Reflections on The Austin Bombings

Several people in town have been killed by exploding packages. The victims seem random with a likely tinge of racism.

I think this put the whole city on edge a bit. A few delivery drivers at work had guns pulled on them. Grumblings about racial tension. Town hall meetings. I had a dream the other night of being in the blast radius of an exploding building. Friends and family seemed concerned and uneasy.

Is this what terrorism feels like?

The perpetrator killed himself last night with a bomb while fleeing from police in a car. A miserable, cowardly death. We get facts and details but no closure. Why do these things happen at all?

More disturbingly, given that these awful things do happen why don’t they happen more often?

If I’m to pay any attention to my dream the other night my subconscious mulls this over in the background. Pondering these things put me in a glum mood but having a place to write a few poorly articulated thoughts on the subject has been a cathartic exercise in its own small way.


Update 3/31


As we look around for answers.

Whenever there’s a news story about someone killing lots of strangers, I cannot stop thinking about the book I read a couple years ago about the Columbine massacare called ‘Columbine’ by Dave Cullen. I will quote the passages that still stick with me below:

“None of the earlier school shootings had been televised; few American tragedies had. Or at least it appeared that way: the cameras offered the illusion we were witnessing the event. But the cameras had arrived too late. Eric and Dylan had retreated inside after five minutes. The cameras missed the outside murders and could not follow Eric and Dylan outside. The fundamental experience fore most of America was almost witnessing mass murder. It was the panic and frustration of not knowing, the mounting terror of horror withheld, just out of view.”


“Mass murderers tended to work alone, but when they did pair up, they rarely chose their mirror image. [FBI hostage negotiator] Fuselier knew he was much more likely to find a pair of opposites holed up in that building. It was entirely possible that there was no single whyand much more likely that he would unravel one motive for Eric, another for Dylan.”


National polls taken shortly after the attack would identify all sorts of culprits contributing to the tragedy: violent movies, video games, Goth culture, lax gun laws, bullies, and Satan. Eric did not make the list. Dylan didn’t either. They were just kids. Something or someone must have led them astray.


“For investigators, the big bombs changed everything: the scale, the method, and the motive of attack. Above all, it had been indiscriminate. Everyone was supposed to die. Columbine was fundamentally different from the other school shootings. It had not really been intended as a shooting at all. Primarily, it had been a bombing that failed.”


“The final act of the killers was among their cruelest: they deprived the survivors of a living perpetrator. They deprived the families of a focus for their anger, and their blame. There would be no cathartic trail for the victims. There was no killer to rebuke in a courtroom, no judge to implore to impose the maximum penalty. South Jeffco was seething with anger, and it would be deprived of a reasonable target. Displaced anger would riddle the community for years.”


‘Remarks at the Peace Banquet’ William James

I found this tattered old hardcover at Goodwill that celebrates one hundred years of The Atlantic from the distant remove of 1957. Near the back of this treasure of prose, fiction and poetry is a brief speech by William James that caught my eye. Its simple title is ‘Remarks at the Peace Banquet‘ and it contains many profound and refreshingly honest insights into human nature and warfare.

Speaking on October 7, 1904 at the World Peace Conference, James humorously introduced himself by saying, “I am a philosopher, and there is only one thing that a philosopher can be relied on to do. You know that the function of statistics has been ingeniously described as being the refutation of other statistics. Well, a philosopher can always contradict other philosophers.” Ideas will forever clash and try to cancel each other out.

He quickly turns his focus to mankind and the folly that the noble philosopher’s cherished Reason too often proves to be,

“When looked at candidly, reason is one of the very feeblest of Nature’s forces, if you take it at any one spot and moment. It is only in the very long run that its effects become perceptible. Reason assumes to settle things by weighing them against one another without prejudice, partiality, or excitement; but what affairs in the concrete are settled by is and always will be prejudices, partialities, cupidities, and excitement. Appealing to reason as we do, we are in a sort of forlorn hope situation, like a small sandbank in the midst of a hungry sea ready to wash it out of existence.”

He expresses hope that reason will grow over time because reason presses in one direction “while man’s prejudices vary, their passions ebb and flow, and their excitements are intermittent.”

James is optimistic about humanity in the long-run, pessimistic in the short-run. And his misgivings are grave:

“Our permanent enemy is the noted bellicosity of human nature. Man, biologically considered, and whatever else he may be in the bargain, is simply the most formidable of all beasts of prey and, indeed, the only one that preys systematically on its own species. We are once for all adapted to the military status. A millennium of peace would not breed the fighting disposition out of our bone and marrow, and a function so ingrained and vital will never consent to die without resistance, and will always find impassioned apologists and idealizers.”

Furthermore, human nature is at war with boredom, of all things, “Man lives by habits, indeed, but what he lives for is thrills and excitements. The only relief from habit’s tediousness is periodic excitement.” And what could be more exciting than war? For in wartime, “the dams of routine burst, and boundless prospects open.”

With hindsight, we can say that the 1904 World Peace Conference was an abysmal failure. But still, speaking a decade before the outbreak of the First World War, William James words still ring hauntingly true more than 113 years later. Human nature hasn’t changed, but sure enough, reason and science has brought us a widespread increase in health, education, and living standards in that intervening time, even if we haven’t yet transcended what William James called “the mystical blood payment.”