Sifting through the images of Oklahoma City for signs of continuity and renewal, the most poignant to emerge—the saddest and the most disturbing—is that of a city whose grief came to be symbolized by the sudden presence of teddy bears. Men, women, and children alike seemed to clutch these comfort toys to their chests as if, without the softness and the innocence the toys symbolized, their broken hearts might collapse into the graves of…Sifting through the images of Oklahoma City for signs of continuity and renewal, the most poignant to emerge—the saddest and the most disturbing—is that of a city whose grief came to be symbolized by the sudden presence of teddy bears. Men, women, and children alike seemed to clutch these comfort toys to their chests as if, without the softness and the innocence the toys symbolized, their broken hearts might collapse into the graves of the newly dead.
John Lennon sang, “Whatever gets you through the night, is all right, is all right.” He might have been referring to drugs or loveless sex or a night of hard drinking—or to teddy bears. In the wake of national and personal calamity, if teddy bears provide solace and a safe place to bury tears, then bring on the teddy bears. But to refrain from judging the avenues of comfort does not mean denying the lessons that may be learned from those choices.
Even before the stuffed animals arrived, the more immediate avenue of comfort was to locate, to blame, and to demonize the killers. The collective presumption—for white America—was to look for the “others,” those considered the most separate from “us.” Top-level law enforcement officials prepared to round up militant Muslims from the Middle East; and the second-best guess assumed the perpetrators to be black Americans. With the arrest of white men and their affiliation not just to the paramilitary but to government-sanctioned military, the mainstream media has presented other options to explain and to blame. The jingoistic antigovernment ravings of right-wing radio hosts, the precedent established in the 1960s by the Weathermen, and the stronghold of the gun lobby have all been used to explain the bombing. At least the fundamentalists could not identify it as the wrath of God rebuking a den of iniquity such as New York City or San Francisco. In fact, the location was central to the feelings of shock and outrage, with the national subtext suggesting that Oklahoma did not “deserve” this. Drawing on historical myths and biases, the nation at large was deeply attached to the image of innocence in the heartland.
We all have teddy bears of one kind or another, refuges from the storm, where we proclaim our innocence, if only to ourselves. And even if—in the “absolute domain,” as the Buddhists might say, or in “the eyes of God,” as the Christians might say—we are all innocents, this ultimate view cannot be used to remove the burden of responsibility in everyday life. What is disturbing about the teddy bears is that they represent a national childishness; they assert a kind of innocence that need not face adult expectations. Yet the split between “us” (the victims) and “them” (the aggressors) may be another version of “whatever gets us through the night.”
White men attacking the heart of the nation brought the fear that it could happen again anywhere, to anyone. The perils of terrorism (so the news commentators repeated) were closer to home than we might have thought, or wished for. But they’re even closer than that. Certainly, Oklahoma expressed an unfathomable degree of individual dementia, but the direction toward the act itself is one ingrained into every pore of this nation.
There are a thousand ways to unwittingly create private and social worlds that cannibalize the best of who we are and suck dry the potential for who we could become. Violence is one way; the United States does not have a monopoly on it, but the celebration of violence has become integral to the American way. We venerate violence. We grew up with it, on it, were fed and nourished by it. We meet violence with violence: an eye for an eye. We locate violence in the “other,” the antiheroes of the wild West, the desperadoes, the television icons, the commies, the cops, the robbers, the disenfranchised, the disinherited, the moral failure of the left, the retro patriotism of the right, the industrial revolution, the urban planners, the dope dealers, the real-estate moguls, the unwed mothers, the toy gun manufacturers, the real gun manufacturers, the Hollywood coffers, the war machine, the Vietnam doves, the Pentagon. . . the list goes on, and there is no “us” left. And for all the historical and social analyses that help account for the presence of violence and its effects, its cause continues to elude us.
We are not innocent children victimized by a big bad world; if our world is big and bad, we made it that way. This is what the Buddha taught. The “other” is the child’s boogeyman, the projection of our own fears onto a terrifying object of our imagination, which in turn terrorizes us. Our ignorance is not seeing that we are the other. We cannot afford to confuse innocence with this ignorance. Violence is not a permanent, immutable, fixed object. It is a state of mind, an expression of ignorance, with no more solid substance than a cloud. We cannot make a frontal attack on violence. Even protecting ourselves from it fuels its boogeyman existence. But the Buddha taught that we can change. This was his good news: that there is a way to alleviate suffering by freeing our minds from greed, anger, and ignorance. Yet until we apprehend the ways in which we are Oklahoma City, the bombs and the baby bears, the victims and the violators, we will continue to blame “them,” all the while proclaiming our innocence and evading our responsibilities.