Human Nature: The Tragic Response
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JIM LEHRER: And speaking of human nature, finally tonight, essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers reactions to two human tragedies.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: People are said to show their true and surprising colors when calamity occurs, but I’ve never believed it. I think that people are who they are in the normal moments of repose, and that calamity can more often distort character than reveal it. Yet the events in Littleton, Colorado, and Oklahoma City suggest that people can, in fact, remain constant, calamity or no calamity, and that when something goes terribly wrong, it only makes clear who they’ve been all along. What was heartening in the otherwise heartbreaking news from Littleton and Oklahoma City was that most people are decent, intelligent, fair-minded, sympathetic, generous to others, equipped with a perspective that allows them to grasp the larger pictures; in short, altogether okay. Nearly everyone who came into view as a result of the Littleton killings was hugely impressive. The parents of the families of victims of the killings were brave and clearheaded within their visible, unbearable pain.
SPOKESMAN: It is time for change. It is time for the N.R.A. and us to change our agenda. Thank you very much.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The father of Daniel Mauser, one of the boys killed, spoke forcefully at a protest rally against the N.R.A. meeting in Denver, but without unreasonable passion, and when he later appeared on TV, his anger was wholly rational. He made a meticulous distinction between what he felt was the N.R.A.’s indirect responsibility for the killings and anything more heated. He spoke of giving fair and judicious treatment to the man who sold the killers their guns.
Similarly, the family of Rachel Joy Scott appeared and spoke both grimly and sympathetically of the parents of the killers, and Rachel’s younger brother, Craig, appeared with Michael Shoels, father of another murdered boy, Isaiah, each holding onto the other in gestures of quiet mutual kindness.
In Oklahoma City, there was more of the same after the tornado. People who had not lost their houses were shown taking in those who did, people who had lost everything spoke with a normal mixture of shock, sorrow, and resignation. A man who had been carried 400 yards by the winds was level-headedly grateful to be alive. Another who had been caught in the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing refused to make an easy melodramatic statement about irony or fate.
Those in hospitals, and whose children were also hospitalized, spoke warily, quite sensibly afraid of starting over. Those who had lost family spoke humanly of grief. One would wish, of course, that no disasters had occurred in the first place to bring these people and their private lives before the country’s attention. And it’s often unseemly that people are able to discuss their troubles before a camera so readily.
Yet, in these cases, however, something more was revealed than mere familiarity with TV. Exposed by devastation, these people were witnesses to the stronger stuff of the species. External nature and the darkest holes of human nature had brought them forward, where better natures prevailed. They were not — as usually happens — broken down into categories that bear simpleminded expectations. When people are shown as members of striking unions, political parties, ethnic groups, and so forth, they behave as special interests: Women for women, policemen for policemen, victims for victims, and on and on. But here, in these two great sadnesses, people simply behaved like people, moderate in judgment, giving in attitude, sensible when nothing around them made any sense.
The rap against people generally, as evolving animals, is that we have yet to learn to get along in groups. It’s evident in wars and riots. It’s evident at soccer games. But once in a while, it is encouraging to see that we may have a promising foundation for our evolution after all.
BOY SINGING: Columbine, flower bloom tender thee I sing to you -
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Hell in two places cause people to respond with clarity and strength, qualities which they could not have shown had they not been there all along in the days before the boy killers opened fire and when Oklahoma City was as quiet as a mind.
BOY SINGING: Peace will come to you in time Columbine, friend of mine
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I’m Roger Rosenblatt.