It's deep in a November night in Memphis, and I'm awakened by rain. It's coming down hard, sounding like a million pebbles hitting the roof. The gutter I've been meaning to clean is overflowing outside the bedroom window. A flash of lightning illuminates the room, and I do what I've done since I was a boy: count the seconds 'til the thunder rolls. I get almost to 10 before I hear a distant rumble. Two miles or so. Someone else's lightning.
Lightning struck France last Friday. Islamist terrorists hit Paris and brutally murdered 129 people. The thunder is still rolling. Politicians and some media pundits are sounding the alarm, demanding action, spreading fear: We can't have lightning striking here. We need to stop all refugees coming from Syria. We need to put troops on the ground and go after ISIS on their home turf. We need to bomb the shit out of 'em.
I agree with the latter sentiment, if we can do so without blowing up wedding parties and hospitals. But that's a simplistic and emotional response, one that makes us feel better, but not one that will lead to a permanent peace or eradicate the problem. ISIS isn't really a country, it's an ideology of ignorance and hate and death, and it can strike anywhere in the world. Whack-A-Terrorist in one place and another will spring up elsewhere.
We need to remember, too, that lightning also struck in Beirut and on a Russian airliner last week. ISIS is a problem for all countries in the civilized world. Their ideology doesn't play favorites. Even Iran denounced the attacks. A coordinated effort, using combined intelligence gathering, cooperative military actions, and black ops would be much more effective in preventing future attacks than mere bombing.
But nothing can totally prevent terrorism. A Canadian-bred terrorist without a criminal record could easily drive from Windsor into Detroit. A "tourist" could enter San Francisco on a flight from Indonesia. A "sailor" on a Saudi Arabian oil tanker could jump ship on a loading dock in New Jersey. There is simply no way we can guarantee an absence of evil-doers in this country. No more than we can prevent an insane American from shooting up a movie theater in Colorado or killing nine people in a church in South Carolina. Once a terrorist gets here, getting an assault-style rifle is the least of his worries.
Lightning strikes. Sometimes it kills. But it's rare. It's important to keep things in perspective. After 9/11, we were united as a country, but our eventual response was disastrous and misguided and helped create many of the problems we're facing now. It's important to not politicize the attacks or try to create hysteria or pander to the base urges of the human animal. In the big scheme of things, more people in America die each year from gun violence (30,000) and/or auto accidents (31,000) than any terrorist could hope to kill. We shouldn't fear terrorists. We should treat them with contempt and go after them like the international criminals they are.
And for the record, lightning has killed an average of 123 people a year since 1940. We need to remember that and count to 10.
(such a sky and such a sun
i never knew and neither did you
and everybody never breathed
quite so many kinds of yes) — e. e. cummings