When Meaning Eludes Us

Martin E. Marty, who teaches the history of American religions at the University of Chicago, has just published "Under God, Indivisible" (University of Chicago Press )

At mid-century, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr accurately called the United States a gadget-filled paradise suspended in a hell of international insecurity. Now, at the century's end, the days of suspension are over. The nation has been dropped into the middle of the insecurities.

The explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island was a terrifying reminder that gadgets can no longer assure security nor oceans protect against insecurity.

The technology that Niebuhr called gadgets cannot eliminate accidents or thwart all terrorists. Airplanes with the best of safety records can go down, picking their victims at random. The mysteries of the causes of their mishaps go unsolved as often as the identity of terrorists remains ever undiscovered.

Families of victims, gathered near New York's Kennedy Airport, in their grief and confusion stand in for the nation at-large. To their puzzlement, they now add frustration and anger. Many became enraged that all the best detection and recovery devices could not quickly produce the knowledge they wanted or the bodies of all their loved ones. Unreasonably but understandably, they struck out at the rescuers and officials who were highly motivated to deliver. Being human, some of them may have bungled. But they, too, were victims of the technological gadgetry that could not meet the extravagant expectations we have been trained to place in them. So, through their tears, the families rage, and who can comfort them?

During times like last week, while the circumstances of the disaster remained uncertain, people interviewed both on and off the scenes tended to assume that not mechanical failure, but terrorism was responsible. Furthermore, they almost always suggested this terrorism is traceable to people who claim a mission from God to kill.

"Off Long Island" now joins Lockerbie, the World Trade Center, Lebanon, Oklahoma City and Dhahran in the atlas of sites where innocents, arbitrarily but fatefully selected, have been killed. Anyone could have gone down; "anyone" did.

The concept of the random keeps coming up whenever mass murders or drive-by shootings take innocents. The concept is relevant to those who study the Flight 800 victim list. Let a finger and an eye fall, for example, on the "G" part of the alphabet. Daniel Gabor was a runner for the Razorbacks, while the Gaetkes were landscapers and gardeners. Little was yet known about Jean Paul Galland and C. Gasq, probably because they were French. But Claire Gallagher was one of the 16 Paris-bound high-school students from Montoursville, Pa., while Ana Leim Ralli Gough and Capt. Donald Gough were off-duty TWA personnel. There were also, among others, a marketing director, a CEO and a lab technician on the "G" list. Names of passengers' home places, including Paris and Portland, Glen Burnie and Scottsdale, were printed reminders of randomness, as were varied vocations associated with the names of the "off Long Island" dead.

A conclusion forces itself on survivors: There is not much one can ever again do about being sure to remain off the lists of the unlucky. Ceasing travel and staying home does not help: Oklahoma City was home, but it was finally not protected or protectable.

It is the need to cope with the random that leads some, first, to try to discern a meaningful scenario in the midst of chaos. The notion of the random seems to run counter to any idea of providence or divine guidance. In the American majority that professes faith, this effort at discernment leads many in cases like these to seek God as the determiner of who should live and who should die.

However, such a conclusion about blame causes other kinds of believers to respond that this approach projects a loathsome image of God--or at least represents a disturbing image of human cocksureness about anyone's ability to interpret events. In the end, millions who believe in God take comfort in relating the random in human history to divine care in general ways. But they do not agree about the precise manner many use when they pronounce why some died, why others live.

The Christian tradition, for example, does not prescribe and does not necessarily authorize exact and assured interpretations of all divine causes and human effects. At least the Jesus part of the tradition does not. The sparrow does not fall without God knowing it, says the Sermon on the Mount; and all doings are under divine care. But the gospel writer also hears Jesus saying that when a tower fell at a place called Siloam and people were killed by its fall, the dead had been neither more innocent nor more guilty than the survivors.

Faith is born and survives in a world where serious people make their lifelong affirmations while fully aware of the chaos within them, the random around them and the threatening before them. Father John Dunne once wrote a book pondering various workings-out of answers to the question: "Since I must die, how can I satisfy my desire to live?"

People begin by coping. A second strategy, one that sounds trite but is true far more, is to cherish those most near, to be a bit more generous about those not far and to live life with more immediacy and awareness than before. Rendering such impulses regular and such resolves permanent, however, will be harder to do. No doubt within weeks many will relapse into casualness about life and will take apparent security for granted--falling back into illusion. But all have had a chance to change.

The international, ecumenical, multiethnic character of the passenger list occasions a third positive response. While there is no doubt that the TWA crash, being "ours," received attention that an Argentinian or Taiwanese incident would not have, Americans could relearn that the destinies of people everywhere are linked in this age of gadgets and terrorists. The webbing of communications, the vast reach of the mass media, the ease of travel, the interconnectedness of those in global commerce and studies, all make the once confining national boundaries appear less relevant. The newly confirmed sense of unprotectedness can breed empathy for those who had been even less protected in the worlds of injustice, poverty and insecurity.

A fourth stay against mere chaos comes with the reporting itself and the responses to it. The story of the 747's explosion, confused and contradictory as it has to be, is still a story. It is a singular one that could help unite a people who have been living in cocoons of individualism or who had been insisting that only the story of their tribe, their group, mattered.

It is said that the United States today lacks a grand story, a meta-narrative--an agreed-on drama that provides a plot for all our doings. Yet, the aftermath of the TWA explosion, like those that follow other accidental tragedies or acts of terror, reveals that millions of citizens are capable of seeing common elements in the national experience.

The Flight 800 passenger list was not from Central Casting. It was random and, precisely for that reason, the story of the fate of the victims touches the shared story of those who did not fall from the sky into the ocean this time, but who remain vulnerable.

While unprotected and insecure Americans stand a chance of coming a bit closer to terms with the random in life and death, profoundly human impulses are evident. They provide bits of a plot and a program for a nation that dares not be done in by its insecure new situation--by the random accidents of the day or the terrors of the night.*

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