Author’s program note. I was restless that evening and so did what I almost never do, turning on the television for some light entertainment. This, however, was not destined to take place. Indeed, there was to be nothing light and no mirth at all for that day and the excruciatingly long day to come…
I saw the feature that so often distinguishes late night newscasts, video feed from a crime scene, the place usually being somewhere in the inner city no sensible person would ever go to, much less in dead of night. Sirens blared. The sharp reds and blues pierced the night. Police swaggered, made the kinds of adamant gestures which look so officious and ridiculous but which we card-carrying members of the middle class are glad at moments like this are on our side.
Yes, it was the usual late-night distraction that would be buried on page 8 or so in tomorrow’s paper. Nothing to do with me… not even the caption on the bottom of the screen: “MIT security officer killed.” But from then on, through the long night and the longer day that followed everything was direct, personal, everything to do with me.
The reporter noted the crime scene as Vassar Street, Cambridge while the on-screen video showed a great fortress-like structure that was a building well known to me. There the overflow of my pack-rat life is stored… copies of my books and articles, my father’s letters from the Pacific front in World War II, both sides of the voluminous correspondence when my mother and I were working out the rough patches in a relationship where loving each other did not keep us from saying the sharpest, often wounding of words, she in her copperplate hand, mine rushed and illegible.
Such things and so many others were the crucial artifacts of life, things to be stored in boxes now, to be considered at leisure, some day, I promise… It was all in the building behind the reporter. Life was about to change forever as the total war of our times swept me up, imperious, without thought of who I was, what I had been doing, no matter how important. My desires, wishes, priorities counted for nothing… and neither did yours.
“When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
The lyrics to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”‘ were written by the Irish-American band leader Patrick Gilmore. Its first sheet music publication was deposited in the Library of Congress in1863, with words and music credited to “Louis Lambert”, a pseudonym Gilmore unaccountably used instead of his own name. The copyright was retained by the publisher, Henry Tolman & Co., of Boston.
Determining who actually composed the music is much trickier. There is, for instance, a melodic resemblance to an earlier drinking song entitled “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl”. Someone named J. Durnal claimed credit for its arrangement, though not its composition. This in turn had a distinct melodic resemblance to a tune by Robert Burns, “John Anderson, my Jo”, which harked back to a tune of 1630 entitled “The Three Ravens,”… which harked back to… but you get the picture.
The important thing is how popular it became both with Confederate and Union troops. And no wonder… it’s a grand marching song… the music urging tired feet to go farther and never waver… while the lyrics remind them of the delights of home, theirs soon to savor and enjoy, just one more battle… just one. Before continuing, go to any search engine where you’ll find several fine versions. Listen carefully to lyrics which are now ironic and as far away as ancient Troy.
“The men will cheer and the boys will shout.”
This was how wars were fought in those days… and, until just the other day, in ours. We knew who the enemy was. We knew where he was. We knew what he was fighting for and we knew he had a martial code of honor which would (at least occasionally) cause him to think twice before doing the unspeakable. To be sure, it was a code more often honored in the breach… but it did exist, if only in one Geneva convention or another.
Thus did our much loved troops dress up in battle kit, self conscious about the last kiss to girlfriend or wife; these held back the tear that will surely fall when alone just minutes from now when the beloved is gone, perhaps forever. Fathers hugged the children they would not recognize when they returned; they grow so fast.
This was the war we knew… cheers on departure, certain victory for our cause was always right and our resort to warfare always reluctant and unwilling… then loud, sustained, enthusiastic cheers when Johnny comes marching home.
Now that kind of antediluvian warfare is only a thing of memory, resemblance, and wishful thinking… for now we do not go to war in full regalia, flags flying, the music brassy, suitable for the high affairs of the Great Republic. No indeed. For now we do not go to and return from the war. That war comes to us and confounds our lives more than even the greatest of battles… for we are all of us fully engaged in this new kind of undeclared, limitless war without any rules and procedures whatsoever, war where the first casualty may well be a child of 8, his life sundered and blown to bits by malefactors whose movements are secret, stealthy, and murderous, utterly without meaning, honor and the respect soldiers in the other wars might give their worthy opponents.
But this new kind of war is entirely different, insidious, taking prosaic objects and situations, turning them into the weapons of fear, anxiety and random death. This is a world where evil can lurk behind young and boyish faces and demeanor. Where there are no military helmets, but rather baseball caps, worn backwards in approved adolescent chic. This is a world where the element of deadly surprise always belongs to the attackers and thus can be wielded with merciless accuracy and acute precision.
This is a world where the elements for the bombs made to maim, dismember, and destroy are no further than your local hardware store, for amidst the waxes, sprays, paints and screws are the essential tools of pitiless catastrophe and the reverberating fear that paralyzes a great city whilst causing millions more worldwide to wonder if this could happen to them, knowing full well in their anxious hearts that these purveyors of death could already be about their cruel, selfish work; perhaps the surly young man who scowled when greeted today… worse, perhaps the handsome young man who smiled, offering a friendly quip or passing pleasantry. You see, the agent of mass pain and suffering can so easily wear the most amiable of faces.
These are the aspects of our new kind of war, the war, here now, here for the rest of our troubled, fretful lives.
“Stay in your house. Do not open your door.”
I had never received such a call before, but I feel sure I will get others like it in the years ahead. I had decided to go out and see what I could see. But I never got the chance because the Cambridge Police Department called to say I was to stay at home and to make sure I didn’t let any strangers in. They called this lock down; it turned me, and hundreds of thousands of others, into a legion of the interned…
And so all of us, surrounded as we are by a plethora of communications devices, used them to feed our anxiety and disbelief. On the firing line as we were, we listened intently for each piece of often inaccurate, incomplete, and alarming detail. Like any good journalist, we examined, reviewed, made deductions, listened to more suppositions and soon-to-be-discarded “facts”… veering first one way, then another as events unfolded; our attention rapt and disbelieving that so much was happening, so close, so unaccountable, in my city, my neighborhood and on my very doorstep.
It was surreal, unforgettable, riveting, frightening, the new reality of our challenged, jittery, insecure times. And it can all take place anywhere at any time against any of the peoples of this Earth, people whose race, creed, color or disposition are deemed unsuitable by some “superior” group whose first target is killing the very idea of diversity. For in a world which must necessarily value, strive for, and cherish the diverse; they aim for just one truth, theirs, and as such are willing to go to any length, destabilize any society, engage in any barbarity to secure their way. These are the absolutists of world politics… the lordly thugs who hold the rest of us and everything we value at risk… they offer hate, violence, an agenda of unmitigated evil and unrelenting malice.
Against such a litany of horrors all the good people of this planet must stand united for our credo, tolerance for all, acceptance, humanity, diversity, inclusion and always love, for without love there can be no lasting peace… and lasting peace is what we strive for. This way, the way of unity and community, is the only way. Otherwise random death and the awesome apparatus of response will be our portion… Thus to save our freedom we are forced to give up our freedom, losers whatever happens. We are already on this perilous road, right to be apprehensive and filled with grave foreboding and growing alarm.
“And let each one perform some part/To fill with joy the warrior’s heart/And we’ll all feel gay/ When Johnny comes marching home.”