When I first saw the words “Jewish Israeli arrested for phoning in JCC bomb threats” all over my Facebook feed, I laughed. Don’t people know that Purim passed already, I thought. And isn’t April Fool’s Day a week away?
Then I saw the article attached to the posts, with the word “breaking” in red above pictures of Israeli police officers, and stopped laughing.
I was overwhelmed by many different emotions. Embarrassment: A fellow Jew caused all the fear and pain? Anger: What a great day for actual anti-Semites, what a boon for those who already dismiss anti-Semitism as a myth created by the Jews themselves! Dread: Will this cause problems for my friends and family in the U.S.? Will this reflect poorly on my own country, Israel?
And, finally, I felt deep sadness, as I thought about the perpetrator’s parents and loved ones.
“Was I a bad mother?” asked Sue Klebold, mother of one of the Columbine shooters, in a Ted Talk I recently watched. “Was it my fault, because I didn’t notice what was going on in his head?” It took Klebold years to channel the destructive guilt that haunted her into productive activism, into something that didn’t simply break her from within.
I’m not sure I would have understood the depth of Klebold’s distress before I became a mother myself, and learned just how much of ourselves is invested in our children’s behavior. It’s hard to remember that they are autonomous people in their own right when we raise, educate, encourage, and inspire them as they evolve. It’s hard to remember that, even when they are little and stray from our teachings in little ways, like when they push another kid in the park.
And it must be so much harder when they’re older, and can stray away from our paths in more dramatic ways. My children are still 6 and 3, but I can already tell that their adulthood will push me to fretfully reexamine my actions as a parent today. Even if they prosper in every way, I will always ask myself if I could somehow set them on a course that would have made them even a little bit happier or stronger.
I don’t know why the man who was arrested on Thursday dedicated two years of his life to spreading fear and bomb threats. But I know that somewhere in the world, the people who love him must be asking the same question, and second guessing their own choices. And my heart goes out to their pain.
Hours passed, and my sadness subsided. The emotion it left in its wake was far less charitable–it tasted bitter, in a way that reminded me of what I felt when an acquaintance of mine was badly hurt in a freak accident. And it was that memory that helped me put a name to my own state of mind: I was indignant.
I felt cheated by this turn of events.
When my friend was hurt, there was no one to blame and nothing to do to stop similar disasters in the future. Her accident was just that. While terrorism and car crashes supply us with enemies and causes, there was nothing proactive I could do to channel my grief: no policies for quelling terrorism, no campaigns to improve the conditions of the roads.
And seeing as I’m not working in the cyber division of the police, there is nothing I can do now, either.
I felt indignant because I unconsciously expected something like the bomb threats, something that rocked so many lives, to be meaningful. I expected it to be part of a bigger ideological struggle, part of a narrative we could rally around. I hoped that it was something I could fight against. In a way, by turning out to be a lone perpetrator with too much free time and no clear relation to a movement, the man who called those JCC’s took that away from me.
Rationally, I knew that my expectations were wrong to begin with. Our need to fit every occurrence into bigger narratives is a well-known bug in the human psyche, and one that often pushes us in destructive directions. It can cause us, for example, to abandon our ability to think critically, and try to force events into whatever interpretation of reality we already possess. But I believe that at its core, our propensity to seek the bigger meaning stems from a positive impulse. When something bad happens we want to be able to do something proactive to eradicate evil, and this goal is easier to achieve when “evil” can be defined and named.
But, I realized, I can still be proactive and do good even when “evil” is not that easily defined.
In times like this, I can reach out to people who were affected by the threats and offer them my sympathy and support. I can reach out to the family of the perpetrator and tell them that I feel for their pain. I can teach my children about responsibility.
And I can analyze current news and my subsequent feelings, and draw an important lesson: Some things are not as they seem, and we shouldn’t hasten to try and fit events into bigger narratives and struggles before the facts are clear. In these divisive times, this is a valuable take away to bear in mind.