Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

When things fall apart

From government spying to the death of Philadelphia schools, last week it felt like more than a four-story building fell down last week.

It was around rush hour on Friday that a gunman went berserk in Santa Monica, Calif. The man killed his father and his brother, set their house and fire and went out in the heavily populated coastal community with an AR-15 assault rifle and practically a warehouse of ammunition. He shot up a restaurant and a city bus, fatally gunned down a father and a daughter in their car before police finally killed the disturbed man in a shootout on a busy college campus. The man had killed six innocent people.

It was the kind of episode that once might have riveted a nation, sparked a debate not only about gun control but America's moral bearing, and made the cover of the newsmagazines back when there were several newsmagazines and people actually waited to read them. But in 2013, the episode was largely gone just like the tropical storm when folks woke up on Saturday. It was as if the mass shooting had been thrown down a memory hole -- a fitting metaphor for a time that would have made George Orwell quite proud of his abilities as a prophet, even though he would be revulsed as a citizen of the world.

To be clear. the collapse here in Philadelphia of the four-story building was no metaphor -- it was a senseless, heartbreaking tragedy that was all too real for people who were shopping for bargains in a Salvation Army thrift store one minute and trapped in a mountain of rubble the next. But the building collapse did seem to be the the epitome, at least here in Philadelphia, of a week that had the feel from start to finish of things falling apart, of the old foundations collapsing and no one sure exactly which of the many suspects is to blame -- or what, if anything, will replace them.

Much like the Santa Monica shooting, the news locally that some 3,700 Philadelphia school employees are getting pink slips, the first step in transforming the remaining schools from places of learning to oversized child warehouses, floated away into the weekend ether, In the past, such a move would be seen as a mere bargaining ploy, but in 2013 the sense is growing that no one can stop this tragedy, that Philadelphians have become powerless bystanders watching our schools fall down in slow motion -- very much like the citizens who called help lines and begged for someone to stop the shoddy demolition at 22nd and Market.

Nationally, the news was dominated by a serious of revelations -- initiated, we now know, by a courageous whistleblower named Edward Snowden -- that the U.S. government's scooping up of data about its everyday citizens -- who we're calling on the telephone, now long we talked for, and possibly whom we're talking to overseas on the Internet via sites like Facebook or Google -- is much more extensive than all but the most cynical among us expected, or feared.

I have to credit Maureen Dowd of the New York Times for finding the right passage from 1984: "''How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.'' Of course, there will always be some people, in any society, who will gladly trade their liberty for security. But millions of Americans are outraged over the disclosures -- and for once the usual divisions of the political Left and Right seem to not apply.

No, this time the Grand Canyon of American politics is not between the rival ideologies, but between the government and the governed. From the faded echoes of George W. Bush to the broken promises of Barack Obama, from Harry Reid to John Boehner to Diane Feinstein to Saxby Chambliss, the ruling class in Washington has closed ranks around one common message for their subjects, for all the litttle people out there.

You cannot know what we are doing. But we are keeping you safe. We would not lie to you. Just trust us, and keep quiet..

The choking concrete ash of powerlessness feels overwhelming. It is why these events that are in some way so disconnected -- a brazenly reckless building collapse at 22nd and Market Streets, a mentally ill armed to the teeth gunman in California and the targeted assassination of your neighborhood school, the unconscionable spying of an out-of-control national security state -- can suddenly feel the same, a sudden shower of the debris of a sick society, all at once.

Somewhere deep, deep inside we still know that Martin Luther King was right, that the moral arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice and that arc will help up put things back together, brick by brick. But right now we are stumbling, wondering where the hell the blueprints are.