesey old western; the whole town shuts down, everybody locked in their homes, the curtains drawn as two gun fighters meet under the noon-day sun in the middle of a dusty street.  Or, one of those Grade B action movies complete with car chases, gun play and fleeing desperadoes throwing bombs at pursuing cop cars.  But, this was reality (whatever that is.)  It was hard to believe two punks with a few guns and home-made bombs could have the power to shut down a whole city.  An over-reaction on the part of city government, perhaps.  Whether it's likely to encourage or discourage such terrorist exploits in future, only time will tell.

And, as always, we take what we can, or need to, from the aftermath.  There was a celebratory mood in Boston after the sole surviving bomber had been captured.  It was as if we'd won a sporting event or something.  "Boston Strong" became our mantra of the moment.  We'd weathered the storm and come out stronger.  Okay.  We locked ourselves in our apartments for a whole day and proved a city this size could survive an attack by two guys.  Forgive me if I fail to see how we've earned this degree of self-congratulation. It seems at times like this we almost need explosions of madness like this to make ourselves feel stronger.

Crazy perhaps, but then so is our seemingly insatiable fascination with evil, as reflected in popular fiction.  We love these kooky police procedurals featuring psychologically disturbed FBI agents and profilers matching wits with ridiculously lurid serial killers, evil geniuses who are about as close to reality as Batman villains.  The elaborate artistry of fictional serial killers...the human butterfly sculptures of Hannibal Lecter, the forest gardens of buried corpses with their hands held aloft as if in greeting, naked women impaled on moose antlers.  A guy with an Edgar Allan Poe fixation who somehow brainwashes a woman into writing his name over every inch of her body and then fatally stabbing herself through the eye in public.  (We're a deeply sick culture.)

Quite apart from the obvious (and pathetically adolescent) obsession with misogynistic violence, maybe the real reason we create fictional villains out of the darkest parts of the frustrated male psyche and then write stories in which their grotesque and intricate puzzles are unraveled by profilers and ingenious police shrinks is because we take comfort in the fantasy that evil can actually be dissected, analyzed, understood and anticipated.  In fiction, the super criminals and serial killers are always predictable by virtue of their brilliance and complexity.

In real life, evil is much more primal, instinctive and simple minded.  Or, at least more opaque.  We really don't have a clue what makes seemingly normal, well-adjusted, educated, intelligent men hijack an airliner on a suicide run into a sky scraper in the belief that 70 virgins await them in paradise.  Or, what makes one troubled young man out of thousands pick up an automatic weapon (legally obtained, BTW) and shoot up a school, butchering countless people, children included.  Or, what makes two brothers emigrate halfway round the world for a clumsy, haphazard rampage of random violence, supposedly in the belief that God wants them to.

Maybe we obsess over these random explosions of violence because they divert our attention from the larger patterns of sane, organized mass murder that have been going on since the dawn of time.  The sane among us have for centuries marched train by train like lemmings into gun fire.  As the world has changed and evolved, warfare has changed with it.  Gone are the days of declared wars between nation states; wars with clear objectives, beginnings and ends.  Now, civilization seems to be degenerating into an Orwellian nightmare of perpetual war, complete with rocket bombs that kill civilians anywhere and everywhere, both the Geneva Convention and due process of criminal law be damned.  No rules.  Torture becomes an acceptable, even laudable part of national security, and this shapes our culture.  As I sit here typing this, I'm watching a television show in which the heroes (FBI agents) brutally torture information out of a prisoner, blood streaming from his mouth as they finally wrench the truth from him.  (Oops...they just shot him dead.)  The villain they're hunting is a madman; he lives in his own private reality.  But, what reality are we creating for ourselves?

We won't let go of our guns or our predator drones or our nukes.  But, we will let go of our civil rights.  We will incarcerate, institutionalize, shock, water board, or otherwise torture anyone we decide might be dangerous.  But, that's okay:  We're the sane ones.

As a fiction writer, I create some pretty crazy landscapes, wacky worlds and bloody-handed monsters.  A lot of it is directly inspired by the reality we all see on the news daily.  And, most of it really can't hold a candle to the real thing.

Tom Olbert (author:  "Long Haul")

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