This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
January 7, 2015
I heard news of the killing at about the time the streets of Paris were filling with mourners raising their signs: “Je suis Charlie.” I felt nothing for the dead, and then sorrow that I felt nothing. Certainly, I was not shocked. Unless one is right up in it, mass political killing isn’t shocking anymore; it’s a day job. Take a drone operator: he sits in a trailer in Nevada tracking his prey on a screen, watching the target count out money for bread, talk with his friends (conspirators?), play with his children, make love with his wife, doodle idly, until the moment another drone operator hits the button to release the missile that will tear that faraway man and anyone near him to pieces. None of the best men and women of the West link arms to decry the drone operator’s handiwork. They do not weep, even for him. Like his victims, he is known but invisible, necessary but overlooked; the images of smoldering body parts are his private horror, tearing him apart in a parking lot after a twelve-hour shift. So, no, protest as we might, we are not shocked by killing, merely by who is killed. Which is why those signs in Paris, broadcast relentlessly, filled me with dread. “I am white,” they said. “I am lucky and smug, educated just enough to cloak my bigotry in the snowy garment of freedom, deluded or cynical enough to call peddling the hoariest of conventional ideas subversive.” If we are Charlie, I thought, heaven help us all.
Then I scoured the attic of memory for some human things, some light and sturdy anger, for if an honorable language of resistance was not to be found in the killers or the victims or the pinched solidarity, it is not to be found in bile or a contest between the dead, either.
July or August 1979
It was one of those days that brought ladies in scuffs and thin housecoats out of the tenements and onto the sidewalk, fanning themselves on plastic lawn chairs. A dog day, a phrase I didn’t appreciate until walking on 14th Street one afternoon in the desperate heat, dreadfully poor, and spying a dog plodding toward me with his tongue hanging out. A $10 bill was pasted there. The dog moved slow, I slower; everyone else on the street hurried by, not noticing the mangy animal or the moist tongue, or not needing the $10—all but one, a slim black man eyeing that bill as hungrily as I. We two stopped, the dog advancing between us. What were the chances, I tried to calculate, that I could make a clean swipe of it, that the dog wouldn’t bite, that if he did he wouldn’t have rabies, that if he did have rabies I could endure the shots, but would I have to pay for them? A lot of “ifs” for $10. Maybe the man was thinking the same, maybe recalling beautiful, doomed Tea Cake in Their Eyes Were Watching God. We watched each other like hunters, tense with daring but more with fear and a prickly shame; then laughed together, absurd and only half-relieved, as the instant to strike passed and the dog went its way with the cash.