Goodbye, blue sky

21 04 2013

A break from being a ghost; my head’s not in it.

~~~

I.

Early ’70s. I remember evacuating the  SmallTown elementary school at least once, possibly more than once.

Bomb scare.

It wasn’t scary. It seemed almost normal. But exciting, too.

II.

Mid-eighties.

On assignment for the Cardinal, to interview a physicist in Sterling Hall. My first experience in a building with radiation stickers on doors, emergency showerheads in the concrete-block halls.

Sterling Hall was bombed in 1970 by Karleton Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, David Fine, and Leo Burt, in protest against the University’s involvement with the military during the Vietnam War. The Army Mathematics Research Center occupied 3 floors in one wing of the hall.

The bomb wrecked, but did not level, the building. The AMRC was barely damaged.

It did injure three people: Paul Quin, David Schuster, and Norbert Sutler.

It killed Robert Fassnacht, physics post-doc. He did not work for the AMRC.

The bombers fled. Karleton Armstrong was caught in 1972 and served 7 years in federal prison. He returned to Madison, where he had a food cart on the mall by Memorial Library. He thought for awhile the bombing was wrong, but then reconsidered again, stating that because the cause was just, so too was the bombing. “It just should have been done more responsibly.”

Fine was caught in 1976 and served 3 years in federal prison.

Dwight Armstrong was caught in 1977, and also served 3 years; he died in 2010.

Leo Burt was never caught.

III.

I had been fascinated by and drawn to the radical history of UW-Madison, and was, honestly, disappointed by the lack of political involvement by most students in the 1980s.

Yes, there were anti-nuke and US-out-of-Central-America and anti-apartheid protests—the anti-apartheid protests were the largest—but it was far more a party than political school.

I don’t know how I felt about the Sterling Hall bombing, then. I’m sure I felt that it was horrible that a man was killed, but it’s quite possible that I felt, as Karleton Armstrong later did, that “It just should have been done more responsibly.”

IV.

My second novel is set, for a time, in mid-/late-eighties Madison.

The events of the 70s do not go unmentioned.

V.

Part of my disappointment in Madison was surely political, but it was just as surely an adrenaline slump. I wanted to be where the action was, and there was, for all intents and purposes, no action.

Except, vicariously, in the Cardinal newsroom.

I remember seeing the tear-off from the AP machine that someone had waxed to the wall outside of the Cardinal office announcing the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Pre-internet, if you wanted the news as fast as it was made, you had to be in a newsroom.

More than once, I stood over the AP machine as line by line the rest of the world unspooled in a windowless office in the basement of Vilas Hall.

VI.

In September 2001, I was in Montreal. On the eleventh day of that month I had, as I often did, ridden my bike up and down Mont Royal for exercise, showered at a nearby building, then made my way to my office.

I listened to the CBC before I left that morning, but not until the phone call from my parents and a pop-in from a colleague, did I know what was going on.

I couldn’t stop watching the news.

I wanted to be there, only—goddess help me—not for solidarity.

I wanted to be where the action was.

VII.

At some point between my 18th and my 40th birthday I thought seriously about the Sterling Hall bombing.

I’d like to think it was earlier rather than later, but when I did, finally, think seriously about it, I concluded that if you don’t want to kill people, you don’t plant bombs where people are or might be.

I am not a pacifist—I lack the courage to be a pacifist—and thus recognize that there might be instances when it is justified to use a weapon, to build a bomb.

But not in protest. You cannot responsibly bomb in protest. Never in protest.

The ends never justify the means.

VIII.

I paid attention to the bombing in Oslo.

I note the bombings in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Somalia. In Syria.

But not the same kind of attention. Do bombings matter less in war zones? Would there be war zones without bombings?

The people, they matter.

IX.

It caught the edges of my ears, last Monday.

What? What? Bombings in Boston? What?

Frantic for news. WNYC continuing with an interview about the Human Genome Project. There’s been a fucking bombing! Give me the fucking news!

Headlines on news sites, little more. Boston Globe site overwhelmed. NPR: headline, nothing more. NBC: headline, nothing more. CBS: headline, nothing more. CNN: headline, nothing more. Finally, a link to New England News Network, then WBUR.

Finally, NPR switches over. All three going at once, trying to pick out what happened.

Once again, less out of solidarity than wanting to know, just to know.

X.

I have become skeptical of solidarity in the aftermath of tragedy.

There might be some, good, reason for this: what does it mean? How will it matter? Isn’t this easier than anything else?

Sometimes coldness is in order. To see, clearly.

But I am skeptical of others because I am skeptical of myself. I want to be there, to be in the mix, to mix myself into the event and claim it for my own.

I want, goddess help me, the excitement. The vicarious thrill.

XI.

Sometimes distance is in order. To see, clearly.

What happened to Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, Martin Richard, Sean Collier, and the scores of other victims did not happen to me. I don’t know any of them; I have no connection to any of them.

This is not my tragedy.

It is only when I see that it is not mine that I can see what it means to those for whom it is. Empathy can mean looking for your own face amongst the affected, but sometimes sympathy—for the other—is the better option.

Sometimes you have to stand aside, to let the others pass.

Respect a discreet distance.

Let them be.

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5 responses

22 04 2013
BJ

“My dad was killed on campus.”

It hit hard and silenced the room.

Dr. Fassnacht’s twin girls, whom he never met, were awarded full rides to Madison before they were born. Mom worked there, dad died there; why not?

By the time I got to Madison in the late 80s, I only knew there was a bombing, and a death, but not the details. When we were all complaining one afternoon about two jobs and financial aid, I innocently asked my friend,”H., how do you and your sister pay for school?”

Twenty pairs of shocked and searching eyes.

As fellow scientists, we’d walked together past Sterling Hall a hundred times. She never said anything, until I asked my seemingly bland question.

It’s a moment that still stalls me because it brought every Lockerbie/Middle East/Irish car bomb home. There are people involved.

The people matter. The people left behind.

22 04 2013
absurdbeats

Jesus. I knew he was married, had kids; I didn’t even think they might have been on campus when we were.

Violence against abstractions are so easy to justify, aren’t they? We had to destroy the village in order to save it. We’re not killing Indians, we’re killing communists. Let’s bring the war home—bombs for peace.

I’m ashamed it took me so damned long to really come to terms with the concrete reality of the bloody deeds of these four men and the Weather Underground and every damned other group that thought their violence pure and just.

23 04 2013
23 04 2013
BJ

This taught me; don’t be ashamed. Learn something. I didn’t know their tragedy, but I learned it and felt something and I’m better for it. Ashamed is what you feel when you don’t act on what you know.

BTW…Clarence says hello. Turned him on to this blog. Wipe that smile off you face!

23 04 2013
absurdbeats

Oh darlin’, too late! The grin began with “Clarence. . . ”

(Hello doll!)

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