Friday, April 3, 2009

Perspective in Tragedy: Honoring Binghamton and the Rest of Us

This morning the U.S. Department of Labor released its March (un)employment report and, as expected, the numbers were pretty rough, spiking the nation's unemployment rate to 8.5 percent. One amusing aspect of the DOL language--only a dry, bureaucratic government report could pull this one off--was how it described the unemployed as "job losers" (paragraph 4). Even I had to smile. Yes, I am a job loser.

My home page on Internet Explorer is iGoogle, and I subscribe to several news feeds--from the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and the Denver Post--so that, whenever I access the Internet, the latest, greatest and most troublesome flotsam and jetsam from the planet at large are summarized in tweet-sized headlines before my very eyes. As expected, the unemployment figures loomed large in virtually every feed window as I initiated the day's perpetually cheerful and long job search.

That is, until Binghamton.

Fourteen people were shot and killed at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, NY earlier today (as of this writing, the shooter is "possibly" included in those statistics, according to the New York Times) with several others injured, some critically. To the extreme credit of the media, the unemployment figures were suddenly given second billing.

I received my undergraduate degree from Binghamton University in 1994 and, as I read through coverage of today's tragedy, several phrases--Broome County, Johnson City--brought me stirringly back to the early '90s when that was a familiar and an incredibly happy landscape in my life. Coincidentally, I also got a message today, before the shooting occurred, from a Binghamton friend whom I recently reconnected with on Facebook.

Of course, I didn't spend my entire college career there. During my freshman and sophomore years, I studied English at Virginia Tech where Seung-Hui Cho massacred 32 students and teachers (and injured more than 20 others) before killing himself back in the spring of 2007. I studied under some of the same professors as Cho, some of whom were quoted in the national media after the massacre, including Edward Falco, an early mentor.

Fast forward to my years with the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka where our group of volunteers was evacuated early from two years of service because the nation's civil war was getting increasingly violent. A suicide bomber detonated himself, killing 17 other people less than two miles from my home in the city of Kandy. The city almost rioted and, over the course of the following weeks, my walk to work as a teacher meant navigating through groups of gun-toting and very dour-looking soldiers who'd been mobilized to either keep watch over suspicious Tamil homes and businesses, or to protect those Tamils from being attacked by furious Sinhalese mobs.

But because the Peace Corps is so concerned about the volunteers' safety, they took us out of Sri Lanka early and I found myself instead working for the organization in a much safer place--the World Trade Center in New York City. No, I wasn't there during 9/11, I had by that unforgettable date moved on to another office job two blocks from the White House.

I hope Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper doesn't read this blog post. He may ask me, rather politely of course, to please leave his city.

How does one make sense of the proximity to so much violence? Is this blog post solipsistic and self-indulgent? Yes, probably. I mean, what about the Sri Lankans themselves who have been suffering from the civil war since 1983? What about Palestinians who have been living in refugee camps for half a century? A friend of mine from Binghamton is Serbian and his country wasn't exactly having an easy time of it when we were hanging out together in the early 1990s. Most importantly, what about those who are no longer with us simply because of today's tragedy in Binghamton or any of the other events mentioned above?

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who's been amusedly hard on President Obama of late, pointed out in a recent New York Times editorial that, for the poor, today's economic downturn literally is an event that could precipitate a struggle between life and death. He's correct and, in one sense, I would argue this represents perhaps the worst tragedy of all since such a perpetually marginalized group will not even enjoy the benefit of a national media spotlight during their final downfall. What did T. S. Eliot say in The Hollow Men?: "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. "

One of my most powerful memories from Sri Lanka was in the final days of training, just before the 16 of us were to be sworn in as volunteers. A group of Buddhist monks, bald, scary-looking and swaddled in saffron robes, was called upon to deliver a blessing upon this scraggly, smelly group of Americans. As they sat regally in cushioned chairs behind the only table in the room (we, of course, were uncomfortably crouching and complaining about it on the floor), the monks quietly unspooled a ball of thread and asked each of us to press our fingers to a small piece of it. The unspooled thread started with one monk, passed among the volunteers, and ended with another monk at the far end of the table. Throughout the blessing--a chant in Pali, the ancient language of Buddha--it was hard not to feel connected with virtually every being and force in the world. I think that was their intention. Through it all, I kept my eyes closed.

Today's sad events in Binghamton are a powerful reminder. Of what, I won't say, since all it will do is come across like a bad cliche. But it's there anyway. Times are tough right now for millions of people not only in this country but around this world. The economic crisis. The war that is close to ending in Sri Lanka but at the expense of immense human rights abuses. There still is no peace in the Middle East.

I know I am an incredibly lucky man, no matter what my current situation. And in any case, whatever ends up happening, I doubt I'll ever let go of that long piece of thread.