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When Meaning Eludes Us

The nation was horrified at the seeming randomness of 230 people perishing on TWA Flight 800. Ever since, we've struggled to find order amid this chaos.

July 28, 1996|Martin E. Marty | 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 )

WASHINGTON ISLAND, MICH. — 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?"

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