I believe in unaccountable tragedy. Mere days after the anniversary of a major national tragedy, the World Trade Center attack, the town of Laramie and the state of Wyoming will observe the fifth anniversary of the deaths of eight college students in an automobile accident. Eight lives were lost, and, for those who care to count the perpetrator as well, nine young lives were destroyed.
Our local loss was not intentional, and the pepetrator was arrested immediately, for driving a truck down a highway at night while drunk enough to swerve over the center line and hit the van containing the eight. Although formal justice was relatively swift, many of us remain painfully confused about the indirect causes, the social mileiu which cultivated them, and mostly, about what is to be done. We feel the need to take some action, to rectify some error, to exact some compensation. But I believe that, obscured by the devastating losses and glaring culpability, lies an element of tragedy in the classic sense, in which the very harshness of the outcome can be blamed on no one, on nothing but fate. A split-second delay in the swerve, or an offset of inches, would have saved the eight in the van. We are left with a prospect almost too bleak to contemplate– that the deaths of those particular individuals at that particular time was partly bad luck.
We don’t believe in bad luck, or in fate in general. Fate is for uneducated and primitive societies. Fate scares us. Those societies that embrace the notion scare us. We have replaced atavistic wailing and keening with enlightened inquiry and adjudication, generally to our credit. We believe in cause and effect, and the clean determination thereof, and accountability, especially accountability. Although it’s no stretch to doubt that the perpetrator was the only drunken driver on that road that night, proration is impossible. Strict accountability calls for him, only him, to stay in jail endlessly– as if the price could ever be paid. Set against the enormity of the consequences of his actions, his account was bankrupt long ago.
I believe that, should such a tragedy occur to my loved ones, I would also seek cause and blame, down to the tiniest units possible. But our inclination to escape into rationality from the caprices of gods and goddesses deprives us of the eloquence, the poetry, and the ceremony to cope with those caprices when they return in spite of our best efforts. We know that gestures are called for, but we grope in vain for those measures that would comfort the families, while feverishly pursuing civic palliatives– road improvements, lawsuits, stringent blood-alcohol limits. Constructive as these, or other, measures may be, none of them will trump fate or obviate the necessity to confront the most meaningful aspect of such an event, its plain old awfulness. Otherwise, we risk losing the ancient staredown with the moody force that swirls around us.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.