When Tragedy Strikes, Nation Becomes Neighborhood


By Leonard Fein

Published September 19, 2011.
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Prompted by the 9/11 commemoration, I turned to what I wrote several days after that terrible time. I don’t make a habit of reprinting myself, but these words seem to me particularly apposite.

At 8 o’clock on the morning of this last June 3, less than two days after the suicide bombing of the Dolphinairum disco club in Tel Aviv, the hourly Israeli national radio news broadcast consisted, in its entirety, of a reading of the names of the 21 young victims and the times and the places of their funerals. Years earlier, I’d written that “Israel is a neighborhood pretending to be a country,” and here was more poignant confirmation than I’d ever dreamed.

Later in the month, I spent some time with the Ofner family at their home in Tivon, not far from Haifa. Their son had been among the 73 soldiers killed in a horrendous helicopter crash some five years earlier. The story they told me of what happened next once again confirmed the Israel-as-neighborhood perception: On the day after their son was killed, his girlfriend called to say that she had a number of his letters, and that she thought the parents would want to have them. They did, of course, and later that day the father drove over to pick up the letters, placing them in a briefcase. Not long thereafter, the briefcase was stolen from Mr. Ofner’s car. The Israeli press, searching for all manner of detail in the wake of the helicopter crash, reported the theft, and the next morning, hundreds of the Ofner neighbors showed up to help search for the missing briefcase and its precious content. Mirabile dictu, they found it in a wadi not far from town. But the thief, apparently frustrated to find nothing but letters, had torched the briefcase – and that fact, too, was reported in the press. That very day, the Ofners received a call from one of Israel’s leading museums: “We know something about dealing with scorched manuscripts. Perhaps you will let us try?”

And the Ofners then showed me the blue velvet box that rests on a glass shelf in their living room, inside of which, each carefully mounted, there are four plainly scorched fragments from their son’s letters, looking for all the world like remnants from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

And now we learn: In the wake of so horrendous a tragedy, our own enormous country becomes, at least for the moment, a neighborhood. That realization dawned on me as early as Tuesday afternoon, just hours after the collapse of the Twin Towers. Moving about Boston in my car, errands here and there, I found myself driving more courteously than usual. (A friend reminds me that in Israel, during the week following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, there were no traffic fatalities.) And later, offering thanks or commiseration, as warranted, more emphatically than usual. And then the stories began to trickle in, then stream, the stories of the kindnesses of strangers in New York City: The people who stood outside their apartment buildings offering water to the thousands who were trekking from Manhattan back to their homes in Brooklyn; the cobbler who gave the trekkers all the sneakers he had in order to ease their unfamiliar journey; the long, long lines of would-be blood donors; the countless volunteers, some from as far away as North Carolina, who joined in the grim work of clearing debris and searching for bodies and body parts; the taxis that removed their back seats to make space to transport the wounded; the interpersonal patience in a city that typically takes pride in its famed impatience. And the nationwide empathy, as expressed in massive donations to funds for the survivors and to the Red Cross, in endless prayer groups, all this for a city most Americans have traditionally loved to hate, or, at the least, mock.

A country, suddenly rendered a neighborhood; a mélange suddenly become a family.

One mourns the dead, not 4,700 nor 10,000 nor any such number, but one, and then another, and then another, plucked with such random cruelty from life, and we can never, we dare never, add the second to the first. The utter vanity of it all benumbs, confounds, and no uprooting of terrorists and terrorism worldwide will lend retroactive meaning to these senseless deaths. Nothing can.

Yet one wishes, somehow, there were a way to extend the suddenly discovered extra measure of kindness, this new exercise of the better angels of our nature, extend it from this extraordinary time into the ordinary time that will soon enough displace it.

But no, that is not quite possible, nor is it reasonable to wish it were. It is entirely proper that the drama and sometime melodrama of death evoke emotions and behaviors that are not generally accessible. I have had sad occasion to consider this matter before; we cannot live daily at the high pitch that tragedy enables, encourages.

Yet here, sickened witnesses to unspeakable evil, knowing more sharply than we have ever had occasion to know before now how utter evil can become, how limitless cruelty can be, courtesy and kindness become, in their own way, acts of defiance. There is no more lasting way of memorializing the dead than to strive for the very kindness to strangers, the empathy, the courtesy, the compassion, the familiness, their murderers denied. Not an easy agenda, by any means – but not, after all, a bad way to start a new year, a new millennium, or even a new day.

[But I am bound to observe that just now, 10 years later, courtesy and kindness seem in shorter supply than ever, both in Israel and in the United States.]

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