There is a voice in my head that keeps telling me how much the world is in need of laughter. Humor is especially necessary during the most terrible of times, when the tendency is not to laugh but to run off screaming in emotional pain and raging with anger at the events that caused it.
A case in point was my plan Thursday. I entered my writing room on a morning that still wore the misty coolness of night, intent on composing a column of humor for today's editions. But the horror in London has paralyzed my best efforts. Nothing seems funny at a time of so much dying.
My original thought was to combine all the recent animal attacks with celebrity attacks during the same period, and speculate in nonserious terms about whether they might be related. Is there a cosmic force, I would have asked, that links assaults on humans by grizzly bears, sharks, sea lions and stingrays to the antics of Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe?
Why, as animals were attacking in Florida, California and Alaska, was Cruise, an eminent psychiatric historian, verbally attacking "Today" co-anchor Matt Lauer on what was supposed to be a hype session for "War of the Worlds"? And why, just about the time large creatures were reminding us that we're only a couple of small bites on the food chain, was Crowe trying to bean a hotel clerk with a telephone?
The potential was there, you see, for a few good laughs, wrung from situations that were both sad and silly but viable. Humor is often born in dark places of the soul, and the subjects that become humor usually involve someone else. James Thurber put it another way when he wrote: "Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity."
The key word here is "remembered." The passage of time softens memories that might otherwise tear at us. I did not, for instance, regard the Korean War as funny when I was in it but laughed easily at the antics of those who pranced through the television series "MASH," which, though rooted in pain, worked as farce based on a distant encounter.
London is different. The news of its horror is all over me now, at this moment, as though I am being showered with the human remains of those blown into eternity in the bus and subways I have ridden many times, at the stops and stations so familiar to me. Relentless flashes of news from 10,000 miles away bounce off satellites, surge through space and slice through the Earth's atmosphere like bolts of lightning.
As it was so many times in the Second World War, London, a city of style and civility, was in flames. It was war again on Thursday, but this time a different kind of war, waged by shadows in campaigns planned in whispers. Its victims were not always soldiers but those most vulnerable and most innocent. A stunned comment by a survivor of a subway bomb -- "We were only commuters" -- says it in a way that claws at the heart.
History, with all its bloody reminders, teaches that horror is the major weapon of terrorism. One death isn't enough. A hotel filled with people must be blown into rubble, towers of commerce must fall, subway stations must explode. Hundreds or thousands must perish to make a terrorist's statement. TV cameras must remain open, radio commentators must make breathless reports, newspaper headlines must fill front pages, news magazines must repeat the details and assess the damage.
Only when he is the topic of the day for the agony he has caused can a terrorist call the battle won.
I sit here in the midst of the news and wonder how anyone with any sensitivity could possibly write humor, despite its desperate need, on a morning filled with pain. Some might, I suppose, who are so dedicated to their calling that they must plunge on regardless of events. I'm not among them. We are being tumbled like objects in a clothes dryer through cycles of chaos that seem totally out of our control. There are no giants to guide us, only small men with guns and bombs who believe that more guns and bombs will eliminate the guns and bombs that kill us.
We should know by now that horror begets horror, but like bears that attack and then are stalked and killed, we are creatures of instinct, dumb to the lessons that time has taught. The more refined instincts of an evolved species have yet to replace those of the animals who prey on us as we prey on one another.
A television set behind me, keyed to a news station, repeats each moment of the terrorism across the sea, in a city that, just a day ago, was filled with the joy of an Olympic selection. Now, the news is filled with the rhetoric of vengeance, the rattled sabers of men who know no other way to turn the direction of grim satisfactions away from the steel that tears through soft flesh. One wonders in such a climate, as the terrorists would have us wonder, who's next?
The question looms in a world suddenly, and sadly, devoid of laughter.
Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@ latimes.com.