Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2004 / 19 Teves, 5764

Reuven Frank

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Horrors should
remain horrifying | Repeat an unimaginably brutish and outrageous phrase often enough and it becomes common parlance.

A mere few years after news accounts first carried the words "suicide bomber," we now accept that there is such a thing, that his — or her — presence in the day's news is commonplace.

No one any longer stops to think how bizarre an idea it is. A suicide bomber? Someone so intent on murder and destruction as to be willing to die to achieve it, to fly a plane into a skyscraper, detonate a bomb belt aboard a bus, the cause so important, the hate so consuming that self-destruction is a reasonable price?

The event is duly reported in the news: so and so many dead, cause — a suicide bomber. Meanwhile, here at home….

There is no more surprise, shock, even outrage. Yes, perhaps for the act itself, for the destruction and death inflicted. Yet there is an acceptance that there are such people as suicide bombers, just as there are grocery clerks, or children's dentists, or ladies' tailors.

One of the reasons suicide bombers have become accepted is because they can be explained. They live under such and such conditions of isolation, of poverty, or disadvantage.

More than 200 years ago, a very smart Frenchwoman named Madame de Stael is supposed to have said that explaining everything excuses everything. ("Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner.") Whatever tragedy happens, however outrageous it may seem, there are always those whose reaction is to look for an explanation.

Only a day or two after the jetliners demolished the World Trade Center towers and hit the Pentagon, with the live television images still vivid in everyone's mind, one critic wrote, "We need smarter coverage. Not those graphic home videos. Missing from much of the news is analysis of why those killers did what they did and what they hoped to gain." In the San Francisco Chronicle, a media watcher complained, "We need historians to explain why resentment of the United States runs so deep in the Middle East." All this, mind you, in the first days and hours after the event — before we were even sure who "they" were. And there were also teach-ins on college campuses, special sessions in high schools and, on the all-news cable channels, guests and callers explaining, explaining, explaining. Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky may be only the most recent, or perhaps the most prominent, of those ascribing what happened to an understandable reaction to "American colonial imperialism."

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Back in the 1930s, important and accomplished people, especially in Britain, explained the rise of Nazism in Germany by citing the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles. It had been too vengeful, they explained. It imposed on a defeated and prostrate Germany economic limitations and costly reparations that set in motion the worst inflation in history, destroying jobs, causing famine and wiping out the middle class. The treaty created perfect conditions for the emergence of a deranged demagogue who promised national dignity and power, they said.

All of which is true. It may indeed explain why a nobody like Adolf Hitler rose to such a pinnacle of power. But it does not explain Buchenwald.

Some things defy explanation.

American troops on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia, the poverty of young men hanging around with no prospect of work, the poisonous historic rivalries of Muslim sects, McDonald's hamburgers, Coca-Cola, rock music — none of these adequately explains why thousands died in fire so hot it melted and twisted structural steel and destroyed most bodies so that not even pieces have been found.

Before the site was cleaned up, a memorial service was held for the survivors of those who died. At the end of the service, each was given a bowl of dirt as a keepsake. They could always imagine that somewhere in that bowl of dirt was a tiny fragment of the one they mourned.

A bowl of dirt.

Explain a bowl of dirt.

Reuven Frank is a former president of NBC News. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Reuven Frank